Words by Chris Eberhart
Think you need access to exclusive private property to have great whitetail hunting? Think again. About half of the mature bucks I have killed in my life have come off of public ground. Access to public hunting opportunity is what sets North America apart from the rest of the world. Some of the best whitetail hunting in the U.S. can be found on public land, and it is closer than you might imagine. Public land whitetail hunting is an opportunity that you just can’t miss.
There are numerous types of land that allow public hunting access. Some property is simply open to the public, like state and federal land. Other potential hunting areas include state game areas, refuges, municipal property, parks, lumber company property, and state organized access to private land, among others.
Some of these require jumping through a few hoops to gain access and you might be limited to a certain period of time, or special rules, but the effort is worth it. There are abundant opportunities, and if you look hard enough you will find them. You might be surprised just how much public land is within an hour’s drive of your home. The internet is great place to start your search.
It is important to realize that when the land was divided, most of the public tracts were areas poorly suited for farming. This means that public ground is often swamp, marsh, rocky or hilly terrain, or areas that were just plain hard to get to. These kinds of marginal terrain are the exact kind of areas that attract deer, particularly mature bucks.
Often deer will feed on surrounding farmland or managed property only to spend their days bedded on public ground. With careful hunting you can capitalize on this movement pattern. Timing in your hunting, to intercept this movement, is an important element to regular public land success.
Plan to Adapt to Hunting Pressure
The other critical thing to recognize when you hunt public land is that you won’t be alone. Areas that have easy access will have other people hunting there. With that in mind it is important to able to recognize both deer activity and people activity. One of the most overlooked factors to hunting public land is figuring out what the other hunters are doing. Nothing affects deer movement more than hunting pressure.
One of keys to being successful in a situation like this is finding gaps in that pressure. This often means going into areas that other hunters avoid. Sometimes something as simple as donning a pair of waders and crossing a cattail marsh can open up unbelievably good hunting. Using a canoe to cross a lake or a float down a river can also provide good access to great hunting. Even climbing a steep ridge, or just walking more than a half mile will sometimes open the door to practically un-hunted deer.
I have spent much of my life bowhunting whitetails on public ground. In my books, Bowhunting Whitetails the Eberhart Way, Whitetail Access, and Precision Bowhunting, I outline the steps I take for regular success in such areas. You can pull deer and mature bucks off public ground year after year, but you must be more precise and take a slightly different approach than the other guys.