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Cell Cameras and Finding Public Land Bucks

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Cell Camera Placement and Strategy for Public Land Bucks

By: Weston Schrank of HUNTR

2020 was a year…whew was it, and for many reasons beyond the obvious, including a big change in hunting opportunities for this ill-prepared Midwest hunter. Between 2019 and 2020, most of my private hunting opportunities dried up from owners selling – in fact, four of my core hunting properties. With that obstacle facing me just months before the archery opener, my next move was daunting, but the possibilities would be endless. It was time to take a serious approach at the big woods bucks on public land and cell cameras would play a crucial role.

HUNTR Podcast #006 – Public Land BIG WOODS Bucks

Weston Schrank joins Jeremy and Jared to discuss public land bow hunting, big woods bucks, and what it takes to get away from the pressure. With years of experience between them with public land hunting, some great tips are presented to find your own slice of great deep woods public land. The podcast includes a detailed recap of Weston’s 2020 Indiana public land big timber buck. This is a classic public land success story, going 1+ mile in, getting away from the pressure, hunting the individual buck bed, and capitalizing on cell camera intel. The public land hunting tips include how to locate public land deer hotspots, getting away from pressure, and how to relocate buck home ranges from summer.

Searching for the Unpressured

My first moves were obvious: sort through rolling forested hills and find the gems. The goal was to find and locate the most plausible places some 3+ year old bucks might be held up in. It just so happened that I took on this public land challenge while I was prepping for my first DIY elk hunt in Colorado.  As you can guess, my eyes had been combing topo lines on OnX maps trying to find elk in some OTC and very pressured units. I treated my whitetail scouting with the same prerequisites that I needed to find to deem a location an “elk spot”: far from any public access, required out of the box strategy, had diversity, and was just at the edge of any sane person’s limit walking in for a morning’s hunt.

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That unique combination, specifically the unpressured region of a property and diversity, is what ultimately will lead to one of the best places you can hang cell cameras to find public buck. The unpressured part of that equation is just that, somewhere you yourself don’t even want to walk to or hunt. If it requires you to go through a creek, a clearcut with an impenetrable stem density, or even walking through some great deer cover that you feel like you shouldn’t discredit; all those obstacles stop other hunters from going further. My goal is to usually get somewhere I can learn deer behavior that won’t shift due to other hunter’s mistakes, just mine. With that safety net, I could at least attempt to get back on a target buck with a known variable of pressure.

The diversity aspect helps narrow down this search. Depending on the piece of public you’re looking at, there’s probably a few spots tucked away from access or just inconceivable to walk to that offers diversity from the norm of mature timber. To narrow it down from there, you should take a look at the makeup of the habitat, clearcuts/any timber harvests whatsoever, cedar thickets, creek bottoms, and saddles with some wind damage. This variation could also be closer to private or ag fields, giving that area even more plausibility to hold a few older age class bucks. Whatever the case, edges are a good thing. Besides attracting and holding deer, they can funnel their movement, which is everything in this game. Especially when it feels like big woods bucks wander aimlessly, direction void of a notable trail.

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Gauging Pressure

If I end up finding a spot that meets my prerequisites, it’s time to get boots on the ground. At this point, I’m looking for good sign and gauging the pressure. I have found myself hunting more of the back corners of public land next to private than in the middle of giant swaths of public. Mainly I have found myself favoring those areas due to potential food sources and more habitat diversity. I have found that in most situations, you’re able to see visible signs of hunting pressure once you get close to public. If the owners or friends/family hunt that private ground, there will be ladder or hang-on stands, or even box blinds on the boundaries of public and private. You might even start seeing stands a couple hundred yards into the public. If you end up not seeing any signs, boot tracks, cameras, tree stands, or any human sign whatsoever, there might be a good chance there is not hunting pressure. The few gems I have found like this have cameras on them all season and do not pick up another hunter all season long. That is some great peace of mind when you’re playing the game with a 150” public buck like I was!

Where to Put Cell Cameras on Public Land

“A Little Dirt Goes a Long Ways”

Anyone who has truly tried their hand at big woods public land hunting knows that even racking up miles scouting for a few wireless camera sites or buck beds can sometimes prove completely unfruitful. One of the first properties I ended up at yielded just one trail camera site for 3 miles of walking.  A few of the back corners were plum full of stands from private hunters on that side of the property, and others were just void of all deer sign. The one spot I found ended up catching my public land target buck…a 9 pointer I deemed the “big 8” in the weeks before deer season.

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After playing cat and mouse with this deer across a big piece of public, one thing helped me out the most…with that much woods and a big margin of error in terms of gathering intel from a camera, dirt is your friend. There isn’t a camera I own that is not over a community or mock scrape come September. Depending on the state, you might even be able to put some bait out on public during the offseason, but in all cases, you will want something front and center to attract those deer to that area. While the theory is the same on private, it’s vital for public land in the big woods. A scrape is one of the main things I keep my eye out for when scouting. It’s not a tell-all for one location, but a damn good indicator you’ll pick up some bucks come fall there.

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The first year I went for a big woods pubic land buck, I had the ideal hunt in mind. Walk 1+ mile in, set up just out of sight of a big buck bed, and pull the trigger when the intel told me to do so. That is where the cell cams come in. While the scrape is a great tool, several things really need to align to make that an ideal spot to tangle with a buck. Nearby cover that a target buck (once you find one) is likely bedding in, the trail he might take to get to that bed or food close by, and then it just so happens there is a scrape. That scrape, however, will function as the point that can inventory if the buck is present in the area.

If you’re not able to find a buck bed or bedding area, the next best thing are those super highways. These areas are easy to find with noticeable pinches on the bottoms of ridges or drainages where scent is coming together and deer are traveling to food sources or between habitat types. Finding a community scrape there will at least get you in the ballpark of decent bucks. From there, the trick is finding daylight movers.

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Daylight Movers 

This wasn’t my first rodeo with public land. For years I have been trying my hand at it down in Kentucky. The first few years of hunting public taught me one very valuable lesson:

“Cell cameras alone won’t kill bucks on public.”

Anyone with experience could probably guess that from their first few weeks…cameras filled with nocturnal pics only. Without finding the bedding area for specific bucks, the cards would really only help closer to the rut timeframe.

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This year, I found my target buck’s bed, and it changed everything. I found the trails he would take (given different winds), found the scrape I needed to put cell cameras on, and I even found the tree 80 or so yards from the bed’s sightline on the most worn trail. Even if you’re not 100% on the buck living in that bed, the cell camera will at least pick up daylight activity. Positioning it that close to the bed also indicates exactly when you need to hunt, as you may even pick up his entry into that bedding area, and hunt him before he exits. This is critical, and doesn’t leave you hanging as to when the buck might return to a scrape it checked a few nights ago in some bottom or food source. This close to a bed means there is a darn good chance he is in there. Being that close to the bed was the variable that made all the difference for my cell cameras on public this past year.

This is obviously one of the most popular methods of killing mature bucks in today’s industry, especially when hunting public bucks. When combined with cell cameras, that strategy can be deadly and repeated across multiple potential buck beds. Once my target buck hit the scrape twice within a few hours, I knew it was time to go in. I went in and sure enough it happened that afternoon. He stood up from his bed, took a grunt and a rattle, and worked his way within bow range!

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Last Minute Cell Camera Tips for Public

These I consider my vital tips for public land hunting and cameras from many failed attempts:

  • Lock Them Up – this is an obvious one, but I still kick myself for not locking up a few stolen Fusion cell cameras in the past year. I have found that the simple python lock deters most people.
  • Go Solar – the universal trail camera solar panel battery pack from HME or the SOL-PAK from Stealth Cam is vital for this scrape-next-to-buck-bed strategy. This ensures you’re not having to replace batteries just to receive intel, as ideally the first or second time you go in there is when you’re harvesting your target buck.
  • Sol Pak Solar Battery Pack
  • Pick a Community Scrape – in terms of scrape selection, the bigger, more obvious ones, with a nice licking branch that is on a main run should be favored. I know a mock scrape, or scrape a little bit further from the bed will tell you when a buck is in your shooting lane further from the buck’s bed. However, cell cameras you aren’t checking them, and more intel from more frequent visits is always a good thing, even if you are hunting 80 yards from that particular location.
  • Rule of 3 – I always multiply my intel when it comes to scrapes. If my target buck shows up one night or afternoon hitting a scrape, I instantly note that he has likely been there 2-3 times more than what is on my camera. Whether he is exiting his bed and hitting a different scrape, or simply scent checking does, he hit that camera once in 24 hours, but has been around (and likely within bow range) a few more times than what you are seeing.
  • If it’s right, it’s right – if he shows himself in daylight, and he is likely bedded there…AND the wind and weather is favorable, make a move. DON’T hesitate because of the date, or some suspicious moon behavior theory, go in and harvest him!

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