Public Land Hunting Tips

Public land hunting has been part of our collective outdoor heritage for a long time. It is a right that American hunters have fought to preserve, and today we enjoy access to a wide variety of public lands. Hunting them may require more effort or creative approaches. That’s why we compiled these public land hunting tips:

  • Share Public Lands with Others
  • Know the Boundaries
  • Hunt the Habitat
  • Go Deeper than the Others
  • Play the “Draw” Odds
  • Pack Out Respectfully 

In the United States, the federal government owns roughly 640 million acres, or approximately 28% of the country’s 2.27 billion acres of total landmass. Ninety-seven percent of these lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the Department of Defense (DOD). State and local governments own another nine percent of total U.S. landmass, equaling about 199 million acres. Altogether, there is a lot of public land available for a lot of outdoor recreation opportunities, including hunting. 

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It is true that most of the federal public lands in the country are in Alaska and western states, with Alaska alone having 224 million acres of federal land. However, about 40 percent of state and local government lands are east of the Mississippi River. So if you want to find good public land for hunting, you’ll need to be familiar with all the types of public lands and who manages them.

You’ll also need to realize that you won’t be alone on public land. According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of the Interior, “101.6 million Americans—40 percent of the U.S. population 16 years old and older—participated in wildlife-related activities in 2016, such as hunting, fishing, and wildlife-watching.” The report goes further to say that of that total, 11.5 million are classified primarily as hunters. Hunting public land is a shared activity, and to be successful you’ll need an advantage where you can get one. To make it easier to hunt public lands, we compiled some tips below that will help you plan, find, and navigate your way through a successful hunting season on land we all own.

Public Land Hunting Tips - Share Public Lands

Tip #1: Share Public Lands With Others

This important fact cannot be stressed enough. When it comes to public land hunting it should be top of mind that you may not only encounter other hunters in some areas but other outdoor recreationists. This means hunting public lands assuming there are others in the area even if you don’t see them or other trucks parked nearby. 

“Be respectful to other hunters utilizing the same public lands: don’t crowd them and they will hopefully return the favor.” -onX Hunt Marketing’s Dylan D.

But if you do see evidence of other hunters, it doesn’t mean you have to necessarily write off your planned hunt. If you know the area, you may be able to project where those hunters are headed and you can use that information to your advantage. 

“Just because people are hunting the same area, don’t be afraid to hunt it. Think about how the pressure dictates game movement so other hunters push the game to you.” -onX Community Team’s Ben B. 

In fact, the presence of other hunters in popular public lands may serve an advantage, especially as the hunting season stretches on. If you find that you’re not getting the access you want to the spot you’ve picked, try another route, even if you have to ask permission from a private landowner

“Animals pattern hunters, so don’t park in the same areas as most people and try to go after them from a different angle.” -onX Community Team’s Ben B. 

It is very important for hunters to realize that not all public land is open to hunting. You must know your rules and regulations for each piece of public land and different public lands have different rules and regulations. Do your research for any state or area in which you plan to hunt

Public Land Hunting Tips - Know the Boundaries

Tip #2: Know the Boundaries (Public/Private)

To hunt public lands, you must know where you stand. In addition to finding potential hunting areas in advance (e-scouting), you will want to make sure your hunt stays within those boundaries the entire hunt. Having the onX Hunt App, with the Government Lands Layer turned on, will give you the confidence to hunt legally without the risk of trespassing. 

Public land hunters, however, have learned that hunting public spots that border private lands can increase chances of success. Because of the increased pressure from more hunters, animals often move to private lands for some period of time. Catching them before they cross over, or when they’re coming off private land is a tip you should definitely try.

“Look for the smaller, often overlooked pieces of public land: many people think the smaller chunks aren’t worth their time, leaving them unpressured.” -onX Hunt Marketing’s Dylan D.

Once you find a potential piece of land, check out if there’s possible access to it of which others might not be aware. Do this by turning on the Possible Access Layer in onX Hunt. 

Tip #3: Hunt the Habitat: Look for Food, Water, and Cover

Animals have the same basic needs as hunters. They need access to food, water, and cover. If you can find those places on public land, you’ll have better odds of filling your tag. With food, you probably won’t find a lot on public land. Often deer and elk are drawn to destination food sources (like planted fields), and then look for protected bedding areas in the evening. If you find the easiest path between those two places, you’ll have a chance at spotting what you’re after. 

Water is much more abundant on public land. Deer, particularly, drink water nearly as often as it’s available. Large bucks need three to five quarts of water per day, and will drink several times a day to get that much. If you find a good water source, set up on it and wait. Remember, deer, elk, and other animals don’t need a large source of water, just a puddle will do. Also consider that with water often comes good habitat and cover. 

Looking over areas with aerial and hybrid maps could help you locate where food, water, and cover are and how you can access them. 

Public Land Hunting Tips - Hike Farther

Tip #4: Set Up Earlier, Hike Farther, Stay Longer, Go Deeper Than the Others

When it comes down to you, you’ll probably just need to get up earlier, hike farther, stay longer, and go deeper than other hunters on public land. A fair amount of research has gone into understanding how far a hunter will travel on foot to hunt. For whitetail hunters, it seems if you can get beyond one mile from the closest road, trailhead, or trail, you’ll leave behind most of the competition. Elk, as pointed out in this article by Jack Ballard, says that elk will “stay at least a mile or two from roads—and road hunters.”

“Get up early: Make sure you are the first one to the location you want to be by not oversleeping. Sometimes it is worth being there an hour earlier than you need to be and taking a nap in the vehicle to ensure you aren’t beat to ‘your spot’.” -onX Hunt Marketing’s Dylan D.

But maybe it’s not about hiking an extra five miles in a day that will do the trick. Being creative and accessing a good hunting spot (legally, of course) could be as simple as paddling a boat. Many hunters canoe, kayak, or motorboat water ways to find a remote spot on public land. If you have the means, or the friend with the boat, give it a try. Maybe a boat’s not even needed, just a pair of waders will do.

Look for water access to areas that otherwise require long walks. Many won’t go through the trouble to access through water by foot. Buy some hip boots or waders, get a good beaver stick to check water depths and get in there after them. Be safe and carry a dry change of clothes, some protein, and matches where applicable.” -onX Hunt Regional Manager Todd W. 

Tip #5: Play the “Draw” Odds

It’s simple math, really. Using a tool like Toprut (now included with your onX Elite Membership), you can find an edge by having tags that lots of others don’t. Draw odds depend on many things, but learning the system, applying by the deadline, and being strategic could pay off in dividends. Use Toprut to check out your odds at getting a tag by putting in your:

  • Residency
  • Species
  • Weapon
  • GMU / Hunting District

Tip #6: Be Aware of CWD & Pack Out Respectfully 

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a serious issue. CWD is fatal for deer, has no cure, and no vaccine. Furthermore, a deer can be entirely healthy and still have CWD. One of the best ways hunters can help prevent the spread of CWD is by not moving high-risk parts (eyes, brain, spleen, lymph nodes, or spinal column) of the deer and elk they harvest. onX has a CWD Layer in the Hunt App that indicates if and where CWD has been documented. 

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Ryan Newhouse

Though raised hunting squirrels and whitetails in the South, Ryan Newhouse has spent nearly the last two decades chasing Western big game in Montana and writing professionally about his travels and the craft beers he’s consumed along the way. He loves camping, fishing, boating, and teaching his two kids the art of building campfires and playing the ukulele. And yes, he's related to Sewell Newhouse, inventor of the steel animal traps.