Public Bucks

Public Bucks

With more than 6 million acres of public land open to Minnesota hunters, there's a good chance you may come home with a deer in tow. (August 2008)

A hunter waits in a tree stand in the Chippewa National Forest east of Bemidji.
Photo by Windigo Images.

There are more than 6 million acres of public hunting land in Minnesota, and it's a safe bet you'll find plenty of deer tracks on every acre. There are plenty of hunter tracks on some acres, too, but others haven't seen a hunter in years. That's the challenge of pursuing game on public hunting land.

Bowhunters in pursuit of whitetails have the broadest range of opportunities across those millions of acres. While discharge ordinances and other regulations limit firearms hunters to a handful of public lands, bowhunters have full run. For some reason, however, many archers never fully take advantage of all the land available to them.

Owning private land is most every hunter's dream, but for a wide variety of reasons, few are fortunate enough to realize that dream. Asking permission to hunt on private land is another option, but it isn't always a reliable method for choosing a place to hunt year after year. Finding the right piece of public land is almost as good as owning your own if you do it right.

I've hunted public lands in Minnesota my entire life and had a diversity of experiences doing so. On some of the lands I've hunted, there's almost a revolving door of other hunters. On others, I'm fairly certain that only a handful of hunters walk the same trails every year. Most lands, however, lie somewhere in the middle.

The reality is that of the 6 million available acres, most bowhunters don't even know they exist. The first thing bowhunters should determine is where to find these lands. Once a bowhunter finds a few good locations, he should formulate a game plan for scouting and effectively hunting those public lands.

Most people regularly hunt either close to home or close to their traditional hunting grounds. The best thing about public hunting land is that it is found throughout the state.

Unlike owning your own plot of land, bowhunters on public land can vary their hunts throughout the season because they have open access to a broad spectrum of habitats.

"There's a friend of mine who has taken trophy deer on public land three of the last four years," said Mark Johnson, president of the Minnesota Deer Hunter's Association. "All he hunts is public land -- in this case, state forest land -- and those big deer are there. He knows some of it is luck, but he's just hunting smarter than most other hunters in the same area."

With so many public-hunting opportunities, a hunter should narrow his choices. The best way to do this is acquire a map of the broader area to locate land and target specific locations. Maps are found in a variety of locations, but I've always liked free stuff and one of the best free map resources is on the DNR Web page under the "Recreation Compass" heading. Click the map to zoom in an area. Once you are zoomed in far enough to see, public lands are labeled and you may click the map again for detailed information.

For those who prefer paper maps, there are a number of atlases available at sporting goods retailers. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also publishes public recreation information maps that may be purchased from the DNR or sporting goods stores. The maps label county, state and federal lands, as well as the recreational opportunities available.

Real estate professionals can also be good resources because plat maps, used to determine private property ownership, also include listings of publicly held lands. Plat maps may be purchased from most county offices.

Generally referred to by their three-letter acronym, the 1.3 million acres of Minnesota wildlife management areas located in every county but Ramsey are open to public hunting.

"I think (a lot of Minnesotans) underappreciate them because those who travel to other states see that those opportunities don't exist elsewhere," said Dennis Simon, wildlife management section chief.

The seven biggest WMAs -- Whitewater, Lac qui Parle, Roseau River, Thief Lake, Red Lake, Carlos Avery and Mille Lacs -- encompass thousands of acres and many include state refuge lands that are open to limited types of hunting.

Refuges were established in the 1930s and 1940s to protect native populations. Simon said there wasn't a single whitetail in the Whitewater valley at that time. Today, the valley is crawling with one of the best populations of deer in the state, not to mention some of the best opportunities to take a trophy.

When bowhunters see the word refuge, many think it is closed to all forms of hunting, but that's not true.

Actually, all but a handful of refuges are open to bowhunters. A complete listing in the 2008 hunting regulations identifies refuge lands available for bowhunting.

WMAs come in all shapes and sizes from giants like the massive Whitewater WMA to tiny five-acre Aid-pit WMA. Simon said the DNR is attempting to acquire more lands for new WMAs and acquire larger plots of land adjacent to existing WMAs.

"It costs the DNR just as much to manage a 20-acre piece of land as it does to manage 80 acres or more, so we like to find land that can be added to a larger complex," he said.

The DNR plants food plots on many WMAs and manages others for prime habitat and cover for a variety of wildlife including whitetails.

The DNR recreation compass or Web site at, features maps showing the type of vegetation and cover on each WMA. It is an amazingly helpful tool for scouting a WMA without actually driving there or walking around the entire area.

WMAs near urban areas or other large tracts of public land tend to be the busiest, but Simon recommends hunters investigate a WMA before concluding it's too busy to bowhunt.

Bob Tangen, assistant manager of the Whitewater WMA in southeastern Minnesota, one of the largest WMAs in the state, said it receives heavy hunting pressure on the firearms opener and during turkey season, but it is distributed very evenly through the entire area.

"Some access points get a few hunters," he said,

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