hunter not seeing deer when hunting public land

Why You’re Not Seeing Deer When Hunting Public Land

If you’re not seeing deer when hunting public land, don’t be discouraged.

We’ve all been there. 

Waking up to fumble through the dark and not see a single deer is frustrating.

So if you’re wondering why you’re not seeing deer when hunting public land, here’s a few tips: 

In most cases, the hunting pressure is too high, deer can see or smell you, or there are little deer in the area. You could also be too loud on your walk in which alarms deer of your presence. Lastly, you may be sitting in bad spots — not where the deer actually are.

There could be other reasons you’re not seeing deer when hunting public land but these are the most common.

Now that you have a general idea, let’s talk specifics and give you a plan of action if you’re making any mistakes!

Deer Can See Your Access Path

Deer are so much smarter than we give them credit for. 

For example, mature bucks bed in some really overlooked places right under your nose just so they can monitor hunters entering the woods.

One overlooked area I hear hunters talk about is a thicket or hill overlooking popular parking areas.

map example of deer bedding overlooking parking
OnX Hunt map example of deer bedding overlooking parking.

If that parking lot leads to a trail, A LOT of hunters will be parking there.

That’s probably why the deer have keyed in on it.

Watching this spot will let them see 95% of the hunters trying to kill them.

They’re patterning us just like we try to pattern them — they’re just a whole lot better at it.

So if you’re not seeing deer when hunting public land, ask yourself this: “Am I hunting an area where a deer can see me get out of my car?”

If this is the case, you might want to switch up your access path, especially if you’re not seeing deer.

Loud Hunters Don't See Deer on Public Land

Another hunting rule that’s easy to forget is quiet down when walking to your stand.

Or at least try to sound natural. Try to mimic the cadence of an animal you hear in the woods.

Don’t walk at a consistent pace and carelessly break every twig you see.

Most animals take a few normal steps and then stop. Then they repeat that cycle for however long.

So just copy what they do.

I like to take a few steps and then scratch the leaves.

This mimics a turkey or a squirrel rustling around.

Sometimes I bring my mouth call and let out a few yelps as I walk.

Definitely don’t drive your car right up to the field like this hunter. 

At 3:17 PM the deer looks alerted as if it hears something.

deer in field moments before a hunter arrives

And shortly after, the doe is gone and a hunter is parked right by the field.

hunter-parking-by-field

It’s pretty obvious this hunter doesn’t like to walk a lot.

And I understand that as he looks like an older gentleman.

But you can’t take short cuts if you want to see deer on public land.

This is a great example of that.

Bad Stand Location

Like with everything else — there’s a good, bad, and an ugly.

And that’s certainly the case with stand locations.

A LOT of hunters choose stand locations that they want to be in.

Not locations where the deer want to be.

You won’t see many deer in extremely open areas with no browse.

A good starting area could be a food source with thick cover nearby.

Deer love to skirt the edges of thick cover as they look for food.

ladder stand
Ladder stand sticking out like a store thumb. This setup would be bad for bowhunting but is probably okay for rifle hunting.

Also, make sure your tree stand isn’t sticking out like a sore thumb so you don’t get skylined.

Instead, you should choose a stand location that at least overlooks an area with thick cover nearby.

Make sure to blend your tree stand in with some branches so you don’t get busted when you move to shoot or draw back.

saddle-hunter-concealed-by-branches
Saddle hunter using white oak branches to conceal his outline so deer don't see him.

Deer can Smell You

Deer don’t take kindly to a whiff of human scent.

They get a whiff and they’re stomping, blowing, and telling all their friends that danger is nearby.

So how can you prevent this?

Poor Scent Control

A lot of hunters that don’t see many deer on public land have really poor scent control.

And I get it.

Not everyone has time to shower with scent free soap, wash your clothes in scent free detergent, and store them in a plastic tote.

It’s just a lot of work.

I tell myself a deer’s sense of smell is so good already that it won’t make a difference.

Honestly, I don’t think there is any research going against that. But why even take a chance?

If you’re a bowhunter, a deer is GOING to be walking somewhere near your ground scent unless you’re super lucky.

The few extra seconds you may gain by making the deer second guess its nose could be critical. And scent control will help this.

So if you’re not seeing many deer on public land practice better scent control.

It’ll pay off.

Wind Direction & Thermals

So you’ve found a great spot. Lots of daytime activity, big buck tracks, nearby bedding, you name it.

And you decide to hunt but don’t see a single a single deer your whole hunt.

You do this several days and it’s the same song and dance.

If this is ever you, you may not be seeing deer because they smell you due to the wind or thermals that are blowing into their bedding area.

deer smelling hunter's scent due to thermals
Example of how I've gotten busted in the evening hunting a green field when the thermals dropped into a popular bedding area.

This was a big lesson for me early on. I tried to force a spot to be good and got busted a lot because of it.

But I didn’t consider whether the wind or thermals was alerting the deer of my presence.

Deer can Sense Hunting Pressure

If you’ve ever lived with a roommate, you know how easy it was to tell when they had been in your space.

Deer are the same way when humans walk around the woods — except TIMES A THOUSAND.

Deer don’t need visual cues to know hunters have been in the woods.

Human ground scent lingers for hours up to a day or so.

After deer survive their first hunting season, they learn quickly when hunting season starts and ends.

Early morning gravel popping, increased human scent nearby, and more trash in the woods — deer know what’s up.

They’re so keyed in on these things that they shift their patterns right around the start of hunting season, especially in heavily pressured areas.

You can see this below thanks to a GPS collar study done by Penn State University.

So don’t get discouraged if you’re not seeing deer after getting consistent summer trail camera pics.

Deer just slowly stop exposing themselves to vulnerable situations right as the season begins.

But they’re not gone for good once you’ve stopped seeing them on camera.

It’s just up to you to find them again.

Deer Aren't Moving

Some days deer just aren’t moving where you can kill them much.

Deer don’t move a ton on warm days.

It also could be too windy or cold for deer to feel safe leaving the comfort of their beds.

female whitetail deer sitting in snow
Whitetail doe not moving and bedded down on a cold, windy, day.

Remember deer are most active early morning and late evening.

So if you’re not seeing deer it doesn’t always mean you’re doing something wrong.

They may just be bedded down during the day waiting for the conditions to get better before they go exploring.

There are No Deer to See

Maybe the public land you’re hunting just doesn’t hold many deer.

This is often the case for super hilly or mountainous areas.

Flat terrain is easier to navigate without expending a lot of calories so it’s easier on deer.

The soil is better on flat land and sunlight can be more easily distributed along the ground promoting even growth.

This is great news for flat land hunters who get a kick out of just seeing deer — even if they’re not all shooters.

But I feel for the mountain hunters. Y’all can go days without seeing a single deer when hunting.

And that’s perfectly fine because I guarantee you there’s a good one out there if you’re patient enough.

For us in Georgia, it’s easy to get a gauge on the deer numbers in your area.

Georgia DNR has an interactive deer harvest map for every county in the state.

Georgia deer harvest map

Similar tools are available for other states if you do a quick google search or look on you DNR website.

What to do if You're not Seeing Deer on Public Land?

Not seeing deer is definitely frustrating.

Investing in hunting gear and taking time away from our loved ones to not see anything can be pretty annoying.

Let’s take a look at a few options if you’re falling up short.

Scout

If you want to consistently see deer on public land you have to scout.

This is bad news for people who think it’s an easy road to find deer on public land.

I start by choosing a square mile to focus on. That way I can really understand the big picture as far as how deer use a specific area.

It’s hard to gather data when you’re bouncing around from spot to spot.

I choose areas that have thick cover, water, and food sources like these planted pines.

satellite view of pine thicket with stream running through it

The thing I like about these pines is they’re young and haven’t formed a closed canopy yet.

This lets the light hit the ground and create new growth which will serve as cover and browse for deer.

Also, the stream in the middle means a deer never has to leave these planted pines in order to survive.

I also mark off the bad areas with no thick cover or food nearby.

That way I don’t waste time scouting them because I know deer don’t spend much time away from thick cover or food during the day.

Put Out Trail Cams

Once you’ve got a few areas picked out, it’s wise to figure out what type of deer are in the area. Especially if you’re only after big bucks.

Start by placing trail cameras in areas that deer frequent like the ones listed below:

  • Pinch points
  • Creek crossings
  • Saddles
  • Terrain/Habitat Edges
  • Benches
  • Thermal Hubs

Make sure you place the camera so the picture covers a lot of area otherwise you’ll miss a lot of deer or get bad pictures.

buck walking on trail camera picture
This wide shot shows a buck leaving a creek bottom to cross a road into a pine thicket.

If the camera isn’t a cellular camera, use a climbing stick to place it 10 feet up a tree and out of view.

You can prop the top of the camera up with a stick so it faces down towards the ground where deer are using.

trail camera angled down with stick

I’ve had God knows how many trail cameras and SD cards stolen from not abiding by this rule.

Obviously, the trail camera above isn’t that high up but it’s a cell cam so thieves are a lot more cautious.

So don’t be like me and waste your time and money only to not know what deer are in the area.

Talk to Other Hunters

People love to talk about themselves and what they’re done. Hunters especially.

They love to act like the know what they’re talking about and will burn their spot if you question them.

But we’re not trying to get you to steal anyone’s spot. All you really want to know is if your area holds the type of deer you’re after.

So just get a hunter talking and that info isn’t hard to find.

Something non threatening like “Have you had any luck in this area?” could get the ball rolling.

You can find hunters at any hunting store or while out scouting. Bow and rifle techs are good candidates as well as the DNR and wildlife biologists for your area.

Hunt a New Area

If all else fails, you may just have to hunt a new area.

Whether that means moving to a different part of the tract you’re hunting or moving to a new tract completely, a change may be needed.

If you’re doing all of the right things and still aren’t seeing deer on public land then switch it up.

It can’t be any worse than the first area you hunted.

Why You're Not Seeing Deer Conclusion

If you’re not seeing deer when hunting public land, you probably need to address some of the following things:

Reasons you're not seeing deer on public land chart

But there are quite a few things you can do to improve your situation and see more deer.

The most important deer hunting tip is to ensure you’re in a good area with deer numbers that you’re happy with.

Otherwise, you’ll mostly be wasting your time and won’t end up seeing many deer when hunting public land.

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