We’ve all been there. You scout a sweet secluded piece of public land all summer long and start seeing some great buck activity. As hunting season rolls around, you wake up at 4 am to get out to your spot and set your treestand. As you pull into the parking area you notice, to your horror, that there are 5 other trucks parked there. The fact is that the best and worst part of public land is the fact that it is open to everyone. Deer hunters, birdwatchers, small game hunters, boaters, campers, skiers, hikers, and bikers. You will encounter all of these different groups of people at some point if you hunt public land enough.
This Land Is My Land, This Land Is Your Land
The United States has over 400 million acres of public land. A large portion of this is open to hunters and anglers. When it comes to the outdoors, the access to public wildlife spaces is the natural expression of our democracy. In many other nations around the world, green spaces are owned by the few and cannot be used for hunting and fishing unless you are one of the privileged. The public ownership of vast tracts of land allows everyone to enjoy outdoor pastimes and the beauty of these places.
Don’t Act Entitled
The thing to keep in mind is that everyone has an equal right to be there when it comes to public grounds. Just because you put in a ton of work and quietly snuck in to hunt deer does not mean that a squirrel hunter is not allowed to hunt that same area. There is nothing worse than running into that person who tells you that a particular area in a state recreation area is their spot and you can’t hunt there. Don’t be that person. If you come across someone like that in the woods, the best thing to do is to move on somewhere else or involve a conservation officer if their poor manners become harassment. It’s not worth an altercation over it.
Live And Let Live
The best strategy I’ve found for hunting public ground is to employ the golden rule. Treat other hunters and public land users as you would want to be treated. If you see several cars at a trailhead, try the next access point to see if it’s less crowded. When you pull up to park and someone else pulls in, be polite and try to make a plan of how to hunt the area without being on top of each other. You don’t have to tell them where your honey hole is, but a simple, “I’m headed east a few hundred yards. Which way are you planning to hunt?” can go a long way toward avoiding conflict. If you’re out walking to a spot to set up and you come upon another hunter keep moving. Don’t walk right under their stand. Walk around them at a wide berth and set up somewhere several hundred yards away if possible. If you come across an unoccupied tree stand, don’t hunt in it. Respect other’s property. On the flip side, if someone else is getting too close to your stand and messing up your hunt you can try waving so they see you or politely letting them know your plans. Ultimately though, you may have to move spots to hunt interrupted.
Be Mobile, Go Deep, And Have A Backup Plan
While the number of other people using public land can make hunting it challenging, for many that challenge is part of the appeal. It’s one thing to kill a mature buck on a perfectly managed private farm, but quite another to do so on a spot open to everyone. Success will not come easy when hunting public land, especially in areas with higher human population density. There are some strategies you can use to increase your chances.
- Use a mobile “run-and-gun” style setup. This allows you to quickly switch locations if an area gets too crowded.
- Go where others don’t. Get off the main trails and be prepared to hike through the thick and nasty stuff to find a spot where other hunters don’t typically go.
- Cross barriers and obstacles. Most people won’t cross a deep stream or river with no bridge while hunting. Employing waders or a boat can get you to some great spots.
- Always have several different spots in mind that you have studied using maps and physical scouting when possible.
Enjoy Our Public Lands
Hunting public areas is our right as Americans. The more people who get out and use these lands, the easier it is to make sure they stay public. While they can present some unique challenges not found on private land, employing some strategies can ensure that you find opportunities to locate game. Be courteous, communicate when necessary to avoid confrontation, and be a good steward of the land. Finally, consider supporting groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) so that our great public lands can continue to be enjoyed by future generations as well.