By James Moffitt
Photos by James Moffitt
Hunting public land comes with a unique set of challenges. Whether you’re a new hunter or a seasoned pro, public lands will test your skill and patience. Hunter competition, accessibility, and the endless set of variables created by public lands can be a blessing and a curse. As you’re planning your season, think about trying some of these tips to increase your success and enjoyment of one of our nation’s greatest resources.
Be a Loner
It’s easy to pull into the parking lot, unload your gear, and walk down the same path that 10 other hunters before you strode down. But, if you want to improve your chances, don’t. Instead, explore off the beaten path during your scouts.
When possible, avoid opening days and hunt midweek. If you have the option, capitalize on early-season hunts. Spend time observing the patterns of other hunters as well and try to target off-times. For example, if you’re hunting a specific plot of public land, keep a record of when the parking lot is emptiest, and hunt then.
Taking the time to digitally scout the property can also help. Are there access points that get less use? Choose the overgrown 4×4 path instead of the paved access point. Or, is there a waterway where you could use a kayak or wade into a hunting spot? Finding these remote locations can put you on unmolested deer and help evade some of the pressure found by hunting in the same areas as everyone else.
Break Your Habits
It’s easy to get into a routine. I park here. I climb this tree. I hunt this field. I know I’m guilty of it. However, when hunting public lands, it’s important to remember the only constant is change. What happens when you pull in to find another truck in your spot or another hunter two trees over from your favorite?
Instead, get used to hunting with a degree of flexibility. Using apps like OnX and preseason scouting is a great way to help you be more agile. Have primary, secondary, and tertiary spots to hang your stand and be open to moving on a dime based on the circumstances you walk into on any given day.
Leave Your Comfort Zone
If you want to maximize time in the stand, it may mean increasing your time on the road. Getting away from convenient hunting spots is a great way to find new areas and put yourself onto bigger populations of deer that could be less pressured.
Spend time building a portfolio of locations. Use digital mapping tools to scout from home before putting boots on the ground. Try looking for areas with lots of color differences—an agricultural fields, green hardwoods, blue water. These areas tend to be rich deer habitats. Diversity is your friend.
When you find a few spots that look promising, put boots on the ground and scout. Mark potential spots on your map and take a notebook for real-time observations. When you get home, make notes in your portfolio to help plan your hunts.
Sometimes it’s okay to spook some deer. If you’re hunting new locations, it’s important to do more than just set up on the edges and hope. Push into the terrain, focusing on areas with limited access—the stuff other people aren’t willing to get into. If you bump deer, you’re on deer, which is much closer than you were an hour ago. Chances are, they’ll return if given enough time.
This doesn’t mean that you should go stomping through every patch of land you find in the hopes of scaring out a big buck, however. But, it’s important to learn to follow your gut and to push yourself into promising areas. Remember, the harder it is for you to get there, the harder it is for other hunters as well.
Overall, the best thing you can do is approach every hunt with a renewed perspective and a positive mental attitude. Things are going to go wrong. Instead of getting annoyed when you see other hunters, stop to chat. Learning to cooperate may lead to new opportunities and new hunting buddies. It’s important that we remember to support our community, and sometimes that means yielding a prime spot to another hunter.
Hunting public land is an opportunity to explore the great outdoors, take advantage of an incredible resource, and with some luck, shoot the buck of a lifetime. Savor every moment, take the hard route and remember to sit back and reflect on the challenges that you rose to meet.