Skip to main content

How to Pinpoint Public Land for 'Private' Hunting

Careful research can lead you to your own hunting spot on publicly accessible land.

How to Pinpoint Public Land for 'Private' Hunting
Places that seem perfect usually draw crowds. Instead, look for a "good enough" spot that other hunters may ignore. (Photo courtesy of ALPS Outdoors)

You got a one-week pass from the spouse. Vacation days have accrued. Time to go there.

But where is “there?” Whether its Montana pheasants or New England whitetails, a nine-day bucket-list journey or half a weekend, your success on publicly accessible land depends in large part on starting in the right place. Rather than wandering perplexed and wasting time, have a plan to map out your quest.

More public land is present in some states than others, but you’ll likely have lots of options. Public land is just that: the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service, a state or county agency, or other government entity manages it on our behalf. It is, literally, ours. This includes many wildlife refuges, wildlife production areas and wildlife management areas where we’ve got an open invitation. Don’t neglect Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Tennessee Valley Authority and similar agencies that control thousands of taxpayers’ acres on and near lakes, dams and rivers. State school lands are another option. Some counties own huntable ground. There are national monuments, state parks and state forests also in the mix.

hunter looks at map
Large paper maps are useful for obtaining an overview of a big chunk of property. Use a digital app to focus on specific spots. (Photo courtesy of ALPS Outdoors)

Walk-in programs go by different names in each state, opening privately owned parcels that a state buys access to with taxpayer money. Tribal lands and reservations, military bases, timber companies, mining companies, oil and gas developers, and pipeline and electrical rights-of-way may also provide access. Of course, it is always a good idea to check with the agency or organization that manages the land to confirm public access before planning on hunting there.

Keep an open mind when researching land. During one hunt every parking spot on a string of public-access parcels had a truck in it, so I kept driving in hopes of at least getting in some scouting for an earlier start the next day. The dog needed to pee. So did I. We pulled into a deserted waterfowl production area, and even I know in that state you take a shotgun whenever you go for a walk. The WPA was ringed by standing corn, but we were confined to the public area of knee-high grass. Surprisingly, I never found a drop of water on this waterfowl area, but I jumped a fat whitetail buck and missed a hard crossing shot on a sharptail lounging on the high spot.

GATHER INTEL

To get details on various public properties, cast your net far, wide … and deep! From my own surveys, top information sources are friends, state wildlife agencies and online mapping apps. Few of us do a Google search of newspaper articles or even a general search of key words like “pheasant prospects in (state)” or “deer hunting in (state).” Search for guides and outfitters, and study their websites for general information on where they take clients. Go to birdwatchers’ sites and note where posters found your intended quarry.

Drill down to local wildlife agency offices and ask anyone and everyone there. The best intel I got last season was from the front-desk guy, just a regular dude like me who lived for bird hunting. Nobody will give you coordinates, but someone might save you a few miles of driving to a droughted-out spot or clue you to a new property just brought into the program.

A Google search of “walk-in hunting (state)” should get you to the correct state agency webpages. Get the online maps, hard copies of the state’s hunting atlas, the mobile app if there is one. Make sure you have all public lands and walk-in ground identified, including waterfowl and big-game production areas.

Old-school paper maps by the BLM, Forest Service and other government agencies harken back to an era when self-reliance was a thing, and it still is in my house. Posting a big map of the region I’m going to hunt, pondering it with coffee mug in hand, instills a deeper grasp of the area. It shows subtle folds in the landscape and provides details on things from property lines to landmarks, all of which seep into my subconscious.

FIRM UP THE PLAN

Only after you have details on potentially productive properties should you start routing your hunt. I’d rather hunt than drive—maybe you, too. Focus on areas that have multiple publicly accessible lands in proximity. Punting on one spot doesn’t seem so bad if your next destination is just a few miles away. It’s easier if you’re a bird hunter, but even an elk hunter can plot a drive or hike that has several public-access spots, or spots within spots, in a concentrated area.

Consider locations based on quality, not just quantity. In South Dakota last year, I found a blue speck on a map of vast blue blotches. I shot a pheasant in that diminutive walk-in area, a well-earned bird and a valuable lesson. When other hunters zigged, I zagged.

Along those lines, think about going to the second-best place rather than the magazine cover story’s location. Fewer hunters, better odds. When you’re evaluating the worthiness of a property, look at the entire place. Sure, much of a section might be desert, but in the southwest corner is a depression with water, cattails and the potential for mallards, mulies or ringnecks. That’s when the fun begins.

Recommended


I also like the ugly spots nobody else thinks are worth the effort. (Yeah, I own German wirehairs, too … there’s a correlation.) If a place looks pretty good but not perfect, I’m starting right there. Birds may be muttering in the brush because their ideal habitat one ridge over is already taken. Whitetails might have been pushed there, or they may just be passing through. The greater likelihood is no humans will bother slowing down to check it out.

I relearned this lesson during a chukar hunt. We’d been roaming the darkest corner of the continental U.S., pounding out the miles from a base in the only “town” in the region. So were a couple dozen other hunters. Every morning was like a Grand Prix start, everyone peeling out of the parking lot to get to the “good spots” first. After changing yet another flat tire just outside town as trucks crammed with dog boxes roared toward the far horizon, my buddy pointed to a cleft in the rocky hills ignored by the passing horde. Ours were the only tire tracks on the desert trail that led to a limpid pool watering a lush oasis and several coveys of chukars.

hunter in tall grass
The middle of a piece of cover can be the best place to find birds, as other hunters content with working the edges push them deeper into the vegetation. (Photo courtesy of ALPS Outdoors)

GET OUT THERE

Whenever possible, scout a piece of ground in person before hunting it. I’ve saved hours of aggravation by discovering closed roads and flooded fields the night before a hunt. I’ve also found back doors to popular walk-in areas where nobody else was parked, along with other surprises.

Scouting keeps you from judging a book by its cover. A couple years ago a massive wildfire blackened one of my favorite desert creek bottoms, turning it into a scarred lunar landscape. But from the road, I could just see a green riparian area a couple miles up the draw. A short trek through the ash put me in a surreal tableau: blackened slopes contrasted with a lush green band extending a dozen yards on each side of the sparkling stream. I shot several valley quail and chukars there, and when I cleaned them, their crops were full of toasted cheatgrass seed.

Consider going as far as you’re willing on the first hunt of each day. Human nature is to drive as little as possible. That opens the faraway places to you.

Once at your spot, the smartest move is to stop. Go early and drink your coffee in the parking area. It might help someone else try another area. Consult your map, look for signs, and make sure you’re in the right place instead of the sheriff deputy’s trespassing-citation honey hole.

Figure out where those ahead of you will likely go (or already went if you slept late), and go the other way. It’s considerate but also strategic. They may push birds to the outside, or squeeze them to the middle where nobody else wants to wrestle with the shintangle.

On the other hand, a well-known big-game media personality once sold out a seminar around the premise that the “best elk is 100 yards from the road.” We’re there to hunt, not take a Navy SEAL hell week test. Some hunters believe the only way to earn their game is with blisters, skinned knees and burning lungs. There’s always someone faster and earlier than you, so sometimes it pays to work the close ground. After some pressure, there’s as good a chance deer, ducks or birds have found a serene haven right there, wondering what all the commotion is deep in their usual haunts.

Or not. A good friend has reminded me time and again that going just one mile farther up a draw or deeper down a valley is where the untouched critters feed and loaf, unfazed by hunters. He’s also right.

public land sign
Walk-in areas grant public access to private land. (Photo by Scott Linden)

MIND YOUR MANNERS

How lucky we are, able to roam the wildest parts of America. Luckier still when we inhale deeply the culture, people, places and things in the one-horse towns near our hunting spots. The payoff is clear: friends when you need them, useful information, textures, colors and flavors not on the suburban palette.

Paying it forward is a lifestyle in flyover country. I’ve pushed cattle, doctored people (worst patients), dogs, sheep, horses and cattle. I’ve hauled beer kegs, ice cream, rifles and hay bales. I have never expected a quid pro quo but as I traveled farther down the road have been given advice, access and a warm bed when the “no vacancy” sign was lit.

Many unpaved roads have three tire ruts, one right up the middle. When someone approaches from the other direction, everyone moves over, giving up the middle. Slow down to minimize dust when passing.

Bird hunters, nobody likes a four-legged flea circus mooching at their barbecue or chasing their bird dog. Control your mutt in the motel parking lot.

Hunting is economic development. Buy fuel, groceries and beer in the small towns you pass through during a trip. Put a buck in the jar to fund the school field trip. If you earn some local intelligence, it’s a bonus. Don’t try to “speak the language,” but do learn to pronounce people and place names. Everyone loves talking bucks, birds, dogs, weather and a local team making the playoffs.

Land is rural America’s workplace. It may be publicly owned or accessible, but cattle, crops, mining, timber and drilling are also part of the economic landscape. Many times, leases allow grazing, mining or timber harvest on publicly owned land, but that doesn’t preclude access by the rest of us. Leave your politics at the county line and think micro, not macro. Empty shells in a combine stop a harvest cold and put a dent in the payroll. Cows are walking thousand-dollar bills with right-of-way on rural roads. Leaving a campfire unattended is like burning down an office building.

In rural America, we live that quaint Boy Scout-y stuff: courtesy, kindness, humility, helpfulness. We mean what we say and say what we mean. You’d do well to lower your voice, listen more than you talk, be inquisitive but not nosey, stand a drink for the guy next to you and expect nothing for it.

“Treat others as you would like others to treat you” is an axiom dating to Confucian times, but it is especially relevant on the wide-open public access landscape of the 21st century. There are no referees but plenty of players on the field; it’s up to us—and our consciences—to follow the rules, starting with that one.

sign in to hunt
Some walk-in access to private land requires signing in before starting to hunt. (Photo by Scott Linden)
Quick Tips
Four simple ways to get the most from public land.
  1. Go later. Most hunters are done by early afternoon or gone once the snow flies. Big-game hunters know the golden hour prior to sunset can be very productive. The same goes for uplanders, but give covey birds time to re-gather for the night or you may not find any next season.
  2. Sign in. Some areas require a reservation, phone call or filling out a form at a kiosk. Contact the managing agency to determine this, as it might not be marked in your online app.
  3. Hunt when the weather sucks. You’ll be all by yourself.
  4. Check with local and national conservation groups for habitat projects. Improved habitat usually means improved hunting.



GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Gear

Trika Rods

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Gear

New Shimano Baitcasters

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Hunting

Incredible Turkey Audio: Tommy Allen Punches his Minnesota Tag IN THE SNOW

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Destinations

First Turkey Ever: Perfect Conditions Make for a Short Hunt

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Fishing

Bass Crash Course: Bass Froggin' Game Plan

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Videos

What to Know Before Going Off-Road

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Learn

Off-Road Safety Tips and Techniques

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Gear

The Right Tires for Off-Roading

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Learn

Bass Crash Course: Shallow-Water Power Lures

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Destinations

Minnesota Double Down: First Visit to New Farm Goes Perfectly

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Fishing

Bass Crash Course: Bass Fishing in the Wind

Taylor is a known turkey killer in her family, and this year is no different. After an enjoyable gobbling morning, a war...
Hunting

She Kills The Biggest Bird of the Year

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now