September 27, 2022
When I first started traveling the West as a nonresident hunter in the mid-1970s, I quickly learned that most ranchers in the Rocky Mountain states didn't care for hunters driving trucks that sported California license plates. I also learned that the best hunting for pronghorns, mule deer and elk was often concentrated around private lands that grew crops and had stable water sources. Additionally, I learned that some ranchers tried to block access to public lands bordering their properties.
In those pre-internet days, I did lots of library research, looking for access routes around—and sometimes through—private lands to the public ground. I found lots of options, including parcels of what are known as schoolhouse lands in Montana. These little pockets of public ground were required by law to have public access, which often went through private ranches, and that access was often on a dirt track not clearly marked as a public access point. But I had the maps and the laws in my pocket, and I accessed those lands and shot a lot of game that bedded on the forested public land but traveled daily to eat and drink on private crop fields. And I had it all to myself.
It's different today. Now, most states in the West, recognizing that one of the biggest reasons people don’t buy hunting licenses is a lack of places to hunt, have some sort of program in place where they work with private landowners to allow public hunting on their lands, and/or allow access through private lands to adjacent public lands (see below). Don't get me wrong, the vast majority of landowners either do not allow the general public to hunt their land, lease hunting rights to outfitters or sell "landowner tags" for big dollars. But there are literally hundreds of thousands of private acres open to public hunting through these programs.
Fortunately, getting a boatload of information from the comfort of home well ahead of your hunt has never been easier than it is today. This is due in no small part to two things—the internet and forward-thinking state game departments that have realized that in order to attract and retain hunters, they need to take proactive steps to help them be successful. In doing so, many have made available a ton of free information on their websites. Now you can find places to hunt and begin the scouting process before ever leaving home.
NARROW YOUR FOCUS
Essentially, your goal is to refine your search from a very large area down to a very small area. First, you must decide where you want to hunt. This might be a place with over-the-counter tags or an area where you have drawn a tag. (You are compiling preference points for various species in different states, right? If not, you should be.)
As an example, you cannot hunt elk in the entire state of Montana, so you have to apply for an elk tag in a specific game management unit. (I drew such a tag in 2021.) You then must shrink your focus further to a specific section of that hunting area. This may be a drainage on public land or it could be walk-in area on private land. For the latter, state game department web sites typically have all the info you need to understand how their walk-in access programs work. These programs involve the state either paying landowners cash or trading things like grazing rights in exchange for allowing the public to hunt their property. Each state’s program is different, but most Western states have one.
The game department website can also provide important information like harvest stats, hunter usage and so on, as well as maps of public areas. Compare these maps with satellite imagery on Google Earth or a hunting app. What’s adjacent to the public hunting area? Is it open farm ground, a state park or maybe some sort of urban area? I personally love to hunt public lands that have well-managed adjacent private land–especially if the public plot is difficult to access. Look for food sources, agriculture, clearings, streams, etc.
MAPS and APPS
There are numerous informative apps you can use to help plan your hunt. These include BaseMap, Google Earth, GPS and Track, HuntStand, onX Hunt and Pocket Ranger among others. Most are free to download and use on a basic level; some have upgradeable pay options that take their services to another level. When used to their full potential, these apps will become an integral part of your hunt planning and strategy.
You can download maps from these apps, as well as from state game department web sites, to your phone or tablet. This is especially helpful in many hunting areas where cellphone coverage is unreliable or nonexistant. Once you arrive at your hunting destination, you can compare what’s on the screen to what you see once your boots are on the ground.
HuntStand, in particular, is an excellent tool for both pre-hunt planning and in-hunt use. That’s because the app gives you the most up-to-date information on the ground you’ll be hunting. Knowing the effects of major wildfires, floods, timber cutting, the presence (or lack) of agriculture bordering public ground, ever-changing property boundaries and locations of access roads and trails all will affect your ability to access and navigate the ground, but also provide insight into game population concentrations and movements. It is critical to gather as much of this data as possible before you ever leave home.
Using HuntStand’s Multiple Base Layer Options, you can select from several free layers for your maps, including Google Satellite, Google Hybrid, Google Terrain, Mapbox Outdoors (with trails, contour lines, park boundaries and more), USGS Topo Quad, Google Contour and Google Streets. By upgrading to HuntStand Pro ($29.99 per year), you can unlock many more critical layers that will help you solve the riddle of where the best hunting in your chosen area can be found—and how to hunt it. It’s a cool tool.
State websites will also show property borders and features within the properties. You can find parking lots, access roads, food plots and waterholes on these maps. Using your phone or tablet in the field gives you an opportunity to see everything on a screen, including your real-time location.
SPEAK TO REAL PEOPLE
Speaking with someone with intimate knowledge of the area you plan to hunt is one of the best ways to fine-tune your game plan, and there are no better people to speak with than state game biologists and conservation officers. They can add nuance to big-picture events like drought, wildfire and flooding by giving you an idea of how the game animals have reacted to them.
Don't be afraid to call and ask specific questions, but be sure to have your questions ready so you don’t waste anybody’s time. I have found these folks more willing to speak with me if they think I am serious and have already done a bunch of research. It’s also easiest to reach a conservation officer before the season opens. You’ll find some folks more accommodating than others, but talking to you is part of their job, so don’t be afraid to use them as a resource. You can find their phone numbers on state wildlife agency websites.
OTHER INTERNET RESOURCES
Use the Web to find any and all bits and pieces of information. There might be a magazine story about hunting the specific location. Record-keeping organizations like the Boone and Crockett Club, Pope and Young Club, and Safari Club International have databases that show where their record book entries were taken and when. There will probably be a local hunting shop in a town near where you’re thinking of hunting that has a website you can check out, as well as in-store personnel that might be helpful if you stop in on your trip and spend a little money buying supplies. And don't overlook YouTube and other social media channels, where people these days just can’t help posting videos of their successes on public land.
STATE ACCESS PROGRAMS
How to find private land open to public hunting where you live.
- Arizona—Where to Hunt: A new tool, azaccessmap.com, provides hunters, anglers and other outdoor recreationists with access information to and through private lands. Specific game management unit information and mapping can be found at azgfd.com/hunting/units.
- California—Private Lands Management Program: There are currently 109 PLM properties in 25 counties encompassing more than 1,226,000 acres of wildlife habitat. Landowners in this program receive tags they can market to the public. A list can be found at the Department of Fish and Wildlife web site (wildlife.ca.gov). California’s SHARE program awards access permits to enrolled private lands via a random draw process through the state’s online license service.
- Colorado—Walk-In Access Program: Access to these lands is by foot only, and big game hunters must realize that the properties are open to small game hunting as well, which is the program’s primary focus. Lands enrolled for big game hunting change every July—something to consider when applying for tags. Visit cpw.state.co.us for info.
- Idaho—Access Yes!: Access Yes! (idfg.idaho.gov/app/access-yes) is a program designed to improve sportsmen’s access to private land or through private land to public land by compensating willing landowners who provide access. A list of specific properties and the types of hunting allowed on each can be found on the Idaho Fish and Game Department site (fishandgame.idaho.gov).
- Montana—Block Management Program: Montana has over 800 block management areas encompassing more than 7 million acres. Properties are enrolled annually, with the annual guide available in August each year. Download it at fwp.mt.gov/hunt/access/blockmanagement.
- New Mexico—Open Gate: Open Gate is a program that leases private lands to increase public opportunity for hunting, fishing and trapping. It also allows access to otherwise inaccessible public lands by providing right-of-way corridors through deeded land. Different rules apply to hunting public versus private land in New Mexico. Find more info at wildlife.state.nm.us.
- Oregon—Access & Habitat Program: Established in 1993, the program currently provides hunting access to more than 8 million private acres statewide. Visit myodfw.com for info.
- Utah—Walk-In Access Program: Hunters must obtain online a free Walk-in Access Authorization number to participate in the program. Specific properties can be located at dwrapps.utah.gov/ram/start2. General program info can be found at the Division of Wildlife web site (wildlife.utah.gov).
- Washington—Private Lands Hunting Access: There are more than 500 private landowners and over 1.8 million acres enrolled in public access and habitat development agreements. Some landowners—notably large timber companies—charge access fees to use their lands. Visit privatelands.wdfw.wa.gov for more.
- Wyoming: The Cowboy State has a pair of programs that open private land to public hunting. The Walk-In Hunting Program lists properties by county that are open to on-foot hunting only. Meanwhile, the Hunter Management Area program lists specific properties and species available for hunting. Learn more about both at wgfd.wyo.gov.