Going Public: Staying Positive Out in National Forests

There’s always plenty of room to roam out in the National Forest. Here, the author’s brother and father hike out to set up for a short deer drive. (Photo: Chris Berens)

Rifle season has come and gone here in Wisconsin, the last day was just this past Sunday. After being on vacation and hunting all nine days of the season, I’ve already started to reminisce a little bit while back in my cubicle at work.

As always, the week was filled with laughs and good times with our small group of four at deer camp in northern Wisconsin. Old and new stories were told and retold, as well as getting caught up on everyone’s busy lives, and just hanging out by the fireplace without the hectic demands of everyday life.

One bonus of being a “forever driver” on deer drives is discovering fresh buck sign in new areas. (Photo: Chris Berens)

As we all came in from the National Forest deer woods for lunch, or once darkness ended the afternoon hunt, the main topic, of course, is deer. Did you see anything? How many did you see? What direction did they come from and go toward?

As is often the case while hunting in the big woods of northern Wisconsin, the answer to the first question around half of the time is nothing. Seeing two or three deer in a day is a pretty good day up there. A whole day or more without seeing a single deer is not out of the ordinary. And most big-woods hunters can probably relate.

We’re not bad deer hunters. Our spots are all good. There simply aren’t as many deer out there in that type of habitat. Many of my pals that hunt in farm country can’t believe it, or wonder how that’s possible when they’re used to seeing five, 10, 20 or more deer every day of the hunting season.

“Why do you even bother hunting up there?” many of them ask. With over-mature forests, lack of logging activity, recent tough winter conditions and increasing predator populations, that’s sometimes a good question. Especially after hunting from dark to dark in cold, windy conditions without seeing an animal that wasn’t a red squirrel or chickadee.

Well, there are certainly a few good reasons for hunting public-land, big-woods settings around the country:

• I own 193 million acres of land around this country that I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to hunt. You own it too. It’s all National Forest and open to all of us. And believe me, there is plenty of good deer hunting to be found on it.

• During nine days of hunting that public land, I only met up with three other hunters (other than the guys in our group), and never had anyone post up even close to where I was hunting.

A little bit of wilderness sign will sharpen the senses on a quiet, slow day in the deer woods. (Photo: Chris Berens)

• You will see deer. It won’t be as many as you would see in farm country. But when you understand why and are prepared for that, it’s not as big of a deal.

• While covering many miles of deer country I was able to find new potential spots for bowhunting during earlier portions of the season, as well as recent logging activity that will only attract more and more deer the next few seasons.

• There’s a real feeling of discovery and adventure out there. It’s about as close to wilderness as one can get in a state like Wisconsin, and in many other states, it is definitely wilderness.

• Big deer. With vast amounts of unpressured and tough-to-reach land, bucks can grow old and large out there on National Forest land around the country. They are the ultimate survivors. My own experience with close-up encounters and trail-camera photos has only reaffirmed the legends of the old swamp bucks. They’re not ghost stories — they’re the real deal.

Get out there and get after ‘em. You might have them all to yourself!

WATCH: Here are a few tips from Deer & Deer Hunting contributor Steve Bartylla on how to stay undetected while hunting on public land.