Deer Hunting on Public Land | Avoiding Other Hunters & How to Find Deer on Public Land
By Eric Clark with Okayest Hunter
I started hunting when I was 17 years old.
I'm now 35 and have primarily only hunted public land.
My first hunt was a gun hunt in the north woods of Wisconsin in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest with my Dad. The Nicolet National Forest is home to 1,530,647 acres of public forest.
There were a few occasions when I hunted an uncle's private land and leased land, but that was less than what I can count on one hand.
I have to imagine there's something exceptional about owning your own land and the pride that comes with being able to hunt.
I wouldn't know what that feels like.
Instead, I have pride in hunting public land. Every hunt on a new tract of public land is a new adventure and land to be explored and learned.
Although a rewarding experience in many ways, hunting public land also comes with its own set of challenges. I wouldn't say private land is better than public or vice versa. Instead, I would offer that they're just different.
My experience as a whitetail hunter comes from public land, so that's what I'm used to talking about. I don't have much to say about private, mainly because I don't hunt it.
Are there any specific strategies for deer hunting on public land?
Sure. There are probably a few that can add value to your hunting success.
Scout for Hunter Sign
Of course, as a deer hunter, you ought to be scouting for deer sign. Things like deer highways, travel corridors, edges, transitions in terrain and vegetation, etc. Moreover, looking for scat, beds, rubs, and scrapes is also part of scouting.
However, what ends up happening is that other hunters tend to look for the same thing you're looking for.
As a result, there's a strong chance you will bump into other hunters or their trail cams in the woods.
Bumping into other hunters isn't the worst thing in the world, though I think it's a poor use of our time in the woods now that neither hunter will likely see any deer.
As a public land hunter, this is one of the biggest complaints I've heard about hunting public land. As the Okayest Hunter podcast host, I've had the opportunity to interview almost 300 deer hunters, and this topic often comes up.
As much as you're scouting for deer sign, you must also look for hunter signs.
Things like boot tracks and their direction, where they came from, and where they're going. Be on the lookout (or up) for tree stands or signs that one was there.
You might identify cut limbs and branches for shooting lanes.
Trail cams and cell cams are apparent but may not be obvious to see or spot.
This type of intel will help you avoid other hunters.
Additionally, in some cases, knowing where they are or might be can help you predict where the deer might be traversing to avoid other hunters, too.
How to avoid other hunters?
Get creative. Many public land hunters trying to go further into a property might open up an opportunity for an overlooked area close to a parking lot or near a property edge.
Nowadays, several hunters are going deeper or hunting harder to put themselves in a place they feel might be far off the beaten path.
Use water to your advantage.
Get a pair of hip waders or chest-high waders to stay dry crossing a river or creek. Last hunting season, I walked deep into a public land hunting spot and traversed several miles up a creek in my waders.
In doing so, I left no scent, remained quiet, and got deeper into an area than most hunters as there was virtually no other hunter sign around at all.
I've also taken my canoe to get into far away hunting areas that had a lot of great promise and mature buck sightings. I still ran into other hunters; however, the number of hunters using this method was significantly less than those filling up the public parking lots.
Back when I hunted up north for the first few years of my hunting journey, my Dad would always say, "Let's just go over one more ridge."
Of course, it was one more ridge eight times.
The takeaway was that I developed this curiosity and exploratory mindset that led me to find new areas that helped me fill my freezer.
These days, public land hunting seems to come with a badge of honor and a level of badass-ness. I'm not saying it isn't badass or tough.
I'm just saying hunters have been hunting public land far before it has seemed like the cool thing to do.
When I was just starting to hunt public land, there was a lot of talk about just wanting and wishing we could hunt private land. Many private land hunters I've chatted with also hunt public land.
This seems to be because they don't want to burn their private land too early in the hunting season. Some hunters try to save accessing their private property until the rut. I say this to say that I try not to take it for granted now that I've hunted public land for almost 20 years.
I still really enjoy the challenge and the curiosity of what's over the next ridge or river bend.
It has always been a pleasant encounter when I run into other hunters, though it can seem frustrating. We're both trying to do the same thing afield, and we share a common interest, so it doesn't make sense to get upset with one another.
Public land throughout the United States is abundant.
If you have public land in your area and it is huntable, I hope you have the opportunity to go out and enjoy it!
Moreover, I hope some of the tips shared help you find success hunting whitetails!