I Left Private Land Behind for the Public Land Challenge

When I told my close friends we were selling the farm and moving back to town to be closer to family and help with the family business, there were many questions. One of the most often asked was, “Where are you going to hunt?” I’d given that a great deal of thought and decided on public land. I made that decision for many reasons. I had been hunting western big game – elk, black bear and pronghorn antelope – on public land for over a decade. Now, I was going to hunt the public fields, hills and hollers of my home, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, for whitetails and wild turkeys.

Disappointment in this buck (which was not the buck he was after) led Michael to rethink his priorities and ultimately take a break from the “new whitetail hunting culture.” The experience that followed led him to a new perspective on deer hunting.

I wanted to get back to my roots. I wanted to get away from the new whitetail hunting culture where we build our hunting areas from the ground up. We cut timber. We landscape. We plant food plots. We hang multiple stands to hunt the best spots in any wind condition. We use minerals and bait to attract deer and inventory them on camera. We even put up blinds so well-built we don’t even have to sit out in the elements any more. I have no problem with our new whitetail culture. I have no problem with using every possible legal advantage to help win, in any endeavor. I understand it. I get it. I have done it. Yet, I wanted to get away from it. I wanted to see if I could still get it done with just the woodsmanship I learned as a boy.

Something else happened that galvanized my decision. Four years ago, I had pictures of a giant whitetail buck on camera on my farm. I spent the entire season hunting him. I saw him once and only once in person. During that encounter, he was in bow range, but it didn’t work out. The season went on and I continued to get pictures of him, but I never saw him again in person. Late in the season after the rut, I stopped getting pictures of him. Eventually, rather than eat my buck tag, I made a clean archery kill on a good buck, but I was not happy. In fact, I was sad. It bothered me all winter. Then one day I realized what was bothering me. I was dishonoring the buck I’d killed. Hunters should always honor their quarry and be thankful for their harvest. I was not thankful. I was disappointed. Why? Because the buck I killed was not the giant I had on camera. I decided right then and there to take my cameras down. In the future, I would not inventory my bucks. I would kill the first buck that made me happy, and I would honor him. I would cherish the hunt. I would never again let greed ruin a hunt.

Early the next spring, I scouted public land for deer and turkey with my good friend Ricky. On an isolated ridge, far away from the public parking lot on a local Wildlife Management Area (WMA), we found them. The ridge was almost a mile long, with spurs and draws branching off it like the arms of a great oak. It was perfect. We had our best turkey season in years on that ridge. Not only did Ricky and I both tag out on two big tom turkeys each, we took his father-in-law who harvested his first bird in almost a decade.

I decided right then and there to take my cameras down. In the future, I would not inventory my bucks. I would kill the first buck that made me happy, and I would honor him. I would cherish the hunt. I would never again let greed ruin a hunt.

So, it was with great anticipation that I stopped my little Toyota pickup in the gravel parking lot of that same WMA later that year. It was late October. I was ready. I’d done my homework and double checked everything. My load going in was heavy. I had all my hunting gear, my bow, my normal backpack and a climbing stand all strapped to an Alaskan-style pack frame. I shouldered my load and headed into the forest.

I intended to hunt the same oak ridge we took our turkeys on earlier in the year. The hike would take more than an hour. My plan was simple: hike to the ridge, do some very localized scouting for buck sign, find a tree, gauge the wind, and climb. I was a few miles from the parking lot and less than 100 yards down a steep timbered hillside when I struck gold – a fresh scrape. I thought about hunting over the scrape, but there was nothing but scrub trees, nothing to climb. I continued down the hill. I found another scrape, but once again there was no place to hang a stand. Further into the bottom I hiked. Then suddenly – one, two, three, four, oh my God – there were five deer trails that intersected at the head of a dry creek bed in the thickly wooded bottom. I was not yet to my ridge, but I could not pass up all this deer sign.

I started to rattle every time the wind died down enough that I thought the deer could hear me. Randomly, I also used an estrous bleat, followed by a tending buck grunt. Nothing happened until 5:15 p.m., when for some reason I looked behind me. To my surprise, a mature buck was behind me, 74 yards uphill. Since I climbed a tree in the bottom, he was almost at eye level with me. I thought he busted me, so I sat very still. Then I realized he was scanning downhill into the bottom. He wanted to see the buck and doe he heard before he committed. Since he could not see them, he turned and slowly walked away. I continued my rattling and calling whenever the wind calmed down. Soon, another buck came walking right up the dry creek bed to me, but he was too young. Then, just before dark, something trotted into the thick cedars 50 yards straight in front of me. Even if it was a buck and stepped out, I could not see well enough to make an ethical shot. The first day was in the books. It was time to climb down and head home.

I had very high hopes as I hiked back into my public land spot. The contradiction of having “my own spot” on public land wasn’t lost on me. I thought about just how good it was and how much I’d seen on the first day. I hoped that mature buck would show up again, this time in bow range. There were no other trucks in the parking lot when I started the hike, yet I was still worried I’d find someone else in my tree. When I arrived at my tree, I was shocked. Not because someone was in my tree, but because there was a brand-new scrape less than 10 yards from it.

I followed the same pattern as the day before. Whenever the wind died down, I rattled, paused a minute, made an estrus bleat and then tending buck grunts. About 4:30 p.m. the thicket to my right exploded with movement and grunting. I could see legs and random ears through the thick brush. When the ruckus stopped, I made an estrus bleat and then a single buck grunt. A young, handsome 9-point buck came to the edge of the thicket 45 yards away. He stood there alert and scanning but would not move into the open. Eventually, he disappeared back into the thicket.

I was having so much fun!

Just about the time I calmed down, I heard what sounded like woodpeckers off in the distance. I could not tell what it was. I sat perfectly still and listened intently. The sound was in the direction of a pond at the end of the dry creek bed that began under my stand. I picked up my binoculars and carefully glassed the area. I saw a leg, then a rump, then antlers locked. It was a buck fight! I watched intently through my binoculars for almost 10 minutes until the bigger buck finally won, and the younger buck ran off like he’d been scalded with boiling water.

I hit my calling sequence again but nothing happened. The forest was very still for what seemed an eternity. Then, magically, a buck appeared not 50 yards away. I thought he was a shooter, maybe. I was not sure. He continued up the dry creek bed right toward me. He looked at first like an 8-pointer. I started field-judging him and thinking about taking him. His rack extended outside his ears. His belly was mostly flat but tucked up at the end. His neck was swollen. His tarsal glands were a deep black. He was surely at least 3½ years old. I was reaching for my camera and putting my bow down when he turned his head. He was not an 8-pointer but a very symmetrical 10-pointer. I put the camera away and grabbed my bow. I was still not sure I would shoot him. As he came closer, he stopped to rake a tree, and then he rub-urinated in a scrape. I reminded myself I was hunting public land. I reminded myself how I felt the year before. I decided I would be happy with this buck and that if he gave me a shot, I would take him.

As he came closer, he stopped to rake a tree, and then he rub-urinated in a scrape. I reminded myself I was hunting public land. I reminded myself how I felt the year before. I decided I would be happy with this buck and that if he gave me a shot, I would take him.

He was only 12 yards away when I sent an arrow through his chest. He ran uphill and angled toward the pond before I heard him fall. He was dead in seconds. I had just taken my first public land whitetail buck. Woodsmanship, calling, knowledge of deer behavior, aging deer on the hoof, playing the wind, reading deer sign, reading terrain, being willing to hike deep, knowing when to draw and making a good shot were all required in some measure, large or small, to harvest this buck. I was so proud. When I stopped shaking, I thanked God and climbed down.

I followed the blood trail even though I knew where he fell. It was an easy track. When I reached him, I took a knee and thanked God once more. I took a few quick daylight photos, cracked a ChemLight and hung it in a branch above the buck, and moved out quickly. It was dark when I arrived back at my truck. I texted my wife Aline and my good friend Ricky. I ate some snacks and drank water. I secured my “kill kit” to my now empty pack frame. I was just about to head back in when to my surprise Ricky and his son Gibson, my godson, arrived. They live close by and wanted to go with me to see the buck before I broke him down. I felt so blessed to have the company to share the evening.

Shortly into the hike, we came across the hunter who owned the only other truck in the parking lot. He had been hunting here for a week and had not seen a single deer. I told him I had a 10-pointer on the ground. He asked where I was hunting.

“A little more than an hour’s hike to the northwest,” I said.

He was surprised I went in so far and immediately offered to help drag out my buck. I thanked him for the offer but told him I would break the buck down and carry it out, western style. He smiled a wide smile, shook my hand, and we parted ways.

Ricky and I walked slowly and answered the questions of a very inquisitive and energetic Gibson. He was on his first mission to recover a deer. When we got close I said, “Gibson, can you please help me find my buck?”

“Uncle Michael, you’re silly. He is right there,” he said.

Ricky and Gibson stayed a little while, but it was a long hike and it was well past Gibson’s bedtime, so they left. About an hour later, I had the entire buck boned out and all the meat lashed to my pack frame in meat bags. After I lashed the skull to the pack frame, I shouldered the load and walked out. The hike out flew by. The load never seemed heavy. My sense of happiness and accomplishment were tremendous. As I looked at my pack frame with my buck on it lying in the bed of my truck, I thought “Mission accomplished.” I said another prayer of thanks and headed home.

It took a few weeks for the euphoria of that hunt to wear off. During that time, I witnessed my friends, still totally committed to the modern whitetail hunting culture, share their trail-camera photos and discuss strategy. I helped them brainstorm the hows and whys of deer behavior on their farms. As we discussed all the options in the modern whitetail hunting tool kit, I realized I missed it. I missed the stewardship of herd and land management. I missed the art and science of patterning the biggest bucks I had on camera. That winter, during the slow doldrums of ice and wind, I had an epiphany – I can have both!

The following summer, my wife and I bought a small farm and I dove back into the modern whitetail hunting culture. Like most folks, we could not afford enough land to have a resident deer herd all to ourselves. So, we must practice QDM in concert and cooperation with every willing neighbor within a few miles. I used all the tools available in the tool kit to develop a detailed management and stewardship plan. There’s nothing easy about building and executing such a plan. But this time, there was one part of the plan I didn’t struggle with – opportunity.

We’ve had small farms in the past. On those farms, we were always challenged to remain disciplined, because we could easily overhunt our farm and pressure the herd. We knew how that pressure could negatively affect the herd’s behavior and health. Yet, we still wanted to hunt as often as we could. Well, now that problem is solved. If the conditions are right and we haven’t met our harvest objectives on our little piece of heaven, we hunt our farm. If the conditions are marginal or we’ve met the harvest objectives on our farm, we simply hunt public land.

I realized I missed it. I missed the stewardship of herd and land management. I missed the art and science of patterning the biggest bucks I had on camera. That winter, during the slow doldrums of ice and wind, I had an epiphany – I can have both!

This process, this journey really, taught me a lot, but it reminded me of one very important thing. Deer are a public resource, held in trust and managed by the state as a renewable resource, the same as public land. So, a line from the old song – “this land is your land, this land is my land” – also applies to the deer herd. You could go so far as to say this herd is your herd, this herd is my herd. Let’s enjoy it and protect it accordingly.


Colonel (retired) Michael A. Abell is a life-long sportsman and QDMA Life Member. He spent 24 years in the U.S. Army as an Infantry Officer. He hunts and fishes all over the world but calls Kentucky home. He is married to the lovely Aline Abell who is a school principal and often kills bigger deer than her husband.