Dealing with hunting pressure is the key to success on Michigan’s public hunting grounds.


October 01, 2014

Michigan has more public lands that are open for hunting than any other state east of the Mississippi. Even with millions of acres available, just a small fraction of that property actually officers quality deer hunting opportunities. Complicating matters even more, those quality public land spots are often fleeting as the ever changing deer herd can serve up great hunting one year, but then turn dismal the next. Hunting pressure though is one of the biggest factors in shaping any area’s deer herd. Dealing with hunting pressure is the key to success on Michigan’s public hunting grounds.

On my U.P. property we have been practicing quality deer management (QDM) for many years and my neighbors had also pledged to exercise similar harvest restraint. As a result, for many years we enjoyed some pretty good deer hunting with a decent buck to doe ratio and buck age structure even after hard winters. Unfortunately though, as deer numbers dropped in our area from heavy predation, winter kill and the overharvest of does by a few hunters, some of my neighbors started to kill off most of the young bucks. The result was dismal hunting last year on my property. Fortunately though I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket and have always hunted public lands in the U.P. too. Last year my public land spots were actually much better than the hunting on my own land.

Two years ago I tagged out early in October and dedicated a lot of time that fall towards scouting for future deer seasons. I found a new area in a remote, large chunk of public ground. My scouting indicated a healthy deer population and I didn’t detect any bowhunting activity in the area. I returned to the spot during the 2012 firearm deer season and was pleased to find nobody hunting the area then either. Since there was no deer hunting going on there, the chances of bucks surviving to older age classes skyrocketed. I also found loads of big buck sign in the area, which bolstered my confidence for the next year even more.

I spent several days scouting there during that gun season and really learned the lay of the land. Late November is prime time for scouting as you can see through the barren woods well and the sign you see is very relevant. I scouted on bare ground and I also returned to scout it more after a snowfall. I found several excellent bow-deer-stand sites for the next season. I also found an excellent bear stand site too, which I will try out next year.

During September of 2013, I went back into the area and set up three treestands sites. I use a Guido’s Web treestand for all my public land setups. The Guido’s Web are comfortable and safe to use. I can sit all day without any discomfort in this stand. It allows a full 360 degree shooting radius so it is really well suited for my type of hunting and makes me much more effective. Setting up a stand site for a Guido’s Web is very simple too. 

The author has been hunting public land for over 30 years with good success. He took this dandy public land buck hunting in northern Michigan in 1981.

This area is very remote with no vehicle or ATV access. It would require a one-two mile hike to my various stands. Those hikes would also include traversing some wetlands too which is likely why there was no other hunters in the area. Hunting such a location is certainly not for everyone. Needless to say, anybody that is not in excellent physical condition should not even think about hunting such a spot.

I waited until the rut started to fire up in late October before I started hunting the area. I had set up three stands in that area and all of them were in similar spots. All are on ridges flanking wetlands and each spot was also a natural funnel too because of blown over trees blocking passage to my advantage. One stand was ideal for a north wind, another was perfect for westerly winds and the third stand was perfect for southerly winds.

I had to put my truck in four-wheel-drive just to get to within one mile of my closest stand. It was a blustery, cold day with snow squalls coming and going. I headed for my north wind stand at about 10 in the morning and took my time on the walk in. I ascended the big cedar tree and settled in for a vigil overlooking several deer trails along the ridge. It was a long boring day with no deer sightings until about 4 pm when a doe and fawn sauntered by. That was all the action I had that day.

A few days later and I hunted my west wind stand there. I bumped a few deer on the way to the stand, but besides that I didn’t see anything else but red squirrels. The same thing happened when I hunted my south wind stand for the first time too with no deer sighted on stand. The second time I hunted my west wind stand though I got into the setup without spooking any deer. It was very windy that day and squalls occasionally pelted me with what weathermen call a “wintery mix” of snow, sleet and freezing rain. I persevered though and about one hour before dark I spotted a big deer in the distance. Pulling out my monocular and glassed him, I counted 8 points on his head. I had already filled my unrestricted tag on a big six-pointer with no brow tines, so a legal buck for me had to have at least four points on one antler, which he did. That buck was not only legal, but he was also very big-bodied too, which I especially like in a deer. He was working over some small bushes about 100 yards away from me when I pressed my grunt call into action, but the wind was so strong that he didn’t even hear me. I was patient though and waited until he was looking in my direction and blasted on the call very loudly, which caught his attention. He didn’t come my way though, but he didn’t spook either and just walked off angling perpendicular to me, but he kept looking curiously my way. About 30 minutes later, with about 10 minutes of shooting time left, I glanced to my left and saw the same buck heading straight towards me. He turned left at about 25 yards and when his body neared an opening, I came to full draw. The buck must have come back to investigate the calls I made earlier because he seemed to be searching. When he stopped in the open, he was slightly quartering away from me when the arrow hit home. After the shot, he whirled around and dashed quickly out of site. In an instant, all that could be heard was the wind.

When I shot him, it was just dark enough that I couldn’t see exactly where the arrow hit. The shot felt good and I definitely heard the arrow “plunk” into him, but without actually seeing where he was hit, I decided to wait one full hour before checking things out. It was pitch black by the time I descended the tree. I found some hair and blood at the site of the hit, and easily followed the blood trail for about 50 yards and then the blood trail dried up. I slowly searched in ever widening circles and after about an hour of looking, I found the dead buck where he had piled up after running a button hook pattern. The Spitfire broadhead had punctured his liver and lung. The buck was indeed big-bodied with a dressed weight of over 200 pounds.

I tagged and field dressed the deer and covered him with my jacket to ward off predators and then headed back to the truck. I then drove back to my cabin and phoned my wife to let her know what was going on. I then changed clothes and strapped my Jet Sled to the ATV and headed back for the extraction job. I was able to get a bit closer to the deer with the ATV, but I still had to drag him nearly one mile. By putting the deer in the Jet Sled and pulling with a shoulder harness, dragging the deer was made much easier. I pulled him along in short drags of about 50 yards and then I would rest and catch my breath. I repeated the process for hours until I reached the ATV. Having the deer lashed into the Jet Sled also makes loading it onto the ATV much easier too. By the time I got the deer back to camp, hung on the pole and cleaned myself up, it was nearly 5 am. I was certainly tired, but I was also certainly one very happy hunter.

I have killed dozens of nice bucks over the last four decades hunting on public lands in all regions of Michigan including the U.P. the Northern Lower and also in Southern Michigan too. A few years ago I found a new hunting spot on state land near my home in southeast Michigan. This spot was best hunted from the ground, so I set up a stand where I could sit on my one-leg stool hidden among a fallen tree. When the wind was right for the spot (northwest) that year, I hunted it for the first time and had several antlerless deer saunter past me, but no bucks. The next time I hunted there was during late October with the rut just shifting into gear. Right before dusk a small herd of deer materialized from the swamp. They were heading right towards me so I just hunkered down and waited. There were four does and fawns and one yearling, four-point buck, all of which I had no interest in shooting. As those deer came to within 20 yards or so, I noticed a sixth deer following them. His whitish colored rack was easily visible and he looked impressive. The big buck worked a scrape along the edge of the swamp and also rubbed on a couple saplings working his way into my effective bow range. While I was waiting for him to present a shot, one of the other deer that had ambled past me without incident got down wind of me and blew the alarm. The big buck was gone in an instant. Even though that exciting hunt was unsuccessful, it was still awesome to have had a shooter buck within bow range on some of the hardest hunted lands in the state.

The key to that spot was the unusual location. It was not far from my parking spot, but it was fairly hard to get to. The brush was very thick there and I had to cross a small, swampy creek-bottom, and circle a wetland to reach the spot. The real key to that spot though is the surrounding properties. I was hunting in the corner of that state land parcel. To the west of that spot was posted, private land owned by an anti-hunter who did not let anybody hunt on his large, parcel. This created a great sanctuary for deer and that property harbors some whopper bucks every year. I had to situate myself no closer than 150 yards from the posted property lines and limit my shots to close, double lung, slam dunk attempts that would down a deer very quickly, but that spot was certainly worth those limitations.

In really hard hunted areas like southern Michigan’s state game and recreation areas, finding spots to hunt with low hunting pressure is almost impossible. Many people think that just because hunters are willing to walk a mile back into the woods that they will somehow escape that pressure, but that is just not the case. As it turns out, there are a lot of avid hunters out there that are willing and able to penetrate into about every nook and cranny of those public lands. And just because you do find a spot that nobody else is hunting does not necessarily mean that there will be any decent bucks there. I live near the Waterloo Recreation Area, one of Michigan’s most heavily hunted areas. The hunting pressure there from September 15 through the end of the deer seasons is off-the-charts intense with hunter numbers of over 50 hunters per square mile. With that much continuous pressure, not many deer will survive the gauntlet and very few bucks will live to grow their second set of antlers. With that in mind, the best hunting spots are going to be along the public property boarders where low pressured private lands will give them sanctuary enough that they have a chance to survive a year or two. The best way to find those spots is to call the property owners asking for permission to hunt their lands. Keep in mind that the chances of actually gaining permission to hunt those private lands will be about nil. The main reason for contacting them though is to covertly assess the hunting pressure there. After they turn down your polite hunting request most will give you a rejection reason. If they or others are hunting the property, then that is not good, but more information would be nice, so very politely then ask them how many people hunt the property. If pressure is low, then that’s good. Another good question to then ask would be if they practice QDM and specifically, do they pass up young bucks there. If they do pass up young bucks, then the adjacent public lands could have some spillover from their practices. If they don’t allow any hunting there, then that is much preferred as “their” unpressured deer will from time to time stray onto the adjoining public land making for a good hunting situation indeed.

In the Northern Lower and the U.P. finding remote hunting spots with low hunting pressure is much more possible. After tagging out last year I spent the entire firearm deer season scouting out a bunch of new spots for this year. I found some great looking spots with awesome potential. Deer hunter numbers are way down in the U.P. One fringe benefit of that is that hunting pressure has been very low there for the last few years. This year my private property will likely have few if any shooter bucks available.

Thankfully though I have a bunch of public land spots in areas where no hunting has taken place in many years. Those spots will hold some older bucks making me optimistic for another successful deer season in 2014. Good luck and have a safe hunt.