Public Land Perils

By Darron McDougal

In Sept. 2014 while hunting elk in Idaho, my wife and I were more than 2 miles from our pickup when the sky turned jet black. A torrential downpour instantly muddied the ground, and soaked us to the bone. My flashlight barely cut through the dense sheets of rain, and negotiating the terrain proved challenging. We slipped, tripped, and fell while tracing our way through the inky blackness. Panic lingered, but I knew giving in would further complicate the dicey situation.

The 2-mile hike was an absolute nightmare. The downpour persisted, and I was never so relieved to see our white pickup in my flashlight beam. The fact we didn’t see or hear bulls wasn’t on my mind; I gave thanks to God for helping us out of the terrible situation. Dry clothing and a hot dinner followed.

Perils Will Come

Moneywise, I wasn’t born into a wealthy family, so I don’t hunt with expensive outfitters or lease prime

Hunting public land is a game of very low odds. Still, persevering bowhunters are rewarded for their efforts with nice trophies.

Hunting public land is a game of very low odds. Still, persevering bowhunters are rewarded for their efforts with nice trophies.

hunting grounds. I’ve busted my behind for everything I have, and I continue busting it for everything I want to accomplish. I primarily hunt public land, and the sheer amount of time I spend hunting leads me into perils every season. They come in all forms and severities. Regardless, they’re inevitable and can sap your drive, if you let them.

If you’re a blue-collar bowhunter like me, here are several ways to stay in the game when public land perils strike.

Keep Your Chin Up

It’s easy to become discouraged when things don’t go as planned. When you feel discouragement setting in, consider other things you could be doing instead of bowhunting. You could be working, raking leaves, or shoveling snow. Heck, you could be fixing a leaky toilet, getting a tooth yanked, or attending a loved-one’s funeral. Count your blessings and try to understand every hunting outing is a blessing from God, even if things seem to be out of order.

Of course, some perils are more serious. I thank God I haven’t experienced risks to life or limb, but others are less fortunate. This is a great spot to remember bowhunting legend Roy Roth. Roy passed away this fall after plummeting during a back-country bowhunt. He was a hardcore bowhunter, and one can only imagine how many perils he encountered throughout his bowhunting career.

Make a Kill

Bowhunting for mature bucks or bulls on public land can make a season grueling, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. When that happens, add an antlerless tag or fall-turkey tag to your pocket. Shooting game rebuilds confidence, and stocks your freezer with excellent table fare. If you haven’t notched out your tag with a big buck or bull, get out there and just shoot something. It’ll refresh your bowhunting spirit, and help you target big antlers with renewed drive.

Targeting mature bucks on public land can become a grueling goal. Take a turkey or an antlerless deer to resume your big-buck chase with renewed drive.

Targeting mature bucks on public land can become a grueling goal. Take a turkey or an antlerless deer to resume your big-buck chase with renewed drive.

Don’t Build Hopes on Trail-Camera Photos

Trail cameras are great scouting tools, and I use them to see what size deer are in the area I’m hunting. However, holding out for a specific animal just because you got one picture of it can be a losing battle. On public land, you’re at the mercy of other hunters or recreationists and the pressure they create. That one photo you captured might be the only one you’ll get throughout the entire season. Public-land animals move nocturnally under most circumstances, and alter their patterns at the first sign of danger.

I recall a specific public-land hunt in South Dakota where my trail camera was regularly capturing shooter bucks over a scrape, always after dark. I also captured dogs and pheasant hunters. I concluded the bucks were bedding well away from the 160-acre parcel I was hunting, and weren’t arriving there until well after dark. It made the hunt frustrating, especially because I knew shooter bucks existed. Still, I was working with limited acreage; a painful reality of hunting public land.

Unless your trail cameras reveal a specific animal’s daytime pattern, don’t be fooled into exclusively hunting it. It’ll make your season incredibly trying, especially if you’re unsuccessful. Bowhunting public land is a game of odds – very low odds.

Get Tougher than the Going

During a recent Oklahoma hunt, my brother and I tapped a new public parcel that looked beyond excellent during our virtual scouting. We had only a few days to hunt, so I packed in a stand and climbing sticks, hoping to locate a killing tree.

After an hour of scouting, we located many other stands, and deemed the parcel not worthwhile. We took a slightly different route while heading back to the pickup, and soon found ourselves amidst impenetrable thorny vines. No matter what direction we turned, the vines just entangled us. Our arms and legs got a thorough scourging. The hunt had already been tough without rutting action, and the thorny mess only worsened it.

When tough conditions strike, be determined and get tougher than the going. You won’t overcome terrible circumstances without a steel attitude.

McDougal overcame pressure during an Oklahoma bowhunt and arrowed this 150-class public-land whitetail.

McDougal overcame pressure during an Oklahoma bowhunt and arrowed this 150-class public-land whitetail.

Persevere and Succeed

I’ve been tempted to throw in the towel more than once when things go awry, but persevering has helped me tag great public-land trophies. I’m going to end with anecdotal proof.

In 2014 while hunting Oklahoma, I hung a treestand during midday with plans to return the next morning. As I approached the stand to hunt, I noticed a humanly outline in a tree right next to mine. Yep, another hunter had situated his climber less than 10 yards from my stand!

I walked underneath him and asked, “Did you see my stand?” Hard of hearing, the hunter asked me to repeat the question. I had to talk out loud so he could hear me. He replied he hadn’t, and with dawn approaching I told him to stay put, despite his offer to relocate. I climbed into my stand. It was extremely odd hunting 10 yards away from a perfect stranger, but I knew the commotion he’d make relocating would spook deer.

I didn’t realize he had a partner until 9:00 a.m. when another hunter walked along a hillside and down into our draw. I climbed down to introduce myself and chat while they packed up. Turns out they’d been hunting the draw with their climbers for six years. I told them I’d choose another spot, and to be honest, I was becoming discouraged. Still, I hiked deeper and found a funnel backed by a cliff. I rehung my stand and left the area.

The following morning, I killed my biggest public-land buck ever from that stand; a 150-class bruiser that followed a doe through the funnel. Stay in the game when perils strike. Who knows? Maybe you’ll bring down your biggest buck or bull at the most unlikely moment.

Darron McDougal

Darron McDougal

Darron McDougal is a full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Antigo, WI with his bride, Becca. He's hunted in 12 states and successfully taken elk, bear, hogs, turkeys, pronghorn, whitetails, and mule deer, most with archery equipment on DIY hunts. The McDougals enjoy all things hunting and shooting. They believe in God and love to travel.
Darron McDougal

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  1. Hunt public land also have been for years but I guess I’m a bad hunter or just not lucky I have never had he opertunnity to shoot any thing always tr to go the distance its agrevatinng am so close to calling it quits . I feel all these other people and kids killing the deer it just kills me all the money spent every year that I don’t have and nothing to show for it I think that next season will be my last if I do not shoot anything I loved your article I am glad u were able to shoot something but where I hunt u cannot leave your stand out over night u have to take them when u leave it makes it very difficult to hunt out o a tree that way carrying everything in to you all esically when u go 600 to 700 hundred yards to get away from others

    • I thought the same up until this bow season. I just moved to this state and have been hunting public land this whole season. Nov 7th I was discouraged to hear several hikers, mountain bikers and also spotted a hang on stand 15 yards to the North of me. At 9:30 I climbed down and decided to scout so I hiked back about 3 miles from where I parked. I found a perfect tree in the middle of 5 more pre hung stands (all weeks prior to gun opener). After getting settled in at 10:00 a single large old doe walked 25 yards from me. End of story, for her. Yes dragging her out took 2 hours and all the strength I had – the reward was woth it. Dec 7th sitting in the exact same spot (hang ons are still there, hikers, mountain bikers etc…) I was on stand from 5 am on and at 2:00 was ready to be done for the year. As I was climbing down something told me to turn around, to my north, down wind, was a very old large 8 point. My arrow hit a small branch and took some hair off his belly – I was immediately discouraged and was due for a large whitetail. Will I give up – NO I am headed back this weekend and maybe one or two more times before the holidays.
      Keep up the hard work – – – it will pay off. Study and do your homework, scout after the season and look for travel routes.
      Where I climbed up is right in the middle of some heavily traveled trails but the other hunters are out of position for good shots if deer do come in. Plus those hunters are fair weather types. Every day I hunted this year I have not seen another hunter.
      I hope you stay with the sport, there are big rack deer on public land, you just have to go find them.


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