Everyone has been there. You have an afternoon free and excitedly pack up your hunting gear. Taking a scent-free shower, you go over your strategy in your head. Maybe you listen to the song Fred Bear on the drive over. The weather is perfect for hunting and you’re feeling good about your chances. As you drive up to the public land spot, your heart sinks as you see 3 trucks in the parking lot at the trailhead. What should you do? There are only a few hours left until shooting light ends and your time is limited. Do you turn around and head home to try again another day?
This is the exact situation I found myself in yesterday as I tried to head out to a state game area. The 800-acre parcel I was planning to hunt was packed. As I drove from trailhead to trailhead, I continued to see at least one truck parked at each one. Some of the parking spots had multiple RVs parked in them or tents setup. My hunt plan was out the window. To further complicate things, it’s firearm season which means that there are some very real safety concerns involved when hunting a crowded piece of state land.
Instead of heading home, I pulled up OnX on my phone. Determined to find somewhere to hunt, I started by driving the perimeter of the public land. I have an idea of the layout of this property, but there are some spots I haven’t yet explored. Small lakes and rivers are interspersed throughout the property. I decided to focus on walking in near water. Eventually, I found an abandoned trailhead. I decided to ditch my saddle and climbing sticks and hunt from the ground. Going in blind I felt that it would be better to stay mobile and search for deer sign.
I hiked back a ways on an old two-track. Reading the wind I decided that I would head for the clearing on the right side of the road and try to get back in some of the thick cover. As I walked down the trail, of course, I passed a pop-up blind on the left side. Hurrying past I traveled another couple of hundred yards and then moved right into the clearing. Using the tall grass as cover I moved within 90 yards of the tree line and sat down.
After spending about twenty minutes glassing, I eventually got up and slowly moved towards the trees. Going as slow as possible, I focused on moving silently and staying crouched down. Reaching the cover and thick brush, I crept through it and found a set of deer tracks. I quietly chambered a round and engaged my rifle’s safety. Following the tracks through the brush I slowed my movements down even more stopping every 15 yards to scan with my binoculars and listen for movement.
The sun was beginning to set and the end of shooting light was only thirty minutes off. As I continued to move through the pine trees and thick brush, I found more and more deer sign. Deer had obviously been bedding down all through this area. I even discovered half of a deer skeleton at one point. Just the spine and pelvic bone remained, having been picked clean by predators. Continuing on for a bit, I lost the tracks I was following. There were ten minutes left to hunt. Just then I heard movement about 70 yards ahead. Four does crossed through the brush headed to the clearing. I decided to pass on shooting them as I just have my combo buck tags left. As the day ended, I walked back up the two-track and headed home.
I wanted to share this story for two reasons. One is that finding public land crowded with other hunters is a common problem in southern Michigan. Two is that by hunting from the ground on a spot I had not scouted, I was able to get on some deer by the end of the day. When you hunt mainly public ground it can be easy to get discouraged. Hunting success is about perseverance. When your spot is taken find another one. If you’re not familiar with an area, consider thinking outside the box. Instead of just setting up in a random tree and finding no deer, use your topo map to make an educated guess. Or, leave your treestand in the car and try to track some deer. While you may not find a nice buck every time when the odds seem stacked against you, it is possible to still have a good hunt and get on some deer.