“You can’t understand wilderness unless you’re familiar with the 40-acre wood lot.” -Jim Harrison

Marginal, small, under-the-radar patches of habitat offering fantastic hunting and fishing opportunities exist across the continent. These places often go unnoticed, hidden in plain sight. Hunters and anglers usually gravitate toward large wilderness areas or big lakes and rivers, thinking there will be less competition and more game—or so the conventional wisdom goes.

Whitetails can get big living in overlooked, 10-acre wood lots. Small pivot corners often hide coveys of quail. It’s not uncommon for tiny farm ponds to hold huge bass. Places like these don’t look like much, but that’s exactly why they’re so good.

Seek, and you shall find
Marginal hunting and fishing locations occur in several situations. They can be so small most people don’t think it’s worth the time to check them out. They can require going through an arduous process to access them that deters most people. Sometimes they occur near urban areas or adjacent to other places not typically associated with hunting and fishing like mining operations, state prisons, military facilities, dumps, or industrial plants. Some of them exist due of a combination of these factors.

When I lived near Lake Ontario, I often fished near an industrial plant’s warmwater discharge. In the colder months it was a mecca for fish of all species, from walleye to brook trout. I never saw another boat because to get there, you had to make a long run through shallow water using just the trolling motor. A lot of folks also had the misconception that it was illegal to fish there. I called the plant and they told me as long as I didn’t venture within 100 feet of the discharge (which was clearly marked), it was all good. With a little research, a phone call, and the curiosity to check out a small piece of water, I found a honey hole.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Access is a big part of identifying marginal hunting and fishing zones. While there is no replacement for on the ground scouting, you can accomplish a lot in front of a computer screen. Virtually wandering around your region with a mapping app like onXmaps is a great stuck-at-home activity with big rewards.

Look for patches of public lands along rivers or creeks that are surrounded by private land on all sides. In most states, it’s perfectly legal to access them from the water. Not many hunters are willing to use a canoe or kayak to check out a new spot. The same goes for long hikes. If you can piece together a string of checkerboarded, low-quality BLM chunks, you might find unpressured animals a few miles from the road. On the other side of the coin, I know of hunters who’ve found big success very close to large metropolitan area by seeking out such as the state-owned noise buffer woodlots along freeways or the stand of trees out behind the county wastewater treatment facility.

Look for small private parcels that abut farmland or larger, managed properties. Landowners with little acreage or marginal habitat get asked for hunting permission less often. This may be adjacent to excellent whitetail habitat, and occasionally get those same deer moving through. When I lived in Nebraska, I used to hunt a stand in a cluster of six small cedar trees where three fence lines converged. While the property I had permission on was essentially a barren field and didn’t hold deer, they passed through it moving from one good woodlot to another.   

Take it on the road
Once you have a cluster of marginal spots marked on your map, you can usually knock out scouting several of them in an afternoon. Most of the time they don’t work out. That’s all part of the game. Other times you strike gold. Always keep in mind that conditions change throughout the year. A small patch of cover on the other side of a cut cornfield might not seem like much in December, but when the crops are standing in September it could hold any number of species and most hunters don’t want to slog through a standing cornfield to check it out. A creek might seem too small for fish to stay wet in August, but in May it could be stacked.

These same strategies work both locally and out of state. When scouting for places to hunt or fish as a nonresident, think on a macro level before you try to find your own secret spot. Identify the core area you want to explore, then think in terms of habitat rather than along state lines or borders.

For example, the St. Lawrence River, which creates the border between Ontario and New York, is known for some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in the world. The Ontario side is heavily regulated, prohibiting even catch-and-release fishing for a large portion of the year. However, New York allows anglers to target smallmouth outside of their five-month harvest season as long as fish are released. Same habitat, same fish, different regulations.

Jump through the hoops
While in the previous instance you might want to avoid an area with stricter game laws, sometimes heavy regulations can also work in your advantage. In my home state, there is a designated nature reserve around a state prison that holds a tightly regulated archery deer hunt every year. To hunt, you first have to draw one of 20 lottery tags. Then you have to attend a bowhunting safety class over a weekend. Finally, you must demonstrate archery proficiency in a shooting test at the range. There are some enormous bucks that don’t ever leave the nature reserve, so when I initially called to ask about the likelihood of drawing a permit, I was surprised to learn it’s nearly 100%. The representative on the phone said most hunters are deterred by the permitting process.

Hunting and fishing the margins is all about thinking outside the box, having the willingness to work hard for your own spots, and finding creative ways to access overlooked habitat. You might be amazed at what’s hiding in plain sight.

Feature image by Tim Romano.