August 01, 2023
American outdoorsmen—especially those of us in the West—are blessed with something often taken for granted but not available in most other places on Earth: millions of acres of public land open to hunting, fishing and other forms of recreation. Those lands belong to all of us, and within the parameters of hunting and fishing seasons, some road closures and very few other limitations, we can come and go as we please all year round. I cut my teeth hunting Western public lands in my home state and many others. Some 50 years later, some of the most productive and fun hunting I do each year occurs on public land.
When utilizing public land, you can be sure that you’ll often run into other people. Most of them will be just like you and me—average Joes out to do their best and have fun. However, some of the people you meet will be all-about-me jerks who will crowd you, trash the place and have no respect for anyone else. Fortunately, they’re in the minority, but be aware and prepared to deal with them.
With that in mind, here are my top seven unwritten rules for hunting public land. Follow them and you’ll increase your enjoyment factor—and your odds of success.
1. Safety First
I started accessing public lands when I was a high-schooler in the late 1960s, backpacking into the high altitude of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. I lived in Alaska for 15 years and hunted that state’s wild public lands extensively. I have backpack-hunted in several states throughout the Rocky Mountain West. A lot of this I’ve done solo. In doing so, I learned that I was entirely on my own out there. You must be able to fix anything that breaks—including yourself. Take wilderness survival and first-aid classes, pack the necessary kit to fix stuff, carry some sort of reliable communication device and always tell somebody where you’re going and when you expect to return.
2. First Come, First Served
This rule is as old as the hills, and just as firm. If another hunter arrives at a water hole, glassing vantage point, meadow or whatever before you, give him or her a respectful wave and move someplace else to hunt, trying your best to leave the hunting area undisturbed. When there are other hunters in the area, try to keep a safe and sane distance between parties.
If I’m dove or duck hunting, I’ll talk to the other folks and try and establish parameters that suit us both. This allows for good shooting for all and, most importantly, safety. I generally like to be at least 100 yards away from other dove hunters and several hundred yards away from other waterfowlers. For deer, elk and turkey hunting, the farther away I can get from others, the better.
3. Have a Plan B
There are exceptions to the “first come, first served” rule—an assigned area on a national wildlife refuge for waterfowl hunting, for example—but generally speaking, the early bird gets the spot. Sooner or later, though, you’re going to get beat to your spot. When that happens, have a Plan B in mind. If I run into the other hunters, I wish them a quick “good luck,” then skedaddle to my alternate location as quietly as possible before someone else gets there.
4. Hands Off Others’ Gear
Hunt public land enough and you will come across items like treestands, game cameras, ground blinds, decoys, chairs and who knows what else. The rule is simple: If it isn’t yours, don’t touch it. Speaking from experience, few things are more frustrating than walking into your own treestand or ground blind and finding another hunter using it, but one of them is finding that your gear has been stolen. If nobody’s hunting the spot, feel free to hunt it—but set up your own blind or stand.
5. Never Break a Sacred Trust
If you are invited to go hunting with someone who knows the lay of the land and is a real hardcore killer, get in the truck and count your blessings. But do so with the understanding that taking you to their “secret spot” is not an open-ended invitation for you to make the area your own to hunt any time you wish. Yes, it’s public land, and legally you can do so, but if you do, you can be assured that person will never share another “secret” spot with you. Ever. I’ve seen such transgressions destroy lifelong friendships and break apart families.
6. Lend a Helping Hand
Somebody having trouble? Give them a hand. Help get a truck unstuck, change a tire or find a wounded animal. Offer to take a picture of them and their trophy. If it’s not out of your way, offer to help pack the animal off the mountain. At some point, the person needing help will be you, so pay it forward and treat the other guy like a friendly neighbor.
7. Respect the Land
Growing up, my dad taught me to treat the land as though it’s my own property. Don’t camp on a waterhole. Pick up your trash, including empty shotshell hulls. Make sure all campfires are fully extinguished, and do your best to leave the land looking better than you found it. I always have extra trash bags in my truck. After a day of bird hunting or target shooting, I spend some time picking up the trash left by other weedwhackers. As the saying goes, “Take only memories, leave only footprints.”
- This feature on hunting is featured in the West edition of the August 2023 issue of Game & Fish Magazine, available on newsstands. How to subscribe.