Building a Public Land Hit List of Highly Pressured Bucks

Bow season 2021 was a season for Dear Diary. It was an odd season for many, likely due to the massive acorn drop and warmer October weather. To all who put sweat equity into your season, well done. Even if you didn’t fill tags, it wasn’t for nothing. Every year, we learn something new about the whitetails that inhabit the areas we hunt; in the following years, that knowledge can be applied and executed. 

There are only so many factors you can control in the woods. We can use the best clothing, climbing, gear, bows, scent control, scent attractants, and calls. We can practice shooting, place numerous trail cameras, run, lift weights, sleep well, and eat healthily. But In the long run, there is one key factor out of our control: what a buck will decide to do on a given day.

This year, a good buddy of mine and I made plans for a mission to build a list of bucks and do our darnedest to pin a tag on one of them. To say we worked hard is an understatement. We hiked miles and miles in 30 mph winds. We battled the cold temperatures of early spring to the muggy July heat. Through close encounters with rattlesnakes, ticks, and mosquitos, we successfully built a wish list of bucks.

Building a hit list of bucks is a cliché in the world of bowhunting. But at the same time, it was damn fun. Of course, it’s a labor of love, but, like anything, there were positives and negatives involved. 

The Pros

  • At a minimum, when I found myself in the woods, I always learned something new about the property I was scouting. 
  • Separate deer herds have independent habits, even if they’re only a few miles apart. Setting cameras up to soak for months is a great way to understand a specific herd.
  • While capturing images of bucks on public land, I didn’t only learn about what deer were there: I gained insight into what affected the deer I was hunting. Hunting pressure, predators, and weather all play a role.
  • Who doesn’t like to see pictures of “any ‘ol buck”? Good trail camera photos are all-around fun. Honestly, I was happy with more than half the bucks that showed up on our cameras from the start. As the season grew closer, we started recognizing a few specific bucks. Regular activity in this area made the idea of shooting a specific buck seem possible.

The Cons

  • Once I added the first couple of bucks to the list, becoming obsessed was almost unavoidable. 
  • If I wasn’t careful, attempts to put the puzzle together drove me crazy many times. But it didn’t stop me from trying.
  • Hunting for specific bucks gave me thoughts of passing up bucks that otherwise would have made me more than happy.
  • I had to be very careful not to let my compounded excitement cause me to make poor decisions, like choosing a day with poor wind direction, not observing seasonal food differences, or walking past new sign.

In-Person Scouting

E-scouting and cameras were invaluable tools, but boots-on-the-ground scouting efforts were irreplaceable. Without time spent in-person scouting, our cameras would have missed so many important aspects that we built our hunts around.

Cameras provide a small snapshot in a big world. Sometimes that world is just on the opposite side of the tree. Cameras are only as valuable as the information that walks in front of them.

One camera we placed was on a scrape tucked into dense cover. That particular set, we had determined, was the hub of deer activity in the area. On almost every scouting trip, we ventured along the same routes used by deer. It wasn’t until the first camera check that we discovered trails on the outside edge of that cover. Physically laying eyes on those trails was crucial to finding them. Better yet, there was food on that outer edge. Had we not hiked in from a different direction on that venture, we would have missed that vital information about deer travel through that hub. 

With in-person scouting, variety is the spice of life. Breaking a property down to a micro-level is something I do as soon as I’ve learned some basic features of that property. I want as many spots as possible on a single property to avoid putting too much pressure on one area. 

It’s essential to find a spot or two where I won’t mind burning a sit to observe. After that, I look for sites to cover four different wind directions. On all of these spots, the more edges, terrain, and natural elements (food and water), the better. 

Deer sign gets me just as fired up as the next guy. I love finding big sign, but I’ve often made the mistake of walking past new sign to work off of historical findings. Old sign is good information, but even if the fresh stuff isn’t impressive, it doesn’t mean that a small deer made it. Big bucks often make small sign, especially early on in the season. Mature bucks are also more likely to lay down sign first. Keep that in mind the next time you walk past that scrape that could pass as a turkey scratching.

Camera Work

In-person scouting only offers the element of surprise. It’s not always bad to rely solely on primitive scouting. Validating woodsmanship skills this way is a rewarding accomplishment. However, something is satisfying about capturing the same buck on different cameras repeatedly. When an actual encounter happens with that buck, that’s a whole other prize.

I tend to hesitate when it comes to placing a camera. So often, that brings me out of the woods with a bag that is still full of cameras. I’ve now begun to adopt the practice of “see a spot I like, drop a camera.” My intuition is on occasionally, but it usually takes a slight adjustment from the first location to get the correct result. Check out a few of the podcasts about trail camera strategies throughout the season – Summer | Fall | Lateseason

I try not to worry about hanging a camera, based strictly on what a deer’s present focus may be. A scrape may not be the hot spot in July, but by the middle of October, it will be. I hang my cameras in an attempt to cover a whole season’s shift. What I’ve found with collected intel is that those spots ebb and flow as far as deer activity goes.

A clear-cut pounded by velvet bucks in July might taper off by mid-September. But if it was hot once, there’s a good chance it will be hot right when I need it to be. Habits of deer often shift in the big woods as deer adapt to the changing conditions. Spurts of hot activity will be the result. If you leave your cameras stationary instead of shifting them to match what a deer “should be doing,” you’ll find this to be true.

Gear Drills

Practice with my gear isn’t something I like to spare. I’m new to saddle hunting this year, thanks to Clint, but if I hadn’t practiced climbing and shooting out of my Tethrd saddle preseason, it would have been a disaster. Practice doesn’t strictly mean archery practice. Knowing your pack and where things are, knowing your saddle pouches, doing a run-through with the clothes you’ll be wearing—those things are all critical. There’s a positive correlation between successful hunts and knowing your gear inside and out. 


I’m thankful for good friends this year and all the effort every one of them puts into the sport of bowhunting. During this 2021 season, I was blessed with the opportunity to put a target buck in my pack. It was a long way to the truck, but every minute with the two friends I had with me was memorable. There’s nothing quite like a target buck pack-out.