Public-Land Deer Hunting

The writer talked to four deer hunters to ask them what made them so successful hunting public deer.

Nathan Unger | September 26, 2019

Public-land hunting seems to have made a resurgence in the last couple of years. Whether that’s due to the onslaught of social media or the increased lack of private land or all of the above, it’s unclear. What is clear is that based on state agency numbers, hunting license sales are decreasing. That’s not good. Thus, we wanted to highlight our public lands and the benefits our state and national lands provide. We interviewed four experienced public-land hunters and asked their advice on targeting deer, specifically mature bucks. Together these guys have more than 60 years of combined public-land hunting experience. 

For Georgia hunters, you only need a resident hunting license, big game license and a harvest record to hunt Georgia WMAs and the Oconee and Chattahoochee national forests. Check the hunting regulations when hunting other state and federal hunting lands. Also check that regulations booklet very closely for open hunting dates. They vary widely, and some WMAs are quota-only hunting. 

First we interviewed hunter Jeff Goins, who has 25-plus years of experience hunting Georgia public land. Many people might be familiar with Jeff because of the buck he harvested on Oconee National Forest. What led Jeff to harvest such a world-class buck was his experience and woodsmanship. I asked Jeff why he chose the specific spot where he harvested the giant, and he told me the terrain funnels deer right to his position when he hunts. However, he mentioned he doesn’t hunt that spot all year, just when the conditions are right. When the wind is right, and the rut is wide open, he dives in and strikes. 

Additionally, I asked him what else he focuses on throughout the year, since he doesn’t hunt this spot solely. The No. 1 thing Jeff told me is that he focuses on food. I’ll break down some other tips from Jeff later in the article. 

Secondly, I talked with long-time public-land hunter Chip (CJ) Johnson. CJ also has a lifetime of experience hunting public land. When I talked to CJ, I could immediately tell he was the real deal. He displayed wisdom hunting public land and also exhibited great respect for the animals. One thing he mentioned specifically that was a little different was that he focuses consistently on cutovers on rainy days. 

CJ killed a 13-point monarch on the Oconee National Forest on Nov. 5, 2013. After setting up more than a mile off the nearest vehicle access, CJ settled in. After a few hours, he witnessed a doe come over a rise, and then a large public-land buck crested the hill. The buck stayed behind a tree for several minutes before CJ pulled the trigger. The buck dropped at 70 yards once CJ shot with his .280 rifle.

The buck grossed 174 5/8 inches and netted 159 inches. Ironically enough, according to CJ, about one minute after he shot, he saw another buck come over the hill. This buck, according to CJ, would have scored the same if not more than the buck he had just shot. CJ told me he had another tag in his pocket that morning but decided he would kill him another morning. However, CJ never laid eyes on that deer again. CJ said he has no regrets for passing up the second deer. 

“It’s part of the game,” he said. 

CJ Johnson’s Oconee National Forest buck grossed 174 5/8 inches. CJ looks for areas of mushrooms in November and later into the season once the acorns play out.

CJ now mentors his grandson, who has killed eight deer on public land over the past three years. 

I also spoke with Parker McDonald, who killed a number of deer on public land in 2018. Parker runs a very mobile setup while public-land hunting. He hunts with a “tree saddle” rather than a traditional tree stand. During our conversation, he mentioned that a saddle allows him to get into trees quicker, as well as get to locations quicker that he’s already identified on a map. A lightweight saddle and sticks setup makes public-land hunting more efficient. He’s able to walk farther in the woods more efficiently, if he so chooses to get away from hunting pressure.

Finally, another successful public-land hunter I spoke with is Kenny Owensby. Kenny hunts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer land surrounding West Point Lake. I’ll dive more into his tactics later in the article.

What I learned from these interviews was that there are a lot of similarities, but that each experienced hunter has their own unique ways of hunting public-land deer. 


Jeff: “You have to be able to “hunt the deer and the hunters,” said Jeff.

Jeff hunts where the hunters aren’t because hunting pressure is key to scouting and finding deer on public land. That doesn’t always mean that Jeff is a mile from the road. In fact, when Jeff shot his 174 5/8-inch buck, he was less than 100 yards from the nearest access. The place where he set up was a funnel where Jeff and his son have seen success for numerous years. The funnel connects pine thicket bedding areas that are so thick they are nearly impossible to access. 

For the most part, Jeff stays out of the woods except when hunting in order to minimize his pressure. 

Parker: In my interview with Parker, he scouts bedding areas before and during the season. Specifically, Parker identifies bedding areas that are close to white and red oak trees. He mentions that even though there might not be a lot of deer sign early in the season or during the summer, there will be when the acorns begin to fall, and he already has trees scouted to climb and hunt. 

CJ: The No. 1 thing that makes CJ successful is scouting. Whether it’s in the off season or while he’s hunting, he said he looks for rubs. In fact, CJ said he found rubs as big around as his thighs while turkey hunting. He made a note of those and revisited the area during deer season. Any time he is in the woods, he is making a note to look for big rubs. 

CJ also scouts for doe bedding areas, knowing the bucks will be in those areas when the rut starts. 

Kenny: Before the season starts, Kenny scouts by boat. He’ll take his boat and put his boots on the ground in search of deer trails coming from bedding areas to food sources. Kenny looks for trees on those trails where he can set up. Kenny utilizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map provided when he receives his permit. This helps identify hunting spots before he goes in on foot. 


Jeff: He doesn’t focus as much on food during the rut as he does terrain and doe bedding areas. 

Parker: As mentioned, Parker keys on white oak and red oak trees that are specifically located near or in bedding areas. Beds are the priority, and food is the obvious added bonus. 

CJ: White oaks, water oaks, fruit trees and honeysuckle are CJ’s favorite food during the first part of gun season. If he can locate mushrooms, they are a great source in November and other late-season months after the acorns are consumed or begin to rot. 

Kenny: When talking to Kenny about the food he looks for when scouting, he told me that white oaks are king early on. For the remainder of the season, he focuses on water oaks because they fall longer into gun season. Food plots come into play in the last part of the season. 


Jeff: A turkey hunter at heart, Jeff has to try and call a deer, often attempting to do so every 20 minutes. During the early season, he’ll call with a fawn bleat, and during the rut, he will use an estrous doe bleat. Additionally, he also rattles and grunts during the rut. 

Parker: On public land, calling works for some people and doesn’t for others. It all depends on hunting pressure and how often one calls. Parker only grunts during the rut. He doesn’t do any other forms of calling. When I asked him if he uses his grunt tube any other times of the year, he answered, “Nope I don’t even take it unless it’s the rut.” 

When Jeff Goins killed his 174 5/8-inch buck from the Oconee National Forest, he brought it by the GON office. His story can be read at

CJ: The only calling CJ does is “very light and very subtle.” Sometimes he will tickle rattling antlers together mixed with minimal grunting. With numbers of hunters traversing these public-land tracts each year, deer hear all types of calling and often will differentiate between hunters and live deer. 

Kenny: Contrary to Parker and CJ, Kenny said he grunts throughout the whole season as often as every five minutes. During November, he will rattle antlers every 15 minutes. In fact, one of the bucks that Kenny harvested last year was grunted into 25 yards while he hunted over one of the corps food plots.  


Jeff: In general, Jeff prefers to hunt where two or more types of terrain intersect. He uses Google Maps to see where a cutover meets either planted pines or hardwoods. Additionally, he will also hunt funnels near these intersections, just as he did when he killed his Oconee National Forest buck.

Parker: When talking with Parker, I noticed that he relies heavily on thermals and wind current. In fact, he explains how he harvested one of his bucks last season while he was set up on the leeward side of a hill with the wind creating somewhat of a thermal tunnel where he expected deer to scent check the area. He set up in a tree looking up the ridge with the wind in his face before sunrise. Sure enough, his hunch was correct, and that morning he killed a buck on his first sit. 

CJ: While focusing on funnels, pinch-points and clearcuts, CJ specifically hunts cutovers 15 feet high in rainy weather. He oftentimes observes deer coming to and from these cutovers. 

Kenny: The corps land he hunts surrounds West Point Lake, and in places it is hilly. For the most part, the terrain is flat with pine thickets and hardwood flats that surround the lake. Kenny highlighted that the terrain isn’t bad, but that he always makes sure the wind is in his face no matter what. 


Jeff: After some time, Jeff discovered that hunting this one particular spot where he harvested his mature public-land buck is more effective when he only hunts it during the rut. He mentioned that he has hunted it throughout the season in previous years, but that minimizing the pressure before the rut helps tremendously. 

Jeff mentions that he also has four or five back-up spots in case he wants to hunt a specific wind or in case other hunters are already at his desired access point.

Parker: When it’s an option, Parker uses his kayak to access chunks of land. This way he’s able to access portions of land tracts that the average hunter will not simply because he’s going in via a lake or river. Not only is there less foot traffic, but oftentimes this allows the wind to be more in his favor than if he were to access a spot by foot. 

CJ: While CJ either hunts with the wind in his face or in a crosswind, he will never hunt a crosswind if it’s blowing into thick cover. He said wind direction is everything, and his decision making is based entirely on the wind no matter where he hunts. 

Kenny: Water access seems to be a game changer that makes him successful. Simply put, it’s faster, and he avoids hunting pressure when accessing spots from the lake. 


There’s a lot to be gleaned from these four hunters. If I had to break down their most important nuggets of advice, it would be to scout before, during and after the season when at all possible. Secondly, play the wind. It’s hard to beat a mature buck’s nose, and any hunter needs every advantage possible. Atop it all, it’s hard to substitute any tactic for boots on the ground, so get out in the woods and enjoy our public lands. 

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