The greatest lessons in life are those learned through experience. The lessons learned afield will stay with you much longer than something read from a magazine, book, or video (but please keep reading because this Q&A is gold) as they’ll guide your steps when your mind begins to wander.
The Hunting Public is relatively new hit YouTube video journal series featuring two distinct playlists, Public Land and Private Land hunting and they exist based upon this very principle. Co-owners, Aaron Warbritton, and Zach Ferenbaugh are humble in their approach to hunting, especially on public hunting grounds. The Hunting Public crew (Aaron, Greg, Zach, Jake, and Brody) documents the ups and downs navigating throughout their seasons, which makes their video journal as informational as it is entertaining. The Hunting Public strays from the traditional tutorial approach of being informational on paper, rather leaning heavily on the unscripted reality of making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and adapting themselves aggressively to stay in the game right before the camera so the viewer learns the lessons by witnessing them as they occur.
It’s this very notion that draws me to what they’ve set out to do, which is to teach by way of example with boots on the ground, someone behind the lens, and being able to witness how others adapt to the many different circumstances we hunters face out in the field.
I decided to contact Aaron and Zach in hopes they would share some humble tips, tricks, and techniques in a Q&A interview, and boy, am I glad they did. Read on to hear how Aaron and Zach react to several questions addressing public land hunting, not just in Iowa where they are from, but anywhere public hunting land exists.
Most states offer programs to provide public hunting access to lands outside of federal BLM acreage. What types of public land are available in Iowa?
State forests make up the biggest portion of what we hunt, but we also hunt lands made available by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which is Federally owned land, lots of Iowa Habitat Access Program (IHAP) tracts, and of course there are some Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) we’ll hit on occasion, also.
The IHAP pieces are typically smaller tracts enrolled by private landowners (mostly farmers) and we tend to hit those areas early on after they come into the program, otherwise, the word gets out and pressure comes with the territory. You have to keep a careful watch online to see when those properties come into the program and then take advantage of them early on in the season.
There are a couple WMA’s in the area, so we’ll hit those, too. It’s really a mixed bag of public areas that we’ll focus on, and that’s not even getting into the stuff up in the urban zones.
Do you tend to focus on any one land access program more than the others when searching for new public ground to hunt?
We don’t really focus on any one specific public land type more than the next. It comes down to accessibility and habitat more than anything else. Some of the IHAP areas have no trees on them, making them less attractive to the majority of bowhunters, but there are deer there, you just have to change your approach.
Pressure is the big consideration for us. It varies by year, but if the hunting pressure is heavy we’ll adapt to the situation and move on until we find less pressured areas. If the land is easy to access and those access points are obvious when looking at a map, or aerial imagery, we might need to look further and prepare for less traditional tactics such as river access. Different locations offer different challenges. When we approach new land we’ll cast a wider net and work to narrow it down.
The Hunting Public crew even uses river access to hunt unpressured birds. Watch the hunt here.
When we’re traveling we’ll pick out a handful of areas that seem suitable to our style based on habitat diversity, proximity to sizeable cities, and again, accessibility. Once we’ve narrowed down a few areas we’ll begin contacting local DNR and asking for as much information as we can wrap our heads around before we go, it helps us make better decisions.
One other thing to add is how much you learn in the middle of the day between morning and evening hunts. Rather than taking a mid-day nap, get in the car and drive around to learn what else is around. We’ll even go so far as to draw lines in the sand of the gravel parking lots to see if traffic came and went since we were last there – anything to increase our intel of the core areas we’re focusing on.
Public hunting grounds come in all different shapes and sizes. Is the size of the acreage a consideration for you when narrowing down a list of prospective new grounds to check out?
It really comes down to access points and pressure. Some small spots get overlooked and if you’re the one to hunt them at the right time, they can be just as good and you don’t need to walk as far! But, accessibility is definitely our starting point. The next things we’ll key in on are habitat features – the deer need sufficient habitat for survival, and if we find a number of key habitat elements in one location it tends to increase our interest. Size of the land doesn’t really matter. Again, it’s more about access and habitat.
Now, on the topic of acreage, you’ll obviously have more options to hunt on larger parcels compared to smaller ones, but we don’t overlook the smaller chunks. A prime example, we were hunting Nebraska this past September and walking miles from the road looking for those less pressured pockets, but we ended up killing the buck just 220-yards from the road in a spot we had overlooked earlier on (hunt shown below). We refer to overlooked spots a lot, but it’s hard to define what that means because it might change from one instance to another.
In some of your episodes you’ve described certain areas as “buck nests”. Describe your ideal “buck nest”.
A “buck nest” requires significant habitat diversity. Multiple bedding locations for different wind directions, multiple browse areas that allow the deer to remain hidden while eating, and a really big thing is having multiple escape routes that the deer can disappear into thick cover where you can’t reach them.
We’re always on the hunt for the next best spot, and I don’t know that we necessarily knew the “buck nest” spots were going to be what they were until they proved themselves to be. In other words, we don’t go out and see a “buck nest”, we scout all land types with the same approach, and once in awhile, we’ll find the perfect spot that earns the title. Again, so long as the area has diverse bedding, browse, and survival habitat, it may earn the reputation as a “buck nest”.
Aaron with an old bruiser from an eventual “buck nest”.
We go into areas still-hunting from the ground with stands on our backs. If we find fresh sign, we might just set up and hunt. We like staying mobile because it allows us to continue learning as we hunt; fresh sign versus cold. Now, if you’ve been to a spot and you know it’s produced in the past, sure, you can go in the same way and hunt it the same way to see if it produces. When we go in cold, a lot of times we still-hunt with a ghillie suit on and a stand on our back. Be ready to hunt on the ground, OR in a tree. It’s all relative. We go into every hunt with the mindset of no real goal of how to set up or place to be, it allows us to relax and keep an open mind. Plus, you’re better at picking setups, rather than forcing yourself to climb a tree because you went in with that intention in mind.
Sharing your hunts on film opens the door for viewers to recognize revealing landmarks, especially on public land. Have you noticed an increase in hunting pressure on some of the public land you’ve documented great success on? If so, how do you adjust?
This goes back to adaptability – always willing to move on and be on the lookout for the next spot. Attitude is the biggest thing. We don’t bum out too bad and sulk, it’s important to stay upbeat and positive, so we move on and keep looking. Plus, it offers up the opportunity to learn more ground and find new spots.
Having a group of likeminded guys helps, too. None of us have spots we call our own on the public land we hunt, it’s a group thing with us. It’s one of the most exciting things for us, that is staying active and adaptable when we’re hunting.
Do you do anything creative when parking and accessing public lands to avoid attention, or be less noticeable?
We don’t drive nice cars or big trucks with decals on them so that may help some. Seems like the nicer the car, the more seriously people who don’t know you might consider you. The kind of cars we drive don’t attract much attention, but that’s not so much by design, so much as it is the way it is. Still the same, even if we had nice cars we wouldn’t be flashy, and that would be by design.
We definitely park in weird areas because we don’t want to give away our spots, but there are times we have to park in a less conspicuous area just because it’s the best way for us to access a piece the way we have in mind.
In the kind of instance where we hunt both sides of the road or if both sides are available for public hunting, we might park on the opposite side of the road that we’re hunting, but this can bite you in the butt, sometimes. If other hunters think someone is hunting “one side of the road”, they might avoid bumping into them and hunt the side we’re actually hunting (the reverse psychology game). So, you can see how the parking diversion can have the opposite affect we were hoping for.
We’re pretty open with the general public in parking lots because we hope other public land hunters will share information, too. We promote working together to enhance everyone’s opportunities. If you don’t communicate you might end up on top of each other, and we’ve found that in many ways being open helps us to avoid this. We haven’t had a terrible experience yet, but if we do, and this goes back to keeping a positive attitude – people are people, and we’ll dust ourselves off and move on to the next piece.
Not long ago we took a boat down a river to avoid spooking deer and because it’s an access no one ever uses, we were only hunting 30-yards off the river bank, but it still took us five hours to get in there and get situated. The other benefit of that kind of access is that if you do bump a deer paddling down the river, it’s typically a soft bump because they’re not used to seeing people accessing that way so they don’t go far.
Canoes and kayaks are a favorite tool of the crew when it comes to accessing unpressured grounds.
Non-resident hunters often face two major obstacles: (1) Unfamiliarity with new ground; (2) Hunting on a time crunch. For any non-resident visiting Iowa for the first time to hunt deer, what advice would you offer them to help make the most of their time?
The biggest thing would be to scout early. Most people take their vacation for a couple of weeks during the rut. A good idea would be to take three or four days of that vacation time to come down beforehand and scout, then come back in fall to spend the rest of your days hunting.
Scouting out-of-state properties during shed season is a great way to get a jump on the upcoming fall hunting season.
Most hunters come down to an area they had in mind to hunt and push the limit. There’s a difference between hunting hard and hunting smart. If you’re a spur-of-the-moment kind of guy, scour a map, scout from the sky and pick out potential locations. When you show up to hunt, cast your net wide and narrow it down. Sometimes that means driving around and scratching areas off the list if the pressure is intense, or if you walk in and it doesn’t show the signs you hoped it might. In that case, you should have enough spots in your pocket to move on to the next piece and spend your time in the areas that have the most promise.
Lastly, don’t nap at noon when you’re hunting on a time crunch, spend that time scouting if you’re not actively hunting. Sometimes success means you grind, so go hard and sleep when it’s over. Most importantly, be adaptable.
The Hunting Public currently has over 100 videos and podcasts on their YouTube Channel. Be sure to subscribe and also check them out on Facebook and Instagram as the crew continues to share scouting, and turkey hunting content on a weekly basis.