Deer Hunting & Scouting: Public Land

If you’ve read my previous articles, you’ve heard me mention our family farm and hunting property. It’s 240 acres of what I consider to be pretty fantastic Pennsylvania whitetail land and with the recent management approach we’ve taken, we should have even better hunting in the years to come. You can read more here (Whitetail Preseason Preparation: Setting Expectation) about our property management.  Although I certainly feel fortunate to have access to this land, our farm resides in the south central portion of the state near the Maryland border and is a three hour drive from my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. This travel time significantly limits my hunting opportunities during archery season to a few Saturdays and a week’s vacation during the first week of November. This summer I decided that I’d try to find public land nearer my home to hunt when traveling isn’t an option. Another source of motivation was the early season opening in this part of the state and the opportunity to get into the timber sooner. I had little time and no prior experience with any of the land in the eastern part of the state. I had a lot of work to do and still not sure what my efforts may produce, but I was up for the challenge!

 My Approach

With limited knowledge of the area, I did a quick internet search for huntable state parks and  forests near me. I was willing to travel up to an hour for adequate hunting land and was looking for a piece of land, ideally, to the west, as I wanted to get further away from urban areas in hopes of reducing my run-ins with other hunters in the timber. I eventually settled on French Creek State Park as my destination.

 With my destination determined, it was time to assess the land for a suitable stand location. The park is over 7,500 acres with approximately half of it designated as huntable land. It would be impossible for me to scout over 3,000 acres in the one afternoon I had to find a stand location. So I made a plan and began with a virtual scout to focus my efforts once on site. Google Maps proved to be a great tool for this. Using Google’s satellite image, I could see the park layout and the neighboring land. I was looking for anything located remotely close to agriculture, but this feature was not an option. I then turned my attention toward the handful of what appeared to be thick brushy areas and decided this would be the area where I’d focus. With this small amount of information filed away, I made the hour drive to the park and paid a visit to the park office to grab a topography map. While sitting in my car, I did a quick review of the map and quickly ignored all areas with designated park hiking trails as huntable areas, with the goal of reducing the impact of human pressure. I then looked for topographic features, changes in elevation, pinch points, or creek bottoms. The northern portion of the park seemed the most remote and offered some elevation change with deep ravines and steep ridges and also included a stream. This would ultimately be the general area where I’d focus my scout.

 Once inside the timber, I knew I needed to hike in further than most people would be willing to with a stand and gear on their back to give myself the best chance of seeing natural deer movement. My goal was to hike a mile into the timber, knowing most public land hunters don’t typically travel much further than a half mile from their vehicle and entrance site. I looked for sign along the way and it was limited. After about 30 minutes, I began seeing sign that showed more promise–deer trails, scat and a significant amount of brush. I could hear a stream and started working my way toward the sound. The sound lead me through thick brush and to the edge of a deep ravine with the ridge lined in alder thicket. I found deer trails and bedding areas in the alder thicket and once I hiked down the ravine, there was a noticeable deer trail hugging the ridge line with the creek bottom supplying plenty of oak trees dropping acorns. I picked out a few climbable trees and had found my spot. This area provided plenty of cover, water, a food source, a topography change, clear bedding area, a natural pinch point between the ridge and the creek, and was relatively deep in the timber. In total, I spent two hours with boots on the ground scouting. Next was to hunt the location and see if my strategy and approach would pay off.

 The Test

Pennsylvania opening day had arrived. I was excited to get in my stand to say the least. Based on a few new strategies I’d implemented for this year, I previously decided to hunt only the evening set. The new (new to me) strategies were to hunt fewer mornings in October, unless camera, intel, etc.. tells me otherwise, and to use the Moon Phase Guide for the first time. According to the guide, I had a red moon for that evening beginning at 5:30 EST. I had thought if I was going to get any action out of this location, it would likely come from the thicket directly to my south. And for that to work I really needed any type of south wind. I arrived that afternoon, packed in my climber and gear, and climbed a tree about 50 yards below the pinch point between the ridge and the stream with the south wind I was hoping for. I honestly didn’t care if I saw a single deer, archery season was here and I was stoked just to be in the timber. A few  hours had passed with only seeing a hawk and one chipmunk. The moon time had arrived and I was hoping things would pick up. At 6 o’clock I heard some movement and spotted a deer coming from the thicket to the south. It was headed toward the ridge line just out of range. Two more deer followed the same path, all bucks–two 6-points and a nice 8-point! The two six points weren’t shooters but the 8-point was certainly a shooter, particularly for a Pennsylvania public land hunt.

 I’m not sure what was more exciting, seeing the first deer of the season from the stand or the fact that my strategy and limited scouting had worked! I’ll definitely be back to this location on weekends I can’t make it back to the farm. And I’ll make a slight stand tweak and move a little further up the ridge line to better cover the flat coming out of the thicket. I’ll also continue to use the Moon Phase Guide and will report back on the season-long outcome of this new strategy. Some may say that my hunt wasn’t a success since I didn’t get a shot or I didn’t kill, but I disagree. I implemented new strategies and put myself in position to see natural deer movement using a truthful approach and executing sound strategy. It dawned on me while climbing from my stand that this experience may mean more to my growth as a hunter than any buck or doe I may harvest this year. Why? Because I moved outside of my comfort zone and challenged myself to think differently about my approach in unfamiliar territory. These are the moments I seek most of all, as this day was clearly a moment of truth from the stand.