By: Jared Shaffer
This past season I found myself looking for a new challenge in a new state. My mind wandered to the Keystone State of Pennsylvania. Any time PA is mentioned in the whitetail hunting world the theme that loudly rings out above the rest is “PRESSURE”. I had heard it MANY times myself: “Don’t hunt PA during rifle season, you’ll get shot!”, “You’re wasting your time on public land in PA, just too much pressure”, and on and on and on….
Now, I’ve hunted enough places now in my life to know that there is ALWAYS an area with little to no pressure. I really believed Pennsylvania was no different. So I decided to do something crazy, and hunt OPENING WEEK of rifle season on public land, just to see if: 1. Everybody was right about the pressure, and 2. If I could outsmart the other hunters AND a good buck. So here are the tactics I employed to find success in just TWO hunts. Yes, just two HUNTS!
“X” MARKS THE SPOT
The first thing I did before even lacing up my boots was to pull up my trusty OnX Maps and get to work finding a few areas that I felt hadn’t been messed with. Now let me be honest here, the spots I look for may not be pretty, and you may feel the burn in your quads to get to them, but if you like a challenge and the chance at a good buck, this is what separates you from 99% of the other hunters.
To start, I’m looking for multiple different landscape features coming together in one spot. A meeting point of multiple features can make a specific location stand out above the surrounding areas. The key here is NOT to focus on a singular thing. A lone saddle in the middle of wide open timber is easily identifiable on the map and usually invites pressure from other hunters. Big, open fields and wide open timber that allows for long rifle shots are often pressured as well. Instead, I look for multiple ridge points dumping down into a steep creek bottom. One ridge point may have oaks, the other thick bedding cover, and the other connecting to a bigger ridge system that a wandering buck may use to get from one ridge to the next. I’m also looking for transition edges within terrain features: hardwood to pines, clearcuts, overgrown fields, laurel thickets etc. The more features you can find in one area that come together in a defined space the better!
GET AWAY FROM THE CROWD
The next, and maybe most important thing is to find areas that will most likely not be touched by the majority of hunters. When e-scouting I’m looking for areas that may take a steep climb up, a long walk (think 1 mile +) through difficult terrain, or perhaps an area that other hunters are overlooking. At the end of the day, I’m looking for an area that is difficult to access in the hopes that other hunters will choose to avoid.
STAY TO WIN
With some areas picked out on the map it’s time to execute the plan. Here’s where I do things a bit different than the rest…
My goal is to be the FIRST in the parking lot, and hiking in well before anyone else gets there. When I leave the truck I’m carrying everything I need for the entire day, including gear to quarter and pack a whole deer out (where legal). Where i’m going, dragging a deer back just is
n’t an option so I always have the following with me:
- Sturdy frame pack for hauling quarters, my choice lately is an EXO-Mountain 3500
- Argali gamebags, which are washable and reusable
- Sturdy trekking poles for navigating steep terrain with a heavy load
- Havalon Piranta with extra blades
When I leave for the day I try to get to a spot in where I can watch a decent sized area right at daylight. After watching past daylight, I will slowly still-hunt my way to the main spot on the map I’ve picked for the afternoon hunt. This keeps me in the game all day, and with food and water, and maybe even a small thermos of coffee, I have no need to come out mid day. By committing to this all day strategy, I’m using the hunters around me to maybe push deer my way as they head out to get biscuits and gravy mid morning. As tempting as that is, you must resist! (It’s hard I know)
By mid-day I’m usually close to where I want to end up for the evening sit. Oftentimes i’ll pull out my small backpacking stove and make myself a freeze dried meal before I settle on my evening location. I’ve found this “backcountry” mindset gives me an edge over a lot of hunters and I really enjoy spending the entire day in the timber.
On my FIRST sit last year, doing exactly as I described, I passed what would have been a mid 130’s ten pointer at 4:30PM as he cruised off of a thick ridge point and down into the steep creek bottom choked with oaks at a mere 60 yards. Why did I pass him? Well, his right side was busted off just above his brow tine so I couldn’t bring myself to shoot him. But the plan worked and that gave me confidence for the next day!
TRUST THE PLAN
Day two came and my plan was the same as before. Like day one, I was going into a completely new area that I had never stepped foot on. This can seem a little daunting at first, even to me at times, but if you did your homework with your e-scouting, trust yourself and follow through with your plan. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing the work, but I promise if you stick with it good things will happen!
The area I headed into for day two excited me. It was a large main ridge with two thick bedding points with an old overgrown logging road leading right to a small pocket of whiteoaks. I didn’t even know this was a thing until last year, but Onx has a layer that shows “acorn producing oaks”. I found this layer to be a deadly tool for the areas I hunt! I accessed the main area with the wind in my face and made the steep climb up the ridge to a spot where several transition lines of cover met on the leeward side of the main ridge. Multiple scrapes and rubs confirmed I had indeed picked the right spot!
An hour before dark a small buck came out of bedding and walked right past me. Nearly twenty minutes later I spotted a big body moving through the brush on the overgrown logging road 70 yards in front of me. I pulled up my rifle just as his head cleared the brush. I saw all I needed to see. He had a nice tall rack with good mass! Instinct took over and the crack of the rifle broke the silence on the ridge top. The only shot fired in that area that day.
So with a little bit of effort and some thought put into two different areas, I passed a broken up ten pointer, and wrapped my non-resident PA tag on a great public land eight pointer in two days of hunting in one of the most pressured whitetail states. And get this, I never saw a single person the whole time. Not one!
These tactics can work in any state, bow or gun, at any time of year. So get out there, explore some new country and come out heavy with a public land big woods buck!