Living in the heart of the West, I didn’t expose myself to whitetail hunting with a stick-and-string until a few years back. Why? I was busy chasing pronghorn, mule deer and elk across multiple western locales. While a part of me wanted to point a Chevy loaded down with treestands east, I simply couldn’t tear myself away. Then, finally, I did. Thank God.
What I discovered were countless public-land tracts spread across multiple whitetail-rich states. I found shredded-by-antlers cedar rows sprinkled amongst vast seas of CRP in Kansas, winding creek bottoms in South Dakota and hardwood-lined ridges in Illinois. I was having a blast, and though I was losing a lot more than I was winning, I was beginning to piece together a solid whitetail plan.
During my first few whitetail seasons, I slung some carbon and connected. The blood trails led to big-bodied does and basket-racked bucks, but, hey, I was filling tags and having a ball. This past October, I headed to the Rushmore State with a group of whitetail gurus. The plan was to hunt an isolated public-land creek system that sliced across a seemingly endless section of plains and rolling hills. On the hunts first evening, my good buddy and certified whitetail geek, Alex Gyllstrom, sent me a text. It simply read: Bring the deer cart. I was pumped.
Earlier that afternoon, Alex, after a long study session on his onX Hunt App, put a stand and climbing sticks on his back and took off. His reward was a 140-plus inch whitetail.
Being tagged out, Alex offered his services. “Bro,” he told me later that night back at camp, “I will just hunt with you and tote a video camera.” Alex simply can’t get enough whitetail action, and I was only too happy to have him along.
After an uneventful morning sit, we strapped a pair of stands and climbing sticks to our packs and ventured deep. Alex had located a spot on onX where we could cross a creek, stay on the outside of a massive block of timber and set up in a tree row just off an isolated marshy bottom.
We had just crossed the creek. The deer crossing to our left was pounded. It looked like a herd of cattle had been in the area. On the other side of the creek, I located a couple of small scrapes along with a few rubs. I wanted to get in a tree right then and there. If we went much further, we would bump deer. Alex looked at me like I was crazy.
“No offense my man, but this thinking is exactly why a lot of public-land hunters don’t kill deer or kill really small deer. This is a perimeter sign. Most of this sign is being made at night. We haven’t traveled far from the truck. When other hunters see this type of sign, they post up. The deer know this. If you want to kill good deer on public land, you have to understand the landscape and then push past the perimeter sign.”
I groaned with each step. The further we went, the more scrapes, rubs, tracks and the like we walked by. I was walking on eggshells. Alex, his eyes always up and scanning, turned and said, “We are getting in there now. I almost see what I want to see. Just remember, when you hunt this way and decide to get in their bedroom, you have to be OK with bumping deer from time to time.”
We didn’t bump a single deer, but we did find an epic spot littered with big buck sign. While hanging the set high in a towering cottonwood, a decent buck stood up out of his bed 150 yards away. He stretched and then bedded back down. “You don’t get to see that when you hunt perimeter sign,” Alex said with a sly smile.
That night turned out to be one of the most exciting nights in the deer woods I’ve ever experienced. We had multiple encounters with bucks — bucks I would normally shoot — and had a giant cruise just out of range. We were hunting open-to-anyone dirt and were absolutely covered up in deer.
The wind made trekking back into our spot sketchy the following evening. “No worries,” Alex said. “Winds will change, but when you’re taking your stands in and out and doing hang and hunts, you can adjust easily.”
Adjust we did. The walk-in was, again, long. We crossed creek after creek. This time, we bumped multiple deer. Each time we did, Alex looked back at me and said, “Relax. This is part of the game. We aren’t hunting our own private land where we can play it safe all the time. We are hunting public land, and these aren’t the deer we are after anyway.”
The spot was perfect. The cedars on this little no-name bend in the creek gave way to a massive straight-up-and-down dirt wall. The deer would funnel perfectly. The cedars had been abused by antlers and scrapes littered the area. Our major problem was there were no trees suitable for a stand. We ended up in a small cedar, and I could actually stand on the ground and set my gear on my stand’s platform.
“Obviously, I’d like to be higher,” Alex whispered. “The good thing is cedar trees offer a lot of back cover. We should be just fine.”
With light waning on the final evening’s hunt, Alex decided to slam the horns together. Minutes later, the sound of heavy hooves coming up the trail tickled our ears. He was massive. His 9-point rack was thick and tall. He would have easily been my best buck to date, but it wasn’t meant to be. I made a rookie mistake and drew too early. The deer spotted us and the hunt was over. What I took away from it, however, was so much more.
You’re Up Skywalker
I told Alex on that final evening that if he would be my whitetail Yoda, I would be his Luke Skywalker. He laughed. I was serious. I left South Dakota and headed straight to Nebraska. These days I do a whitetail tour. I’m eaten up with these critters.
When I arrived at my hunt grounds, I pushed deeper than ever, past the perimeter sign into an area I believed bucks would be bedding. The calendar had flipped to November and the rut was rocking. I set up in a small opening surrounded by thick bedding timber. I figured bucks would be cruising the edge of the opening for does. I hung a stand and left.
The next morning, an hour into the hunt, I released an arrow on a big 136-inch Nebraska 8-point. I was elated. Side of his rack being respectable, this truly was one of the biggest bodied deer I’d ever seen.
This season, when you’re hunting public land, take a risk. Push past the perimeter sign. Move-in on bedding areas and put yourself in a position to kill a big buck.