Public land deer hunting has grown in popularity over the last 10 years and for good reason. There is an incredible amount of opportunity for quality hunting on these public pieces, but the popularity goes hand in hand with hunting pressure. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I’ve been able to hunt a variety of traditional public lands, specifically state game lands, state forests, and national forests.
But I started noticing that my family would hunt some areas outside of these typical public lands. We parked our trucks next to gates with public hunting signage, but the onX chip in my old Garmin GPS said these lands were private. When I asked my dad why this was the case, he told me a lot of private land parcels were open to public hunting; some of them are clearly marked on the gated access roads, while others have such information available on their websites.
I didn’t realize the importance of what my dad had taught me until I started traveling to hunt in Pennsylvania and other states.
When hunting public-access private lands, you find hidden gems that might not get as much pressure as the traditional public lands—at least, not from anyone who isn’t local. Even when you e-scout online or look at property maps, these spots won’t jump out at you unless you know what to look for. I’ve found some of the oldest age class and size of bucks in these areas, which I attribute to the lower amounts of hunting pressure and typically better habitat. The most popular types of private lands that allow public access (or will give permission) belong to timber, oil, gas, and electric companies.
Timber companies manage their land to make money on mature trees while letting other areas grow until they are profitable. This process requires that the timber companies utilize the land and natural resources for many years. For deer hunters, timber cuts create food and eventually cover, enabling the property to hold deer year round and provide them with the necessary nutrition to be healthy. Timber companies generally like hunters because they keep the deer population in check, protecting the future growth of the forest.
Oil, gas, and electric companies will also cut their mature timber to bring in additional revenue and create room for access roads. While I don’t love access roads on public land, many of the roads on these properties are secured with locked gates and are only open to foot and bike traffic. This gives you quieter and easier access while creating a barrier to other hunters who aren’t willing to put in the work. Some non-governmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy also allow access to their properties but may require a permit.
The onX Hunt app makes it easy to identify private lands that might allow public hunting. Make sure to turn on the “Possible Access” layer and look over the area or state you want to hunt. Green dots identify land owned by timber companies, diagonal green lines signify land owned by non-governmental organizations, and green cross-hatching shows land with miscellaneous ownership. If you click on these areas, onX will give you the property information and will tell you where to learn more, usually on a website. Sometimes these properties change hands before the maps are updated, so always double-check before hunting one of these areas. I made a video on e-scouting big woods bucks that shows how I use this layer to find these hidden gems.
You can also just use onX's search feature, which lets you organize landowner by name. Type in a keyword like "timber" or "natural gas" and you'll be surprised to find how many types of these properties there are.
Once you identify a few properties worth checking out, go through these steps to gain or confirm access. First, check the company’s website for any information regarding hunting. If you don’t have luck there, reach out via phone and email. Always do both to increase your chances of talking to a real person. You can also visit the office in person. This isn’t super time-efficient, but it can be the most effective way to get permission. I used this tactic in Ohio on a piece of private property. My hunting partners and I drove up to the office and walked right into the visitor’s entrance where we received written permission to hunt. I arrowed a beautiful 12-point buck later that year.
Each state has their own regulations on entering private property to hunt, so be sure to understand those regulations and obtain the correct permissions before entering. With a little effort up front, you can find your own hidden honey hole and have an incredible hunting experience on private land away from the crowds.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.