Most tech-savvy whitetail hunters know the basics of how to locate and e-scout public land from the comfort of their homes. But finding the best of the best spots is an entirely different matter. If studying deer habitat on aerial maps is e-scouting 101, then finding public parcels that offer truly top tier hunting opportunities is akin to graduate level work. Here’s a breakdown of the advanced detective work needed to do just that.

The Initial Candidates
The first step to finding a public land gem is to leverage your e-scouting 101 know-how to develop a list of promising public land locations. This means using online mapping tools or state websites to create a preliminary list of parcels far from major metropolitan areas, studying aerial and topographic maps to ascertain habitat quality, and locating tough to reach spots that the average hunter might not get to. You can read more about these basics here.

The onX app is the best tool for this because it includes unique information that can help take the search one step further. The first set of layers I recommend are access program maps that highlight private lands open to public access on a walk-in basis. Each state labels these a little differently, so keep an eye out for places called “hunter access program,” “walk-in hunting,” or “block management.”

Other particularly useful datasets are the Boone & Crockett layers, which provide B&C entries and trends per county, and the chronic wasting disease distribution layer, which shows where positive cases of the disease have been detected. That information can help you find hidden pockets of public access, determine which areas might give you the best chance for older bucks, and which areas you might want to avoid because of disease and regulatory issues. 

Understanding the location, size, shape, and habitat quality of a given public parcel only tells you part of the story; what surrounds that parcel tells you the rest. What kind of management practices are present in the surrounding area? What quality of whitetails might be available in the neighborhood? If I’m dedicating time to hunt public land, especially out of state, I want as much of this insight as possible.

Sanctuary Properties
Few scenarios are better for a piece of public land than being adjacent to a large property closed to hunting. A no-hunting property serves as a sanctuary for local deer and frequently leads to more bucks reaching older age classes. Eventually some of these deer will spend time on the public parcel, especially early season or during the rut, making for great hunting opportunities.

Using the private property layer on onX, or any other tool that has GIS data, you can seek out clues that hunting is prohibited or strongly regulated on a neighboring parcel. City parks, boy scout or girl scout facilities, church camps, and private wildlife preserves are all worth checking around. A few phone calls can help confirm your suspicions.

QDMA Co-ops
Another indicator of quality hunting on a public parcel is the presence of a Quality Deer Management Association co-op in the near vicinity. A co-op is a loose organization of nearby landowners who agree to manage their deer herds in a similar way, usually with the goal of managing for a healthy herd and older age class bucks.

Per the QDMA’s 2020 Whitetail Report, there are approximately 26 million acres across the country managed in this manner. Reach out to local QDMA representatives or connect via co-op social media pages to see exactly where these hot spots come closest to public access.

Internet Sleuthing
A final super sleuth move I’ve used to determine the quality of public land is to do some social media and search engine research on the community and landowners.  Numerous social media pages and websites track hunter success photos during the hunting season, which if reviewed and compared to private landowner information, can be tied to areas near public land. Local news coverage can help too. I once uncovered an article describing a neighbor and his wife having both shot beautiful bucks on the same day the year before—surely a good sign for the property I was considering.

Public land success requires smart hunting and a lot of hard work. That will never change. But finding the right public land is a crucial first step, and you can start that process right now from your couch.