There are plenty of complaints hunters make about public land. Usually those complaints boil down to: 1) it's too crowded; 2) there's not enough game. But not all public land is created equally. For every grumbling grievance about public land, there's a story that's just the opposite. Public hunting land grows stories of adventure, success, conservation, and tradition. We've captured four of those stories to help you to hike in just a little deeper, appreciate the challenge, and hopefully, bring home a story of your own this fall.

Bull Fever

Nothing gets a hunter's heart racing faster than a bugle and a crack

By Ben Long

Squirrels rustle leaves. Bucks snap twigs. Bull elk crack branches. And on a still mountain morning, that crack is a turbo­charger that floods your bloodstream with adrenaline.

That crack might mean you’re busted and the herd is about to unleash pandemonium across the hillside. Or it might mean the bull you’ve been tracking has stood in its bed to offer a shot before bolting. Three decades ago, on my 16th birthday, the crack meant the herd bull was approaching. My father and I had hiked 3 miles into the Idaho backcountry to hear a bugle at daybreak. Over the next six hours we stalked closer, with Dad drawing in the bull with bugles from a homemade call constructed out of PVC pipe. At noon, we heard the crack. We were huddled under a subalpine fir at the edge of a small meadow with a wallow in the middle. We had yet to see the bull, but I was already trembling.

A bull elk may be three times larger than the biggest whitetail buck, but bull fever hits with even more than three times the wallop. That’s because bull fever reflects not just the animal’s size, but the hunter’s investment. Public-land elk require an immense down payment in time, sweat, and misery. When you blow a chance on a big, public-land bull, it could be years (and countless miles of hiking) before you even see another one. And knowing this—not just understanding it statistically, but also feeling it deep in your bones—makes the likelihood for a meltdown all the greater.

Seconds after the crack, an incoming set of 6x6 ivory tines floated above a curtain of young fir. Then the bull cleared the meadow, heaving and steaming, now only 50 yards away. But my Marlin .30/30 shook so badly, I couldn’t find him in the scope. My dad mouthed “Shoot!” but I was frozen in a panic, mind blank, trigger finger a stone.

Then the bull’s nostrils flared and his head jerked back. As he turned to leave, my dad’s rifle boomed and shook me from the stupor. The bull dropped. We walked up to the massive bull, my rifle cold in my trembling hands. I knew I had choked.

That was my first—but not last—taste of bull fever. Over the next 35 years, I’ve punched my share of elk tags, mostly on public land. And I’ve taken some nice bulls, though none that would match the size of that birthday bull. So during elk season, you’ll find me on public land, stalking his kin, chasing the ghost of that memory. Bull fever is an ailment you wish you never had but hope never goes away.

whitetail buck licking branch
A rutting buck hits a licking branch over a scrape in an Eastern forest.Mark Raycroft

A Walk in the Big Woods

Putting the wild back into America's favorite big-game animal

By Anthony Licata

I was halfway up the ridge before dawn revealed the hot track I had stumbled upon. I was hunting a designated wilderness area in New York’s Adirondacks, and while I didn’t have the snow that big-woods hunters dream about, days of heavy rain created unique conditions that made tracks jump out of the saturated duff of the forest floor. The trail was headed vaguely toward my destination—up—so I followed it.

It led me to a high saddle, where I noticed a freshly broken branch lying across the tracks, which caused me to take a closer look. A buck’s rack had caught on a piece of deadfall, snapped it, and dropped it across the trail. Game on.

The track took me over the saddle into a basin filled with beaver dams, a cedar swamp, and dark timber riddled with fresh scrapes and rubs. It was someplace I’d never been nor had planned to go. Truth be told, I wasn’t even sure where I was or where I’d end up, but following this trail into the unknown was exactly where I wanted to be.

It was the heart of the rut, and I could’ve been hunting private ground closer to home. That property is a mix of farmland, woodlots, and a modest food plot or two. We have a network of established stands, and I know every spot where my crew has killed a nice buck. I know it like the back of my hand, and I do love the place.

But that’s not how I grew up hunting whitetails. I started on Pennsylvania’s terrific public-land system. As a kid, I knew there was something magical about hunting the public woods. They were wild. Unknown. Intimidating. When my father and I would find sign on a remote ridge or jump a deer out of the pines way back in, there was a sense of discovery we’d get from figuring out those forests. We were chasing whitetails on their turf, not the semi-domesticated farmlands where I felt at home. And we killed deer, including a few good bucks. Through the seasons, those adventures and accomplishments that go with chasing whitetails in the big woods turned a boy into a hunter. That’s why I had come to the Adirondacks.

I lost the track of the buck in a tangle of blowdowns but expected to jump him from his bed with every step. I still-hunted around the basin, posting up a couple of times against trees or on logs, watching the rub line and travel corridors. I grunted and bleated. I kept finding fresh sign and getting a clearer picture, like a map slowly filling in with details of the core area of a big-woods buck. As the day wound down, I moved to a rocky bluff where I could get a longer view and waited. I stayed until the last minute of legal shooting light. I felt a twinge of anxiety as I shouldered my backpack to hike down the ridge. It was going to be a long walk out, in pitch-dark through rough, unfamiliar country. I cinched the straps down tight, knowing that the right amount of risk is a welcome companion on any good adventure, and that somewhere to the west I’d eventually cut an old logging road that would lead me back to my tent.

Do I wish I’d spent the night packing that buck off the mountain? You bet. But when I finally made it to camp—wet, scratched, tired, and desperate for a drink and a bowl of chili—I realized that I’d found what I had been hunting for.

Wood duck hunting in wisconsin
The author’s dad swings on a crossing wood duck during Wisconsin’s opening day of duck season.Stephen Maturen

The Opener

The best spot on the first morning of duck season is the one that nobody else hunts

By Alex Robinson

It's opening day of duck season in Wisconsin, and somewhere at a public boat ramp right now, there are two grown men arguing. Camo waders buckled down, faces painted, headlamp beams turned on high, neck veins bulging. Their disagreement might go a few different ways ("I was here first," "You're going to be too close to our blind," "I scouted this last week"), but it's always the same problem: Each guy wants to claim a little piece of marsh that we all own.

But that’s not happening here. The pre-dawn hours of my opening day are pitch-dark and dead quiet. Dad and I take a beat-up johnboat that’s older than I am out to a sliver of peat bog that connects two little lakes. There’s plenty of duckweed in these twin lakes and some old oaks that drop acorns along the shoreline, but otherwise our spot wouldn’t look too special to most other duck hunters. And that’s just what makes it so special to us—nobody ever hunts here.

We set a few decoys in the waterway that cuts through the bog. I futz with our makeshift blind. Dad drinks coffee and scolds his whining black Lab. We’ve come to the same spot and run through this same pre-hunt routine almost every opening day since I was in high school.

Shooting light finally ticks down, so I face to the left and my dad covers the right. We hear the wheet-wheet squeal of the first wood duck before we can see it through the fog. A hen woodie buzzes by and folds up in a roar of gunfire from our two-man shooting line. The dog hits the water as the duck splashes down.

Two more woodies hook in from my side, and we whiff on both. We mumble cusswords and excuses and reload. The morning air smells like gunpowder, bog, white pine, black coffee, and wet dog. Eventually, I hit a high, crossing shot on a ring-necked duck, and then Dad and I double on a pair of drake woodies that bank around an ancient white pine and drop into our decoy spread. Dad eats a PB&J sandwich to celebrate.

The flights come in waves. We shoot and reload as fast as we can for a minute, and then sit for an hour and talk about nothing at all. By 10:30 a.m., we each have our limit of wood ducks and one bonus ringer. We could probably scratch out more ducks if we waited around, but it’s breakfast time now, and we’ll be back for those birds next year anyway.

Maybe someday we’ll pull into our opening-morning spot to find a couple of other hunters getting ready to push out toward the peat bog. And if we do, I hope the first thing out of my mouth isn’t “Hey, we were here first.”

happy dog after hunting ruffed grouse
Andrew Howard and Annie with a ruffed grouse.Alex O'Brien

Ruff Country

Grouse hunting in the north woods is a team effort

By Natalie Krebs

Leaves are already falling when I arrive in Minnesota, but the popple forest still smells alive. There’s only a whiff of decay, and the forest floor is quiet underfoot. It’s easy to see why grouse thrive here: For every ruff bagged over the next few days, we will flush five more, heard but unseen—or just plain missed—in the dense undergrowth.

My buddy Andrew Howard drove 14 hours from Missouri for this hunt. He makes this trip nearly every year. We pull up to a gate in the Beltrami Island State Forest and unload, dogs and all. Annie, a ladylike Llewellin setter, rests her chin on Andrew’s shoulder as he buckles her vest. Meanwhile, Boscoe races around the truck. He’s a low-slung English cocker spaniel named for the cheesy breadsticks sold hot at the gas station.

The sign fixed to the gate reads: “Foot Traffic Welcome.” Another sign, this one carefully painted, announces the spot we’re hunting is a collaboration of the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Minnesota DNR. The local chapter busted ass before the opener to mow this particular route—one of the 500-plus designated hunting areas in Minnesota’s ruffed grouse range, and just one slice of the state’s 11 million acres of public land.

This is big country. We encounter one parked truck but no other hunters. It’s also thick country. I shoulder my way through stands of young popple and patches of thorns, grateful for the safety glasses on my nose. Both dogs range ahead, bell collars clanking.

Andrew knows these woods well enough and has learned about the best trails from a few friendly locals over the years. Minnesotans are notorious for their geniality, and as we work these woods, it becomes clear just how far their manners extend. Local grouse hunters donated time and toil to this piece of public land, knowing anyone—including us out-of-staters—might show up to hunt the ground they worked so hard to manage.

hunting dog running behind hunters
Heading into the fall undergrowth.Alex O'Brien

On our way through town, local hunter and RGS member Justin Partee ducks out of his day job in Warroad, jogs across the street, and hands Andrew a map with new trails highlighted and a few suggestions on where to hunt. We almost feel guilty when we pull up to his spots. Later we join forces with other resident hunters, and they’re delighted by our success. They ask questions: How many grouse did we flush? What trails did we check? Are bird numbers strong? And they answer our questions in turn.

The first grouse of the morning flushes as I’m crawling under a brier. The second departs at a distance and we never even see it. But the third breaks midmorning when we’re off-guard, taking a rest to give the dogs water. Andrew is midsentence, uncapping a tube of lip balm, when we hear the blast of wingbeats, then see the grouse hurtle by. It flies beyond him and banks, and then, just before it escapes around the bend, one shot echoes and the bird falls.

We cheer, though we can’t believe Andrew managed to make the shot. But Boscoe can, and he fetches up the first ruff of the day.