9 Hard Truths About Hunting on Public Land

Public land offers some amazing hunting opportunities, but nobody said it was going to be easy

hunter hiking in Montana hills
Hunting public land can be extremely challenging and extremely rewarding.Savage Arms

I was hunting public land before hunting public land was cool. Truth be told, I would rather hunt public land than private land in most situations. Sure, private ground offers some very real advantages and public land offers some very big obstacles. But I guess I’m a glutton for punishment because those obstacles actually add to the attraction for me.

Public land has always been a “go-to” for a whole lot of hunters each year but the advent of social and digital media has brought public land hunting into the limelight. And that light can sometimes paint a less-than-accurate picture (as it can with all things).

So, from a guy who has spent a couple of decades on public ground, here are some hard truths.

Truth 1: A hefty percentage of public land can't produce quality hunting

hunter hiking on hillside
There are millions of acres of public, huntable land in the U.S. but only parts of it will yield results.Savage Arms

This is a reality that I'm guessing a whole lot of public land hunters either realized or will realize during their first season of checking out that "prime-looking" ground they've been scouting via Google Earth or onX Hunt. I say that because I've been there.

Weeks of online scouting. Pages of notes. And then when boots hit the ground, I realize quickly that the timber-lined creek is full of cattle, the “hidden” lane leading to the “brushy” canyon is a well-used two-track leading to a patch of scrub that seems to be the preferred dumping grounds for resident trash-haulers.

This scenario plays out most often on walk-in type of properties—private lands that are leased by state game agencies for public hunting. But I’ve also encountered plenty of lackluster federal lands as well (with those owned by the BLM typically leading the disappointment pack). National and state forests generally offer better habitat but, even then, you’ll need to filter through a whole lot of ho-hum ground to find the real gems.

Truth 2: Recovering game is your biggest hurdle

hunters dragging out a deer
Packing meat out from deep in public land presents a challenge, especially if you are not legally allowed to quarter the animal in the woods.Gerry Bethge

I typically chase whitetails on public lands, and I admit, I stand in awe of those guys who routinely target elk on public ground. Not so much because they kill some studs (which they do) but because I can't imagine having to haul a critter that big out that far. That said, the guys who are really good at it, are good at it for a reason: Experience.

Toss a diehard whitetail hunter into that scenario and I’d bet they’d struggle just a bit...including this one. The fact is, killing a big-bodied whitetail on public ground is not the biggest challenge. Getting that buck back to camp is. Again, I’m speaking from experience here. In some areas, the haulout isn’t that big a deal. Flat, hard ground lends itself well to wheeled game carts. But hilly terrain choked with brush, deadfalls, and other such maladies? That’s a different story altogether.

You’ll read all kinds of information about the best way to hunt public land. Most of those pieces will feature some version of the “hunt as far from the road as you can” theme. But almost all of them will get the reason for that completely wrong. They’ll explain that it’s because most people simply aren’t willing to hike that far back in. That’s not exactly true. I’m not afraid to walk as far as I need to to find unpressured deer. But the thought of hauling one of those bucks out of there... That’s what gives me pause.

As mentioned, a game cart is an excellent option for hauling deer out in terrain that’s relatively flat and free of obstructions and wet ground. In hilly terrain, I’d suggest following the lead of the elk guys: Cut that deer up on the spot and pack it out. In some states, however, that’s not legal. In those instances, you have no choice but to opt for blunt force trauma and start dragging. Having a buddy (or four) certainly helps. I’ve also been messing around with a strap-on winch that uses a cordless impact wrench to power it. I haven’t gotten all the kinks ironed out yet, but it has the potential to be a game-changer for me on solo public hunts.

Truth 3: There are no "secret" spots

hunter lying on the ground scouting a hillside
Secret spots may be gone, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to focus on the overlooked.Savage Arms

The days of finding an undiscovered honeyhole are gone, ushered out by technology that allows anyone with a smartphone and an onX Hunt subscription to know every nook and cranny of available public land.

I readily admit that I love to hate this technology. I use it on an almost daily basis to help scout, evaluate, and hunt public ground. But I also know that it’s allowing thousands of other hunters to do exactly the same thing. Before the advent of such apps, it was possible to locate public hunting areas that weren’t common knowledge. Land owned by the county or other small government agencies along with land enrolled in special programs for tax breaks required significant research to find. Now? Open an app and look for any area with a color-coded overlay.

So does that mean you can’t discover any hot spot that hasn’t already been claimed? No. It’s much more difficult but it’s not impossible. The key is to understand that you aren’t looking for “secret” locations—those don’t exist. If you found the public area by using technology, then you must assume that others have found it as well. The goal now is to locate areas that others have looked at and then wrote off as unproductive. I’ve had some of my best hunts in recent years by targeting areas that look piss-poor on an aerial image but have some subtle feature that might make it worthwhile.

Most of these properties don’t pan out, but those that do have been very, very good. Generally speaking, hunters are going to gravitate to the best looking parcels in a given area. Find properties that look poor on an aerial image and study them hard. Try to find a small feature that might have potential (especially if that parcel is near some attractive private ground). Then get out there and take a walk. You just might be surprised at what you find.

Truth 4: You must share information carefully

hunter kneeling behind kansas whitetail buck
The author with a public land buck from Kansas.Tony Hansen

And...if you find something great, you’d best shut up about it.

This is a sad lesson to share and one I hate to talk about, but it must be said. I’ve lost several prime areas of public ground to “friends.” After several seasons of exploration, scouting, and experience, I took a couple of friends to the areas. The following year, they brought along another buddy. The year after that, when I couldn’t make the trip, they went on without me and brought a couple more friends.

Now they’ve laid claim to the area and take a party of people out every fall.

This is a truth that I struggle with. Public land is there for everyone to enjoy, and I certainly don’t have any more right to that area than anyone else does. But, there is (or should be) an unwritten code amongst hunters that you should respect the areas that others have found. I want others to enjoy the experience with me, and while I really do enjoy solo outings, it’s nice to share camp with people sometimes.

Now, I’m much more selective as to who I take along with me, and I never—ever—post on social media, or other outlets, any information that could reveal where I’m hunting.

Truth 5: Videos lie

buck on a tailgate
A lot more goes into a successful public land hunt than what we see in hunting videos.Tony Hansen

I know this is a fact because I’ve produced more than my fair share of videos from public land hunts. And I suppose “lie” is too harsh a word but those videos are a distillation of reality at best. Some outlets do a very good job of telling the full story, but it is still just that—a story. What you don’t see are the hours and hours of preparation, travel, and coordination that it takes to capture the footage on the screen. Sure, we can explain that we went days without seeing a deer, but the viewer can’t fully appreciate that when watching a 20-minute episode that culminates in a close encounter or a kill.

Public-land videos are hot right now and garnering tons of views. They’re also painting a very unrealistic picture of the realities of public land hunting. And that’s in no way a knock against the producers. They are telling great stories and doing all they can to portray the events as realistically as possible. But they simply can’t produce a video that features a run-time of seven or 10 days. Until that happens, it’s simply not possible for the viewer to fully understand the amount of effort it took to produce that episode. Once you set up shop and start hunting public ground, however, and the reality sets in, you’ll begin to realize it’s not nearly as easy as it looks on the screen.

Truth 6: Locals think they own it

This is another truth that I hate to discuss, but it’s a situation I’ve faced far too often.

I’ll hunt several different states each fall and spend the majority of that time on public land. No matter where I’m hunting, I always try to be hyper-sensitive to other hunters in the area. That’s partly because I’m usually only hunting for a few days and I don’t know if the vehicles I see parked in the lot are from guys doing the same or if they’ve spent all season putting in time there. It’s also because I don’t like it when another hunter impedes on the area I’m trying to hunt. It’s the old “do unto others” mantra.

But no matter how hard I try, I’ll have several encounters with other hunters every season. Often, those take place in a parking area either before or after a sit. About half of the time, those encounters are with other non-resident hunters. The other half of the time, I’m talking with hunters from the state that I’m hunting.

Almost without fail, if a conversation is going to be less-than-friendly, it’s when chatting with a resident hunter.

On some level, I get it. When you live in an area, you do feel a certain sense of ownership to that place. Still, the fact remains: Public land (especially those owned by the federal government) are owned by all Americans. The state you live in has absolutely no bearing on the level of ownership. That argument can also be carried over to most state-owned properties as well. Locals think that because a property is state-owned they, as residents of that state, have more ownership in it. The fact is, if they were to really study how that property and its management is paid for, they just might discover that non-residents pay as much or more than residents through license fees and Pittman-Robertson funds.

I’d like to tell you an easy, surefire way to avoid these uncomfortable conversations, but I have yet to discover one. Now, for the most part, even if the conversations aren’t exactly cordial, I’ve never really had too many encounters that were truly nasty (though there have been a couple). Usually, it’s just a cold shoulder and a judging glare. The best thing you can do is ignore it. Grab your gear, wish them luck, and head out to hunt. Remember, it’s your land, too.

Truth 7: If it looks awesome, it probably isn't

hunter looking through binoculars
Great public land hunting spots may not turn out as good as the look on satellite images.Savage Arms

This is a truth that I have forced myself to accept. When I first started hunting prime Midwest states for whitetails, I would gravitate to the biggest and best-looking pieces of habitat I could find. Almost without fail, those areas would be loaded with other hunters. The terrain certainly looked good, but it was so big, and so obvious, that it was the first choice for just about everyone hunting in that area.

Now, if an area looks absolutely prime and is a decent size, I pretty much cross it off the list. I may still do a quick check (I am fairly stubborn, after all) just to make sure I haven’t stumbled onto that unicorn area that defies all odds and previous experience, but what almost always holds true is that the areas that look awesome are seldom the areas that produce.

Instead, look for marginal ground in a good area, or moderately attractive parcels that are smaller in size. Over the years, I’ve certainly redefined my definition of “awesome” based on experience. I look at maps and aerial images differently than those who haven’t spent a lot of time hunting public land, and I alter that definition based on the area that I’m hunting. In areas with high human population and heavy hunting pressure, I’m looking for something much different than when hunting areas with relatively few people.

There’s no shortcut here. This is simply one of those things that you must learn as you go and let your personal experience be your guide.

Truth 8: Scouting trumps hunting

black and white trail cam photo
As with any kind of hunting, scouting yields results on public land.Matthew Every

Are you picking up a theme here? Public land success hinges on one thing: finding the ground that has the game. Lots of ground won’t produce. Lots of ground will be overhunted. Lots of ground will look awesome on an aerial image and will be home to thousands of cattle and zero whitetails.

The solution? Scout. Scout. Then scout some more.

The trick here is to scout in a manner that gives you a chance to fill a tag. I struggled with this early in my public land hunting career. I wanted to start hunting the second I arrived and make every minute count. What I quickly realized was that I wasn’t making those minutes count because I wasn’t set up in the areas that could produce. I was, in short, wasting time by hunting the wrong spots.

Eventually, I came up with a system that allows me to hunt and scout at the same time, and it usually takes about half a day to start dialing things in.

The first thing I do is grab four to five trail cameras and lace up my boots. Then I hit as many of the areas of interest as possible, hanging cameras over scrapes (in areas that allow baiting I will sometimes use corn as well). In the first area, I find that features "hot" sign—whether it's a heavily used trail or an area of active scrapes—I'll hang a treestand. Then it's back to hoofing it across other properties and hanging cameras until it's time for the evening sit. With this system, I'm able to cover a bunch of ground and still hunt later in the day in an area that seems to be productive. The trail cameras are actively scouting.

The next day, I’ll hunt the same stand for a few hours in the morning, then climb down and check the cameras. The most critical part of the system is that I do not stop the scouting rotation until I feel I’ve found an area that can produce the quality of deer I’m looking for. If a camera didn’t produce images of interest, I remove it and place it elsewhere.

With this process, I feel as if I’m maximizing my time and effort and not committing to any setup without reason.

Truth 9: Hunting public land is hard

hunters with whitetail in back of truck
Consistent success with mature animals is what makes hunting public land so hard. It can take several seasons to get dialed in.Savage Arms

Well, that’s not exactly true. It’s easy to hunt public land—just find some and hunt it. What’s hard is to hunt public land and have consistent success, particularly with mature animals. Again, there’s a ton of content being produced these days showing public land success, and that’s awesome, but you can’t expect to duplicate that success without serious effort. I typically enter into new public areas knowing it’s a three-season affair. The first year, I expect only to learn the area, get a feel for the quality of bucks it holds, the amount of hunting pressure it receives, and a very general understanding of how to approach it. In the second season, I’m more dialed in. I still don’t expect to kill an old buck but I think I have a better-than-average chance. There will be more refining and more adjusting. The third year, I’m expecting to fill a tag. The groundwork is in place and I’ve got two years worth of experience to rely on. It’s go time.

In those three years, I’ll have racked up a significant number of hours. Most of those hours will be unproductive. I’ll see few deer (at least few mature deer). I’ll have gathered as many trail-cam images as I can. I’ll likely have had to adjust locations multiple times based on hunting pressure. I’ll have spooked some deer simply because I didn’t fully understand how they use the area. I’ll have made mistakes that I didn’t even know I’d made. I’ll have far more days of frustration than of reward. But I’ll never allow myself to forget that it’s part of the process.

Hunting public land is easy. Doing it in a way that can produce the type of critters you want to kill is not.