Busting the Public Land Stereotype

Busting the Public Land Stereotype
The author harvested this public land buck on city-owned ground that was open for bow hunting early.
The author harvested this public land buck on city-owned ground that was open for bow hunting early.

The author harvested this public land buck on city-owned ground that was open for bow hunting early.


When we often talk about Everything Deer, it revolves around private lands. However, not everyone has the luxury of hunting on private land, whether it’s owned or leased. For those hunters, the only option is public ground.

From city-owned to federal government land, there is often a looming stereotype around public land hunting, especially for deer. Too many hunters, not enough deer, and certainly no big bucks. The first two characteristics are subjective opinions. How many hunters is too many? How many deer is not enough? Those are personal opinions. But I can assure you that with a little bit of homework, you can find a piece of hunting ground that does not have too many hunters and has more than adequate deer numbers, but especially busts the last characteristic, holds BIG bucks.

Over the last decade, I have moved around a lot. From colleges to jobs, I’ve never been in a place long enough to justify buying land. And with the price of hunting leases through the roof, often justifying the cost was difficult. So I hunted public land.


This wasn’t really new to me; I grew up hunting public land in the heavily-pressured state of Pennsylvania, where historically we had more than 750,000 deer hunters head afield each year. On the opening day of the two-week-long gun season, you would think all 750,000 have set up on the same property as you. It literally sounds like a war at daybreak.

Now that may sound exactly like the stereotype, but there is a strategy to success in these places. Most of those hunters do not go more than a half mile from their vehicle, and with hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, a little walking can put you all by yourself. In fact, I now hunt public land in Missouri and most of my spots are no less than one mile from the nearest public access point. When the season approaches, I go straight to Google Earth, and begin studying distances between parking areas and the property’s features.


This buck was captured on city-owned land open to hunting. This can be great hunting on small acreage.

Many times I will completely ignore great looking areas simply because I know that other hunters will flock to the obvious spots. If I do run into hunters in “my spots,” most are very dedicated and respectful like myself. So we tend to be courteous and give each other room. Occasionally, you run into the classic “bad apple” that thinks they own the place, and continue to keep the stereotype alive. However, I found the further in you go, the less likely you are to run into anyone, let alone these types.


Growing up in Pennsylvania and hunting public land, we never had a lack of deer sightings when hunting. This does not include sitting on a stump eating a PB&J with a fire blazing next to you (believe me, I have seen that and much worse).

There is not a doubt in my mind that hunting public land is much tougher than private land. But I also truly believe it made me a more knowledgeable and successful deer hunter.

Why? Well for starters, it takes a lot more attention to detail in order to find a spot that you can hunt that holds deer and escapes the crowd. Typically these go hand in hand, as deer will move away from high-pressured areas.

Second, because these deer are typically more pressured, they become more sensitive to things being “out of place” in their area. So setting up stands early and hunting in only the most optimal of conditions (wind, temperature, etc.) can be even more important.

Lastly, you have to actually work to find deer. That means going back to your hunting roots of reading rub lines, scrapes, trail use, bedding areas, oak flats (acorns), and just “legging” the property. All this comes together to formulate a plan of attack that will often lead you to success.

The author captured this public land brute during the peak rut in             Missouri. He never saw this buck before, and sadly never saw him again after this.
The author captured this public land brute during the peak rut in Missouri. He never saw this buck before, and sadly never saw him again after this.

Finding big bucks on public ground can be difficult, but is not impossible. I regularly encounter multiple mature bucks on public land every year. Now in no way does that mean I see “Booners,” but in Missouri I am confident that I will come across a 140-inch or bigger buck each year.

In fact just last year alone, I had a couple 150-inch bucks show up on trail camera. In Pennsylvania, I had several opportunities at what many would consider giants. Though I never closed the deal, they are definitely there. In the Deep South state of Mississippi, I have seen several 130-inch or bigger bucks, missed one in the 140-inch range, and harvested a couple 3 ½- to 4 ½-year-olds that many would be proud of to harvest.

In reality, it is not easy to kill a big buck on public land. My goal is to harvest one 3 ½ years or older, and I have been able to do that multiple times. They may not be giants, but I am absolutely proud of them. I chase some monsters every year, and to me that’s the actual hunt, with the harvest being a few seconds of intense activity. You may not go out and see 10 or 20 deer on a hunt, but like my dad used to tell me all the time, “It only takes seeing the ‘right’ one to make your entire season.”

Ever wondered what it would be like to hunt with Michael Waddell? Brought to you by Cabela’s Deer Nation, here’s your chance to find out.

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