I knew exactly where I’d be hunting this fall. It was all but set in stone, and the prospects were exciting. I’d start the season off in Kansas in September with a muzzleloader in hand. I love to bow hunt but the thought of kicking off the year with a little yardage advantage sounded pretty good. Then I’d focus a bit on my home state of Michigan (assuming I’d located a buck that I wanted to target). Knowing this is not any sort of a given, the backup plan was to revisit some haunts in Ohio if the backyard hunting didn’t seem to be worth the time.
And then…well, boy oh boy, then things were going to get good. Really good. I’d spend the last week or so of October in Iowa with a week of vacation time in the bank for November should I need to make a return visit to that land of giants.
And then came reality delivered via electronic mail: Denied. Denied. Denied.
In hindsight, none of it should have been a surprise. In fact, it should have been expected. But let’s back up just a bit first.
I’ve spent around three decades chasing deer with about half of that time spent in what I’ll dub “serious mode.” For the past 15 years or so, I’ve hunted at least three states each fall with trail cams and various scouting efforts happening in about twice that many. Once I’d find a big deer of interest, I’d set my plans for the fall and hunt it. The majority of my efforts took place on public land, and this happened long before hunting public was the thing to do. It wasn’t some sort of mission born of nobility or bravado. It was simply a state of reality; I had no choice.
I own no land worth hunting. I don’t have family ties to buck-filled acreages. I didn’t have the financial backing required to lease significant acreages in the whitetail meccas. What I had was a naïveté about the whole public land gig. When I first started to travel to famed whitetail states, I did so with the “knowledge” that hunting public land was a last resort for anyone with any type of common sense. Public land was far from revered. It was, in fact, viewed as a place you go when you literally have no alternative, a punishment of sorts.
But I saw that the reality was far from the prevailing opinion. In fact, there was excellent whitetail potential on public land in some areas, and the size of the bucks I was hunting was beyond anything I ever expected.
Those were the days. (And, yes, I certainly do feel old even writing those words.)
These are not those days. My Kansas application was unsuccessful. My Iowa application, also unsuccessful. I had no points entering the Kansas draw because I did draw a tag recently but given I’d never had trouble drawing a tag before, I wasn’t too concerned. Iowa? Well, I had four points going into it. No doubt I would draw. But I didn’t.
I was surprised. I probably shouldn’t have been. The numbers don’t lie, and the writing has been on the wall for about five years. But that writing seemed to grow much darker and bolder about the time COVID started to infiltrate every facet of our daily life. Even without a global pandemic pouring gas onto the fire, the flames were already treetop-high.
I want to pause here and make something clear: This is in no way a diatribe against the public land movement. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that I made my living by creating public land content. If there is blame to place, some of it goes right at my feet. But there is no denying that the increase in readily available content that focuses very specifically on public land hunting (and provides more than enough clues and state-naming to provide all that’s required to hunt those areas) has had a big-time impact on the quality of the public land experience. And it’s not just public ground being impacted either.
Private land prices are as high as they have ever been, and the availability of top-notch dirt is as low as I have ever seen it. There’s simply not much for sale and what is available is listed at per-acres prices that are truly astounding.
The competition for access to private land has been fierce for a long time. It is more competitive now than at any point in my hunting career. The days of “by permission” access are not gone. But, the quality of hunting experience available on permission ground has continued to decline, and the cost of jumping into the leasing game is ever-increasing.
The economics of whitetail hunting has changed nearly as much as the landscape of access. That Iowa tag I was trying to draw? Should I decide to apply again, a successful application would cost me nearly $1,000 (four years of points at $60.50 each plus a $130 hunting license plus a $498 deer tag). In Kansas, the deer license would cost nearly $600. And there is continual talk about further restricting license sales due to overwhelming demand and, of course, increasing fees in nearly every state that’s popular with whitetail hunters (and which states aren’t these days).
I spend time each spring chasing turkeys, and I always chase gobblers in the areas I’m hoping to chase bucks come fall. This spring, I focused on Ohio and Iowa.
Ohio is fairly close to home for me, and I’ve seen some dandy bucks there over the years. Typically, I see roughly a third of the hunting pressure on public land while turkey hunting as I do deer hunting. In fact, one of my key methods for determining whether an area is one I’d focus on for deer is by observing the hunting pressure during turkey season. If I see a few people around during turkey season, I usually multiply that number by four in terms of predicting deer hunting pressure.
I cover a lot of ground when hunting. It’s not at all unusual for me to start at one location off the roost and end up 150 miles or more away from that location by the end of the day.
I hit dozens of public parking areas in Ohio and covered roughly 120 miles over two days. I never encountered a parking area that didn’t have at least one vehicle in it. Not one.
This was repeated during Iowa’s spring turkey season, and this was truly a stunner for me. In previous spring seasons, I’ve gone a few days without encountering more than a handful of other hunters in the part of Iowa I have hunted turkeys. This past spring I hunted three days and never found an area free of other hunters.
I don’t want this to come off as whining or like a serious doom-and-gloom scenario. I sincerely hope it’s not taken as such.
I love to hunt. And I truly do think it’s a good thing that so many others do as well. The outdoor life is a good life. But there are downsides to every upside, and the simple fact is this: The hunting game has changed. Quality access has decreased. Competition on public land has increased exponentially. Costs have climbed. Regulations have grown more restrictive and more complex. In my opinion, this isn’t a trend line that will reverse.
All of these things have been simmering for the past decade or so but the rate of change has happened at an accelerated pace over the past five years or so. At least that’s the case for me, a bowhunter that focuses almost exclusively on public ground and is interested in hunting fully mature deer.
So what’s my plan? It’s early September. I didn’t draw a single tag. The over-the-counter options available have shown that they’ll feature ultra-elevated levels of hunting pressure on public ground and, of course, fuel costs and inflation aren’t making things any easier on the financial side.
I suppose the smart option is to simply sit this season out, lick my wounds, and accept the new reality: The good ol’ days are gone.
Nah. I’m going to hunt anyway. Maybe we'll look back in a couple decades and realize the good ol' days were right now.
Feature image via Captured Creative.