Public land for hunt
All states have at least some public lands that are available to hunting, though exact amounts vary wildly. Percentages are in the low single digits in Rhode Island and Kansas, while the vast majority of Nevada and Alaska is publicly owned.
Public lands come in many forms, depending on the region and state. Some of the more common land designations are state parks, state game areas, state forests, state wildlife refuges, national parks, national for-ests, national wildlife preserves, national wildlife refuges, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. Typically, but not always, the terms park, preserve, and sanctuary denote land designations that are not open to hunting. (Don’t confuse this with being unfriendly to hunting. Park and preserve lands serve a valuable role for fish and game by providing sanctuaries that help prevent overharvest; often, these areas serve as source locations that continually produce game that is harvested on neighboring lands.) The terms forest, game management area, refuge, and BLM typically denote lands that are open to hunting—but again, there are many notable exceptions.
Due to the nuanced nature of land designations, questions about hunting on public lands—both state and federal—should always be put to representatives of your state’s fish and game agency. It is the hunter’s responsibility to determine the legality of hunting on any parcel of land before he attempts to harvest game on that property! These agencies are responsible for the management of game within their state’s boundaries, and they have a vested interest in helping you decipher the landscape of where you want to hunt. Since they rely largely on hunting license sales as a funding source, they want you to get out there and have a good time as much as possible, and since they are also tasked with the enforcement of game laws, it’s in their own best interest to arm you with reliable information now rather than having to punish you later. In fact, many states actively promote awareness about public land hunting opportunities with websites devoted specifically to the subject.
But don’t let your search end with published lists of public land hunting areas. Some of my best public hunting spots are under-the-radar locations that are not listed on any compilation. Growing up, we hunted squirrels, grouse, waterfowl, and even deer on a lot of property that was owned by the township, a type of governmental body in the Northeast and Midwest that holds varying powers. We identified township properties by looking at plat maps, which show legal property boundaries of land parcels as well as ownership. In this case, the plat maps showed the parcels as individual quarter-acre lots that were owned by the township, but together these small lots formed large contiguous tracts of undevel-oped land that included some very productive marshes and hardwood forests.
Such under-the-radar public land locations might require an extra degree of research in order to ascertain legality. Answers about the permissibility of hunting might not be spelled out clearly, or even at all, so don’t take the word of the first person you ask. For instance, a township clerk might say you can’t hunt township land for the simple reason that he doesn’t want to get himself in trouble by giving you permission. If you feel that you’re not getting the full story from a government representative, ask for a thorough, legally based explanation of what activities are allowed, and not allowed, on the property in question. My paranoia about being misled by public officials comes from a firsthand experience that I had shortly after moving to Montana. I was interested in hunting BLM lands in the north-central part of the state, and I stopped in at the Lewistown field office of the federal Bureau of Land Management to inquire about maps. There I was told by an em-ployee at the counter that I needed to ask permission from the rancher who held grazing rights on any parcel of BLM land before I could hunt there. This statement was misleading and categorically false.
Once you identify lands where you can hunt, you need to narrow those down to lands where you want to hunt. This is the hard part, and doing it well mandates that you spend hour upon hour in the woods, on the phone, and in front of the computer. The first and most obvious question that needs to be addressed is what lands hold the species that you’re interested in hunting. Sure, you might have identified thousands of acres of prime grasslands and pine forest that are full of turkey, but that won’t necessarily do you much good if you’re dreaming about hunting wild hogs. The most obvious way to figure out what critters are living on a chunk of land is to put your boots on the ground and scout it out. I’ve done this many times in many places—drive or fly out to some potential hunting ground and start walking. Sometimes it’s a three-day hike with a fully loaded backpack; other times it’s a ten-minute stroll along a lakeshore within sight of my cat As much as possible, I try to time my scouting trips for optimal benefit in terms of both season and time of day. If you’re looking for a late-season whitetail location in the Upper Midwest, you can hardly rule out a location because you didn’t see any fresh deer sign on an August visit.
Map reading is an essential skill for anyone who’s serious about finding prime hunting locations.
While scouting a new location, it’s wise to bring along a notebook as well as a GPS unit, topographic maps, and satellite imagery or aerial photographs. On your GPS unit and maps, record the description and location of relevant land features such as trails, parking areas, water sources, campsites, and so on. Mark and describe any animals or animal sign that you encounter, including tracks, trails, droppings, wallows, scrapes, rubs, and evidence of feeding. Record evidence left by other hunters, such as tree stands, ground blinds, or perennial campsites. (Buck poles and stacks of cut firewood often differentiate the campsites of hunters from those of more casual summer campers.) Don’t just limit your observations to the specific species you happen to be looking for. If you find a beaver pond while scouting for deer, make a note. If you see brook trout rise from the depths of that beaver pond to take a mayfly, make a note of that, too. Be sure that your notes are clearly written, and stored in such a way that you’ll be able to find them in the future. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to call my friends or brothers to ask something like, “Hey, where were we that one time when there was a ton of snow and we saw a bunch of deer hunkered down in a little hemlock patch?” And when it comes to GPS, name your waypoints in a manner that will still make sense in a couple of months or even years. It’s frustrating to look at your GPS and see numerically assigned way-points that you never bothered to label. Is #46 a place where you found drinking water in a notoriously dry canyon several years ago, or is it just a place where you stashed your backpack and then took a waypoint to make sure you’d find it again?
Up until the advent of the trail camera. a hunter had to do most of his scouting on foot. Guesses on the whereabouts of certain animals had to be made by studying sign. Then along came this new technology, and suddenly a hunter can be in two places at once. The use of trail cameras is easy. If you’re curious about whether animals are using a certain area, or if you want details about animals that you know to be using a certain area, just hang up the camera and see what images it captures. The only trick is posting the camera in places where animals will pass within close range of the trigger and lens, such as water sources, heavily used game trails, and natural funnels formed by topographic features. You can even home in on specific animals by positioning the camera near an old boar’s wallow, a whitetail scrape, or a carcass killed by a predator.
Not only does the camera yield valuable insights about the size, quantity, location, and timing of animals that are using your hunting area, it can provide some big
surprises as well. Besides having photos of your intended quarry, you’ll end up with an inventory of many incidental species of wildlife that are roaming your neck of the woods. (This does not exclude the two-legged version. With infrared technology available, trail cameras will monitor a property for trespassers and poachers.) Many hunters use trail cameras during the off-season, which is great, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that the animals you captured will necessarily still be around in a few months. You can draw some insights, for sure, but you have to continuously monitor the area in order to have an accurate idea of what’s going on as hunting season approaches. During the actual season, a single camera can be packed along with you while hunting. You can set it near fresh sign to see what’s happening there, or post it near a prospective ambush location to see if anything passes through. (Check your state’s hunting regulations before using a trail camera during hunting season. Montana has banned their use during the season, and more states may follow suit.) Once you’ve set up a trail camera, test it before leaving. Walk in front of the camera at different distances to make sure the camera will trigger, and then review the photos to make sure everything is functioning properly. If there are trees with low-hanging branches within the camera’s trigger zone, shake them to make sure they don’t cause the camera to snap an image—you don’t want to come back in a few days to find a thousand photos of the same branch blowing in the breeze. It’s also smart to point the camera due north to reduce sun glare. If there are any cattle in the area, make sure to secure the camera out of their reach. Cattle love to rub trees, and they make no exceptions for those holding plastic-encased cameras.
Trail cameras set on private land are usually safe from theft, but thievery and vandalism of trail cameras are all too common on public land. Most trail camera companies sell locking kits to keep your camera where you left it, but this won’t stop some loser from smashing your camera out of jealousy or spite. The best deterrent on public land is to camouflage your camera and use it only in out-of-the-way places where it’s unlikely to be discovered by passersby. There are dozens of trail cameras on the market today. A quick online search will result in a plethora of reviews and recommendations for units at prices ranging from affordable to astronomic. (Bushnell offers a number of great trail cams at fair prices.)
Scouting isn’t the only way to get up-to-date information about your public land hunting areas. State fish and game agencies can be a great resource for this kind of material. Through various channels such as written surveys, online questionnaires, and interviews with hunters at check stations, they compile statistical information about hunting areas that can be quite detailed and localized to the particular areas you want to hunt. For instance, you can go on to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website and get hunter-success rates for particular river drainages and mountain ranges. You might fmd that moose success rates in one section of the Alaska Range have hovered as low as 5 percent for several years, while just across the range divide you’ll see that success rates average as high as 30 percent.
Hunting competition is a fact of life. Rather than cursing other hunters, learn how to make their presence work to your advantage.
Getting away from the crowds on public land involves creativity and energy.
Information that comes directly from regional wildlife biologists or enforcement agents can be even more valuable than the published results of hunter surveys. Serious hunters who value their time in the woods are always placing calls to state wildlife biologists to assess the situation in certain areas. Let’s say you’re interested in doing an elk hunt in Colorado’s White River National Forest. You’d call the Colorado Divi-sion of Wildlife and Parks and ask for the phone number of the elk or big game biologist who’s most closely associated with that area. Come right out and ask: “I want to hunt elk in the White River National Forest, and I’m hoping you can give me some insights.” Often these individuals will limit what they will say. They can’t give a specific set of GPS coordinates to every hunter who calls, because that would certainly diminish the quality of the area. But if you are persistent and polite, they might throw you some tips. These tips take the form of “Well, I can tell you this much: the herd is looking really strong, and we’re expecting a higher-than-average harvest this year”; or “If I were going to hunt that area myself, I’d be interested in checking out the South Fork of the White River. And I’d be especially curious about the area around Dry Buck Creek.” When you get a tip like this from a biologist or warden, it’s damn sure worth looking into. While competition is certainly a downside to public land hunting, a smart hunter puts that competition to use by collecting firsthand infor-mation from other hunters who’ve been there. Call sporting goods stores and archery shops in the area you’re thinking about hunting and throw yourself at their mercy. Say you’ve never hunted such-and-such area but you’re looking for some insights. Sure, you might get some bum informa-tion from guys who are trying to protect their locations from outsider intrusion. But by placing five or six phone calls to different places, and by checking these tips against information from your state fish and game agency, you’ll be able to tell which insights are good and which are bogus. Another great trick is to track down hunters (friends, plus friends of friends) who used to hit a certain spot but then moved away. A guy who lived in western Montana for ten years but then moved to Alaska is going to be a gold mine of information about western Montana. He’s no longer worried about protecting his spots, and often he’ll divulge locations just because he’s curious to hear about what you turn up. Bars in rural areas are another great spot. Buy a couple of drinks for an old barfly in Ennis, Montana, and you might be pleasantly surprised to hear him pass along information about his buddy’s hunting locations and practices that his buddy would never in a million years want divulged. Online forums are a great resource, too. Let’s say you’re interested in hunting wild pigs in Tuskegee National Forest. It’s smart to sit down and do an online search with the key words “hunting wild pigs Thskegee
National Forest.” Once you start scrolling through the hits, you’re guar-anteed to find folks talking very specifically about locations and methods and strategies.
A group of hunters “lines” canoes into otherwise inaccessible moose country.
A sheep hunter employs an inflatable pack raft to transport his kill out of a remote hunting location.
Two hunters use horses to access prime elk ground.
A final thing that warrants mention here is that the public land hunter needs to plan around his competition. Of course, this isn’t always nec-essary. Oftentimes, even in the East, the public land hunter can enjoy perfect solitude. But he needs to be aware that his solitude can be broken at any moment, and he needs to be ready to adapt to changing circum-stances. And he needs to be realistic in his expectations. If you’ve been watching a half dozen whitetails feeding every morning in a meadow next to the parking lot of a state game management area, you can bet your ass that you’re not the only person who’s planning on working those deer. Before daybreak on opening day, they’ll be spooked into the next county by a massive influx of hunters.
Three llamas put this hunter into uncrowded elk country with a plush camp to boot.
The best public land hunters have a knack for anticipating what the other guys are going to do, which in turn enables them to anticipate what their quarry will do. In Montana, my brother Matt and I used to hunt an elk herd in the Madison Range that behaved in a very predictable way on opening day. No matter where they happened to be feeding the night before, the first rifle shots of the morning would send them piling through a saddle on their way toward the protection of a heavily timbered valley. We would pack in to this saddle the day before opening day, even if the nearest elk was several drainages away. At daybreak, we’d be waiting for the elk. We filled a few freezers doing that. I have a friend who uses an advanced version of this strategy. He hunts a mountainside that often holds elk during the latter part of the season, but it’s next to impossible to approach the animals without spooking them. So he’ll actually wait until other hunters spot the elk and start climbing toward them. Then he’ll hustle up to the elk’s escape route through a high saddle and wait for the animals to come through. He’s been killing elk like that for twenty years.
Of course, there’s more to public land hunting than heading off spooked critters. Many public hunters appreciate solitude and a quarry that is behaving in a natural, relaxed manner. To find these conditions, they seek out those areas of public land that are less likely to get visited by others. Generally, this means areas that are less accessible. A friend in South Carolina does all of his public land deer and hog hunting from a boat because he can reach areas that guys with cars cannot. Another friend of mine hunts deer and pheasant on the small islands of a river that has public land on both banks. For whatever reason, he’s the only guy who thinks to do this and he has the islands to himself. It’s so good, in fact, that he crosses the river using stealth tactics so that no one will steal his idea. I used to hunt whitetails on public land in Michigan using a similar strategy. By placing my tree stand in an area that was separated from the two-track by nothing more than a waist-deep channel of water, I had a huge expanse of marsh all to myself.
Stealth and sly thinking are not the only ways to get away from competition. My brother Matt and I use physical endurance to achieve similar results. We enjoy superb bowhunting for elk, often seeing hun-dreds per day, in a public land area that is absolutely devoid of hunters. It’s a chunk of national forest that is very difficult to reach because there’s a buffer of private property that separates the national forest lands from the highway. We get in there by making a circuitous 18-mile round-trip hike that dodges property boundaries. In a period of eight years, I killed three elk in there and my brother killed five or six. Packing multiple hundred-pound loads of meat that far is hell on your knees, but those steaks and burgers are awfully nice on your grill.
A hunter can access a lot of ground using nothing but his boots; he can access even more ground by using other forms of low-impact and nonmotorized conveyance. The following modes of travel are usually allowed in even the most sensitive and legally protected backcountry areas. Pack stock. Horses and mules are great because they can carry you 20-plus miles in a day and lug more gear than you’d ever need. Horse camps often include everything from cast-iron skillets to electrified fences that help reduce the grizzly threat. But traveling in the backcountry with horses or mules is no simple matter. These are powerful animals capable of crushing human bones, yet they are also fragile in their own way. Good wranglers have typically grown up around horses, and they’ve crafted a lifestyle based on their love of the animals. If you take a horse or mule into the backcountry without the proper skill set, you and the animal can end up in very bad shape—or worse.
A hunter uses good old-fashioned boot leather to beat the crowds.
Llamas. You can’t ride a llama, but then they can’t kill you, either. A full-grown animal will weigh between 300 and 400 pounds and can carry 40-60 pounds. They are user-friendly animals, far easier to care for than horses. Not only can they go almost anywhere that you can go, they’ll eat just about anything and have very low water demands.
Watercraft. Rafts, packrafts, and canoes can all be used to get you into otherwise inaccessible areas. Packrafts are great because you can deflate 70 them and carry them on your back; a common hunting method is to hike into the head of a drainage and then float yourself (or your kill) out. Canoes are good for more placid watercourses, and they’re great for crossing lakes and reservoirs where you might be able to leave the competition behind simply by putting some water between you and your vehicle. Rafts are perfect for large-scale expeditions. With the right raft, a couple of hunters can float out all their gear plus a pair of moose.
Bikes. Considering how long mountain bikes have been around, it’s surprising that they’re only now getting widespread attention from backpack hunters. They are especially suitable for traveling logging roads that have been gated or otherwise closed to vehicular access—something that’s becoming more and more common as the U.S. Forest Service shuts down roads due to a lack of funding for maintenance. A bike can also make pack-outs easier if you drop an animal close to a trail or gated road. You can rig a heavy-duty cart by lashing two mountain bikes together using paracord and rigid poles cut from native materials. Or get a wheeled trailer for your bike; they can be built up from setups used for hauling little kids behind your bike.