Though I was anticipating it, I jumped when my name was called. It was 4:30 a.m. at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant (RAAP), and the drawing meant I'd been chosen to experience one of hunting's Holy Grails. For a deer hunter with limited access to quality private land, the chance to hunt trophy white-tailed deer on one of the many military installations in the United States that allow hunting was a dream come true.
The pool of huntable private lands is drained a little each time a house is erected or a "No Hunting" sign is hung. Rather than bemoan the inevitable, use that energy to retrain your brain to identify the best public properties â€“ including federal lands managed by the U.S. military.
Beyond offering large swaths of land â€“ some spanning more than 100,000 acres â€“ military bases are often teeming with wildlife. And not just any wildlife. Due to the extremely limited hunting, deer and other animals on federal military lands rank among the top trophies out there. Need proof? How about Ken Burnette's 203 2/8" non-typical whitetail bow kill on Fort Riley (Kansas) or Robert Luke scoring on a 188 4/8" typical buck on the same base.
What You Need to Know
A simple Internet search will identify nearby military installations in (or near) your state. From there, do your research on the comprehensive website isportsman.net. The easy-to-use site lists bases that allow hunting and details all the information you need to know about hunting opportunities on each, including sign-up requirements, available species, weapons permitted, and seasons, among other things.
Know up front that hunting regulations on military installations begin with those of the state in which it resides. Due to the nature of the military's business, however, demands are understandably far more stringent, and it's always mission first. This can translate to unexpected closures of certain areas where training is slated to take place or simply changing a unit from firearms to archery tackle. Fortunately, the military â€“ and the Army, in particular â€“ does a good job of posting updates to keep hunters abreast of changes that will affect them. Hunters must be proactive, as well as have contingency plans should their first choice falter.
While weapon qualification isn't generally required for firearms hunting, it is for archery. Among the requirements to partake in the RAAP hunt was placing two of three arrows/bolts in the kill zone of a deer target out to 30 yards from an elevated stand. Fail the accuracy test and your Holy Grail hunt is dashed. The installation also permits archers to have only four broadhead-equipped arrows/bolts on their person, and shotgun hunters are allowed four factory-produced slugs â€“ no handloads. I would recommend taking the International Bowhunter Education Program (IBEP) course. The tradeoff to the additional steps required to archery hunt military bases is increased access.
Rightfully so, expect to undergo an extensive background check. For RAAP I needed a Criminal History Record Name Search (SP-167) completed by the Virginia State Police, while Fort Riley mandates a National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Level III check. Bases differ. It's recommended that you begin this process sooner than later as it can take some time to complete. In Virginia, a three- to four-week processing time is typical.
What Species Can You Pursue?
Hunting styles permitted and the species that can be pursued vary by base. While only deer and turkey (with archery tackle) can be taken at RAAP, at Fort Hunter Liggett, the menu is quite diverse. Deer, pig, elk, coyote, bobcat and even jack-rabbit are fair game there. Marine Corps Base Quantico permits hunting for deer, turkey, and waterfowl. Fort Campbell (Kentucky) takes first place for uniqueness: It offers deer, turkey, raccoon, coyote, quail, and many other species â€“ even gigging bullfrogs.
With everything involved, you might be debating the value of hunting military installations. Beyond having any hunting property, said lands are available to hunt at little cost (e.g., licenses, etc.) and without having to pay outfitters â€“ especially if you want to hunt another state. Moreover, with caps on numbers of hunters allowed at a given time, overcrowding isn't an issue, and the hunting can be phenomenal. Truly, it is worth the effort.
The Holy Grail Hunt
With a wide grin, I lined up with fellow hunt participants for phase two of the check-in process: gear examination and a briefing. Defying the drawing odds, this was the second such meeting I'd attended in as many years. The previous year I'd been selected to participate in the mandatory antlerless hunt. Neither the nippy temperatures nor the dew-coated benches could dampen my spirits, which soared with each story shared before the presentation.
"Last time that I was here for a buck hunt, I saw 19 bucks," recounted one veteran RAAP hunter. Another's recollection more than doubled that count.
Following a quick bag search, we were ushered into another room to outline the rules of the hunt. Beyond the regulations printed on the back of the stand card, the takeaway was antler restrictions. In an effort to maintain herd quality and produce mature bucks, the minimum antler spread was set at 15.5 inches. In lieu of said spread, mature bucks with atypical long main beams were also deemed legal.
Armed with the knowledge of our intended targets, the six of us were inserted one at time. In route to my stand, we passed by a large food plot and spotted more than a dozen bucks â€“ including one bedded in the road â€“ and a seemingly equal number of does. The driver pointed to a cluster of cedars partially illuminated by the periphery of the headlights.
"Your stand is behind those cedars," he said. "When the deer leave the food plot, they'll filter past your stand. Sit still and be quiet."
Six sets of eyes were illuminated by my headlamp, including several deer that were bedded within 10 yards of the stand. As quietly as possible, I prepared for daylight, all while deer moved cautiously and curiously around me. Finally situated, it was minutes from legal shooting light when the distinct sound of a deer pawing the ground caught my attention. My binoculars revealed the unmistaken silhouette of a mature buck with tall, ghost white antlers standing like a statue in the trail that I had just walked in on.
Initially, my rangefinder was unable to pick up the heavy eight-point, though I guessed the distance at just 30 yards. Scanning the treetops beside him confirmed this, posting a range of 29 yards after several attempts. By then, though, the buck had followed a doe down the trail â€“ a heartbreaker for sure. In the hours following, I grunted in several smaller bucks and even switched stands later in the day as the wind changed. Come to find out, the bucks I'd seen earlier, and many others, had passed another hunter about a quarter-mile away. He counted 16 bucks, three of which were shooters. At 52 yards, though, they were outside the allowed 40-yard shot distance.
Heading back to the parking lot at the end of the day, we saw one of the base's largest deer, a buck with a spread that would likely measure more than 20 inches wide. He was bedded right beside a drab government building and didn't so much as flinch as we slowly drove by.