When public land whitetail hunting is portrayed by the hook-and-bullet media, it often falls into one of two camps.
While one side paints an uber-rosy picture of common ground deer hunting, the other wouldn’t be caught dead on public land.
The reality? Public land whitetail hunting is just like private land hunting—it can be amazing, terrible, or somewhere in between. After all, it’s just ground, and no law of nature says it will always be fruitful or barren, even though we often make up our minds one way or the other due to personal experience or commentary from our hunting brethren.
While the pro-public crowd is vocal these days, it would be silly to claim that all public land is just as good as all private land. It’s not, but there are times when open-access dirt can provide a better hunt than a parcel with a sole taxpayer on the deed.
Bigger is Better I own two properties in northern Wisconsin that total 58 acres. There are whole seasons when I don’t hunt them, instead opting to spend my time on National Forests or a litany of private ground that, through the advent of the easement, is open to the public. The reason for this is simply a matter of space.
I’m spatially limited on my private ground, something that I don’t have to deal with when I choose to hunt thousands of acres of public land. This is the case in much of the Midwest and the East; private parcels are often small and the public tracts can be huge. When you have this kind of ground to cover you can get away from crowds, find concentrations of deer, and reset yourself if a hotspot goes cold. It’s a vastly different experience with more strategic options at your disposal than you would have sticking to a tiny private property.
Even if you don’t have access to multiple square miles of public land, plenty of state-owned chunks are bigger in size than most private parcels. Instead of the typical 20- and 40-acre sections of private dirt, you might have the option to hunt a quarter- or half-section of public land. Even with more hunting pressure, you’ve got much more room to roam on larger tracts.
Hunting Pressure I’ve had permission to hunt a dairy farm in southeastern Minnesota since I was a freshman in high school. The landowner is a great guy and gives me the green light every year I call him. But he’s generous with his green light, which means I’ve always got company. In some seasons I run into more pressure here than I would on most random public parcels.
Hunting pressure is hunting pressure. Whether it’s on state-owned ground or behind a locked gate, it’s your number one enemy to success. This is one of the reasons the western whitetail thing has been so hot in recent years.
Low-population states with plenty of “better” species to hunt often have amazing whitetail hunting on public land. In fact, it’s so much more successful than hunting on private land in highly populated states that it almost seems unfair. But that balance is shifting some with the increased popularity of traveling for whitetails.
But there are other ways that hunting pressure can create a better opportunity for the public land bowhunter, especially one who doesn’t want a nonresident license and a 1000-mile drive toward the setting sun. Pennsylvania bowhunter and outdoor writer, Aaron Hepler, plans some of his hunting strategies around where he knows there will be heavy, concentrated pressure on the local public turf.
“I like it when multiple seasons coincide, specifically when small game seasons are open during bow season,” Hepler said. “When this happens, the hunters predictably head to the fields where the birds will be, and this allows me to get to the edge of the pressure and catch the bucks slipping away.”
Not all hunting pressure is bad if you know how to use it.
Employing Hepler’s tactic on public land is often as easy as checking what seasons are open and knowing where the access points are. But it’s usually not that easy.
Stuck in a Rut Hunting One reason why public land bowhunting has caught on so much is because of the new world of whitetail work it opened up. Not to say that private land whitetail prep is a walk in the woods, because it certainly isn’t; but a lot of it is setup work. Hang the stands, plant the food plots, cut the trails, and then sit back and wait.
On public ground, the work doesn’t end. It forces you to keep scouting, looking, and saddling up until you get it right. But while it’s a lot of work, it’s also rewarding as hell. If you’re hunting private parcels and not having much fun climbing into the same three tree stands over and over, a few evenings on public land might prove to be more enjoyable. This is because you’ll find yourself thinking about the game in a new way, and actively working toward success.
Hepler revels in this reality and says that he loves hunting the early season on public land because of what he’s learned on common ground.
“Even though it’s usually hot, I love getting out there opening week to hunt the inside edge of new clear cuts where pokeberry and red briar thrive,” Hepler said. “There are usually heavy machinery tracks there as well that provide low, cool ground to bed in and often collect water for the bucks to drink.”
This is not the kind of hunting pattern most of us would stumble across on private ground, but it’s effective in a heavy-pressure state on public land. That’s not nothing, and it’s a good reminder of one of the best things about dedicating yourself to hunting whitetails; you can keep learning. Which is fun—especially if it leads to an encounter with a mature buck.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to learn until your brain is full on whatever private ground you have access to. But if you peel away to hunt public land, learning something new every season is damn near a certainty. This will always be true—for the newbies, those finally finding their feet, and even the seasoned veterans who find themselves just a little burned out on the same tree stand views on the same farms they’ve hunted for decades.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.