It was the opening morning of the 1996 turkey season when I met my first public land knucklehead. I was 16 years old and barely old enough to drive, and I was hunting an area riddled with gobblers—and hunters. I drove past a parked truck and pulled to the side of the road a quarter mile away. After quietly shutting the truck door, I cranked out an impressive string of yelps and excited cuts. I waited.
My calls were met with silence, but I soon heard the rumble of an engine. A flatbed Ford whipped into view with the window down. The upset driver said, “Son, I was working a gobbler until you pulled an up started calling. Quit calling off the road!”
Gravel flew as he peeled out, leaving a cloud of dust and a fresh helping of embarrassment, maybe even shame. I was the public land knucklehead.
The written rules and game laws for hunting public lands are obvious and have few gray areas. However, the recent growth in public-land pride is causing hunters to define and talk more about the unwritten rules. They aren’t carved in stone, but some overarching principles can be applied everywhere. Every region is slightly different in its unspoken rules.
You’ll need to use some cultural clues to decipher appropriate public lands etiquette, but we’ll first need to answer this question: How can we all hunt here, have meaningful experiences, and get along? If you’re new to hunting public lands, or if you’re the goober who hasn’t been following the rules, let me tell you a few things I’ve learned about not being a public land knucklehead.
Don’t Hunt Too Close
We go into wild places to find solitude and undisturbed game. The quickest way to burst the excitement of a hunting trip is to see another hunter in the woods. The macro principle that can be applied in every place is: don’t hunt too close. But how close is too close?
When I’m in Arkansas hunting public land for turkeys, I don’t want to have another hunter within a mile of me. I discern this distance by watching the roads for parked trucks and knowing the lay of the land. Turkeys are vocal animals and can be heard from long distances. We use guns and don’t wear hunter’s orange, so safety is an issue too. Giving other hunters a wide berth is wise, and you’d want the same done for you. Therein lies the key—do to other hunters what you’d want them to do for you. With all the data you have, do your best to get away from other hunters.
The species you’re hunting is an important consideration when on public lands. We hunt elk, turkeys, and ducks with calls, which implies that you’re drawing game away to you. You could call game away from other hunters that you don’t know about. This may seem like a good thing, unless you’re on the losing end.
So, what’s my point? When hunting vocal animals, you need to give other hunters more space. If you’re bowhunting whitetails on public lands, there is perhaps more room for a judgment call on how close is too close. The safety issue is almost non-existent and you’re not going to call deer away from another hunter. You just need to know that your hunting isn’t hurting someone else’s hunting. Take home message: Don’t do something that will hurt another hunter’s odds of success.
Understand the Local Practice
Every place is different, and you’ll have to take clues about the public lands you’re hunting. Elk hunting in a heavily pressured area of Colorado I learned that access points like trailheads are communal starting points. Seeing four or five trucks parked in one spot is common. If I applied my Arkansas turkey hunting standards here, I wouldn’t have a place to hunt.
On many state lands in the swampy South you’ll also find crowded trailheads and boat ramps. But, where I live in the Ozarks, I’d never park next to someone’s truck to hunt. We have big blocks of land and fewer hunters. It all has to do with the amount of land and the amount of access points. Typically, bigger chunks of land will correlate to hunters being further apart. Smaller tracts of land can mean it’s acceptable to hunt closer, but you still might want to just go somewhere else.
Set Clear Expectations
You’ll be the knucklehead if you misuse location information given to you by others. Treat public spots shared with you with extreme caution and clear communication. Many friendships have been disrupted by unclear expectations. I am not ashamed to have specials spots I keep to myself. If I take a friend there, which I do at times, I will be very direct in my intentions for this to stay “my spot.” Even though it’s public land and no laws would be broken if they went back in, I believe a person’s hard work in finding good hunting ground earns them the right share them on their own terms.
However, many spots on public land I freely share with people—and I’m clear about it. “It’s ok if you want to come back in here,” I’ll say. But for a few spots it goes: “Friend, I want to take you, but this is where I make ‘the gravy.’ I’d appreciate it if you didn’t come back in here without me. And please don’t share this information with anybody.”
Every single person I’ve said this to understood and complied. But I have been burned a few times by my own lack of communication.
Public Land and Social Media
Connection to a place is a big part of hunting and it’s why we’re all tempted to proclaim where we’ve had success. Killing a deer in “X” National Forest may have more significance to you than taking the deer in “Y” National Forest. It’s important to know that a community of hunters utilize public lands and the spot you’re sharing is someone else’s spot, too. I’m not suggesting that we be ultra stingy with dishing out hunting spots, but I am suggesting to not be too specific on social media.
Here’s usually how I roll: If I’m feeling generous, I might tell the state, the general region of the state, and the block of public land, but only if it’s large. For instance, “I killed this bear in the Big Bear National Forest in Western Tennessee.” This might be OK because that’s a big chunk of real estate. However, I may just use “Tennessee.” I wouldn’t say, “I killed this bear in Knucklehead County, Montana, on the Foolish Creek WMA.” That’s too specific. A big part of hunting is doing the research to find good hunting; I don’t need it handed to me by the loudmouth on social media.
Treat other hunters the way you’d want to be treated. Handle friends’ hunting locations with the same respect you’d hope they’d pay yours. Give other hunters a wide berth. And, if you run across a young hunter being stupid, please educate them, but don’t be too hard on them. You were probably a knucklehead once, too.