The longest journey begins with a single step. If you are planning to travel to hunt whitetails this year, you need to take that first step right now. Tag application time is in the late winter through spring, and it’s also time to start doing your homework to increase your odds of coming home with a buck this year.
The first thing that needs to be done is to make sure you can secure a deer tag for your destination state. Many states offer whitetail tags over the counter (OTC) but in many more, you must apply to receive one. Several states have drawings that award tags based on the number applicants and preference points.
Each time you are unsuccessful in the drawing, you are awarded a preference point. For example, if you want to bowhunt in any of the good zones in Iowa, you will need at least two preference points. If you apply for three years, you will most likely draw the tag the third year. Most states offer the option of buying the point separately so you do not have to send in the entire tag fee when there is no chance of drawing a tag. If you want to hunt a state with a drawing in the future you should start right now buying a preference point each year. You can hunt states with OTC tags until you get drawn.
Once you have decided which state you plan to hunt this year, you will need to start looking at your hunting location options. Most do-it-yourselfers hunt on public land, and most whitetail states have plenty of it. These include state hunting lands, county areas, Army Corps of Engineers lands and state forests. Many states offer a Walk-in program of some sort where landowners allow the public to access their land to hunt. Most of these areas are geared at upland bird hunters but I have found some real gems of deer hunting on these properties in both North Dakota and Kansas. Spend some time on the state Wildlife Commission or DNR website to find these areas. Most state websites have maps of public areas.
Start by analyzing these public lands on Google Earth to determine which ones look like they have good deer habitat. Check for areas that look like good bedding spots and funnels that will concentrate deer movement patterns. Make sure you try to determine where the food and water is found. Crop fields butting up against the public forested land can offer some great possibilities. On many public lands, you will need to get off the road a ways because most people don’t hunt more than a half mile from their truck.
I also spend some time on hunting forums searching for information on the particular area. Often just asking a question on a deer hunting message board will turn up some great nuggets of information. In one case I had a hunter from a state far away offer to drive me around and show me some areas. You can bet I took him up on the offer.
The next thing that needs to be done is get some first-hand information. Call up wildlife biologists, game wardens and county conservation boards. Ask them specific questions about the property. You want to know how much hunting pressure it gets and what’s available for the hunter. Are their wildlife food plots planted? If so, what’s planted in them? Ask about the deer population and if there have been issues such as EHD that could adversely affect the deer.
Once you get good at analyzing the terrain on these aerial photos, you can start to pick out potential treestand sites. Also look for good access points where you can get to and from the treestand with a minimum of impact on the deer’s senses.
I try to call back about a week before I leave and ask them some of the questions again. Have the crops been harvested? Where have you been seeing deer lately? Are the bucks chasing the does or hitting the scrapes? Answering these questions are part of a public employee’s job so don’t be shy.
Any time I can, I will get some trail cameras out to assess the deer population and check for trophy potential. A scouting trip in the spring or summer will help you learn the area and you can leave the trail cameras out for a month or more gathering information. In some of the states I hunt regularly, I have a buddy or two that will put trail cameras out for me a month or so before I arrive. I mail them the cameras then when I get there to hunt I have a lot of great information to go on.
My book for “road trip” hunters entitled “the Freelance Bowhunter” goes into a great deal of detail on this subject. Your success during a fall whitetail hunting road trip hunt begins in the spring. Start right now and in the fall you will be rewarded for it.