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Conflict Avoidance: Keep It Civil in Our Woods, Waters

Running into other hunters and anglers is a common occurrence on public land. Don't let it ruin the day—for anyone.

Conflict Avoidance: Keep It Civil in Our Woods, Waters
Another hunter approaching your setup may ruin the morning, but be gracious. It’s likely an honest mistake made by someone unaware of your presence. (Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak)

I’m sure the other turkey hunter didn’t see me. I had max concealment with full facemask and gloves, season- and terrain-matching camouflage covering every extremity, and I was tucked into the trunk of a massive white oak that obscured my outline. I didn’t spot the man until he walked into the clearing and stopped short when he saw my hen decoy in the open.

The hunter froze in the pre-dawn light then crouched, as though his abrupt presence might be forgiven by the hen. Next, he shouldered his shotgun at my decoy, maybe thinking it was a jake or maybe anticipating a longbeard would be sharing the clearing.

My first tendency was to remain frozen against the tree, hoping he’d realize his gaffe and move on. Then I worried that if this interloper was ready to shoot a hen, he might be so myopic that he would train his gun on my profile. So I shouted “Hey!” and stood up quickly. The hunter did a cartoon double-take and slunk away, obviously surprised and embarrassed by his trespass on my spot.

hunters talking in the woods
Respectfully congratulating a stranger on success is common courtesy on public land and may lead to a hot tip or new friendship. (Photo courtesy of ALPS Outdoors)

I should stress that as licensed hunters, we both had equal permission to hunt the Corps of Engineers land along the sprawling shoreline of Arkansas’ Bull Shoals Lake. Like me, he had probably heard gobblers roosting the previous evening, gotten up hours before sunrise, boated to the foot of this white-oak ridge, hiked in the dark, found turkey sign and hunted as though he was alone in this kingdom of hardwoods.

But the presence of each of us had ruined the morning for both of us. Compounding the problem is that the most productive public-land hunting method is often what we call running-and-gunning, or covering a lot of ground in order to find responsive gobblers. When we do that, we run the risk of interfering with other hunters.

That spring morning above Bull Shoals was the freshest reminder that there’s simply not enough room for all of us public-land hunters. In the last few years it seems there’s less room than ever, as more hunters pack into the same acreage. With the wide adoption of mobile mapping apps like onX and GOHUNT, more of us are working our way deeper into public land and more of us are discovering overlooked public parcels that aren’t so remote.

Crowding isn’t limited to turkey season. In Montana’s deer season, I’m encountering more hunters deeper in rugged public land, places that I had to myself just a few years ago. Reports of hunters from different parties shooting at the same deer or elk are more common than they were just a few years ago, and some confrontations have turned violent as two strangers claimed the same trophy animal.

This sort of crowding has defined public waterfowl areas for years. Fights at boat ramps, competition for the best blind spots, and truculent hunters flaring out-of-range birds so other hunters don’t get shots are reported every season.

“All hunters are buddies and full of love when they talk about each other out of the season, and they’ll talk til they’re blue about how we all need each other to support hunting,” observes a game warden friend of mine who has had to referee conflicts in the field. “But put them next to each other in the marsh, and they all think the other hunters are a--holes. And it gets worse the fewer the birds or bucks there are.”

We can’t do much about the number of birds on any given day, just as we can’t control where we’ll encounter a trophy bull or buck. But there are a few things we can do to lower the temperature as we encounter each other in the field.

  • Anticipate crowds. Is the trailhead to your hunting area full of pickups festooned with outdoor brands’ stickers? It’s a good bet there will be competition, and potential conflict, ahead. Either get there earlier than everybody else or find another place to hunt. Hunt on weekdays. If you must hunt that day and place, find an alternate way into the area.
  • Reduce Tension. When you do encounter another angler at your favorite riffle, or a duck hunter in your killing hole, either turn and retreat, or engage them civilly. Tell them about your experiences in that place, and maybe give them some advice. You never know when a good turn will result in a tip you can use, or an offer to hunt or fish together, or an invitation to an even better spot.
  • Keep Your Head. Not everyone is as centered as you. If a target buck gets shot out from under you, or another duck hunter sets up obnoxiously close and shoots at birds working your decoys, just leave. No deer or duck is worth a hot word, a thrown punch that might result in an assault charge, or even worse, a shot made in anger. There will be other bucks and other days on the marsh, and you can chalk your bad experience up to poor manners and COVID, the origin of deteriorating customer service, low educational expectation and the rise of political hostility around the country.

Back on the ridge above Bull Shoals, I sat for awhile against my tree, made a few uninspired hen yelps and then walked out of the clearing. My morning turkey hunt was spoiled, but I was still looking forward to a full day of fishing.




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