It’s Easier Than You Think to Find Public Hunting Land
One of the hardest parts of hunting, especially for the modern day hunter, is just finding a good place to hunt. How do you find public hunting land when you’re a new hunter, don’t own any land, or you just moved to a new part of the country?
A generation or two ago, many people just walked out the door on their family farm land for deer hunting or any other kind. Some people are lucky enough to have inherited this land from their relatives.
But more of us today live in urban or suburban areas and don’t own any land ourselves. Maybe we know a friend or coworker who owns a hunting property. But we sure as heck don’t.
Or do we?
The Case for Public Hunting Land
Public land is a major blessing in this country. When I say public hunting land, I mean any federal, state, or local areas designated as parks, forests, management areas (or something along those lines) that are open to hunting deer or other animals. We all have access to it and there’s a LOT of it (as in many millions of acres). Also, federal hunting lands are technically all paid for and maintained by our very own tax dollars. So in a very real sense, we are all land barons. Where’s my scotch and cigar? I feel like celebrating.
But if that’s true, why aren’t we out enjoying it more?
Unfortunately, many public hunting lands near large urban centers are heavily pressured. We’re all strapped for time, so it only makes sense that people want to travel the least amount possible. But it often results in reduced wild game populations, less animal visibility, and increased encounters with other hunters. While you can deal with that if you’re simply hiking, none of these are very good from a whitetail hunting standpoint. In some locations, you do simply have to travel farther away to find high quality public lands.
Private Hunting Land Considerations
Every state is different in terms of the breakdown of private vs. public land. Northern and western states tend to have far more public land available, while southern and eastern states are heavily privatized.
When you start your search to find hunting land, don’t immediately dismiss private land just because you don’t currently own any yourself. Maybe you can afford to buy a hunting property? Some hunting properties can be surprisingly cheap. They probably won’t be great and will take some elbow grease to turn them around, but land can be affordable if you shop smart and have some budget for it.
But if that’s just not in the cards, there are also some private land owners that will allow you to hunt on their property as long as you follow their rules and are generally a good human being. Yes, it really does come down to that. If you can show them that you respect their property as much as they do, you can often win them over. You may be able to lease it for a cash payment or simply pay them by helping out with some chores. But we’re going to mostly focus on public hunting land here.
Finding New Hunting Land
I grew up exclusively hunting on public land (mostly county properties and some state hunting lands). I’ll admit that it was in northern Minnesota where there’s a lot of public hunting land near me that I can explore without running into other hunters. But I’ve used the approach below to find new hunting lands across the state. You can start by simply searching for “public hunting land near me,” “public land near me,” “state hunting land near me,” or some variant into your search browser. You can also check out the NSSF Where to Hunt page, which has a list of state agency sites with public land information. This will often bring up a good list. But sometimes, you want to look deeper.
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Desktop Scouting for Public Hunting Land
I am obsessed with desktop scouting for hunting. Whether I’m finding new hunting properties or even just new hunting spots on a single property, it’s a fantastic tool. It’s also a simple process that allows you to cover a huge chunk of ground without having to visit every single property. That’s good, because that would take a lot of time that we just don’t have. Here’s how I approach it…
You’ll need a computer with a satellite imagery program on it. I’ve always recommended Google Earth™ Pro, but onX Maps is awesome too. I start by targeting a specific location (e.g., within 50 miles of my home, in “X” County, etc.). I then load various layers into Google Earth™, such as parcel information (basically a plat book that tells you who owns what property), state or federal public lands, topographic maps, and wetland boundaries. You can find most of these layers by searching for “Google earth wetlands” or “Google earth parcels Minnesota” as examples. I then scan through the area I decided on and see which properties catch my attention from a high level.
UPDATE: I was recently on the Big Game Hunting Blog podcast talking about this exact topic. Head on over and listen to it HERE to learn a bit more about my public hunting land strategy.
But What Should You Look For?
I look for public hunting land that might be a little hard to access and that has the right combination of habitats for whatever animal I intend to hunt. Picking places away from roads and trails usually eliminates competition with other hunters. Most people will stick to the easily accessible areas since they’re on a time crunch. Plus, I like the solitude you can find on public hunting land. If I’ve wandered a full day without seeing anyone, I mark it as a successful day. But I’m kind of a hermit like that…
Next, you need to think about habitat types. If I’m going to hunt small game animals (i.e., bird hunting, squirrel hunting, rabbit hunting, etc.), for example, I look for properties with lots of brushy areas, some open meadows, and young aspen stands. You should adjust this based on what animals you are hunting. Generally, I like to hunt areas that have lots of habitat diversity. If you can find public hunting land with several habitat types all in close proximity, you should be able to find wild game. Most game animals seek out these “edge habitats” because they offer food and cover in one convenient spot. If you can find a pond or river on aerial view, you’ve got an even better chance at seeing animals there.
Wait…how can you identify trees from an aerial view?
Admittedly, I’m a biologist who spends a lot of time identifying trees (aka, “nerd”). But with some practice, you can figure out the main types of trees in your area in no time. Here are a couple common examples, especially for public hunting land in the Midwest or Northeast.
Conifers (pine, fir, spruce, cedar, etc.)
These will stand out really well in fall images as dark green spots. You can still find them in summer images, but they really pop out in the brownish yellow colors of fall.
Mature Deciduous Trees (aspen, maple, basswood, etc.)
We have a lot of these forests on public hunting land near me. Mature (older) trees will usually show lots of shadows on the ground because the sunlight can filter through the open understory. Fall images will sometimes also show autumn leaf colors, which really give them away.
In fall images, you can often find groups of oak trees by their leaves. They usually hold onto their brown leaves while all others have shed them, so they stand out very well.
Brush/Shrubs (alder, hazel, willow, etc.)
These habitat areas will appear somewhat fuzzy and drab. There’s not much distinction in these areas and most of them will overlap with wetland boundaries labeled as PSS for “shrub-swamp”.
Other Features in Hunting Maps
Using desktop scouting techniques like these gives you such a tremendous advantage. It’s unbelievable how powerful the tool really is. You can easily find new hunting areas that would have taken you days or weeks of scouting every last inch of a property to find. There are very few hidden pockets that hunters can keep to themselves these days. That’s bad news if you already have some honey holes, but great news if you don’t! Here are some other things you can accomplish using your own Google Earth™ hunting maps.
You can view historic photos by sliding the time scale back (circled red below). This is helpful if you want to toggle between a summer image and fall image. Summer aerial maps for deer hunting aren’t usually that helpful. But when you use fall images, you can easily tell where the conifers and deciduous trees are. It’s also easier to identify trees to species when using fall images. If you like, you can also usually slide it back a long time to see how your new hunting location looked thirty years ago.
You can also pan the view so that it shows the topography as a 3D image (using the arrows on the red-circled option below). This really gives you a bird’s eye view of the landscape. If you hunt primarily in a flat area, this doesn’t do much for you, but it’s invaluable in hilly areas. You can easily map out which part of a public hunting land you’d like to hunt when it’s laid out in front of you like this.
Measuring and Adding Features
There are so many other features and tools too. If you find a spot you’d like to investigate in-person, add a pin. You can name it whatever you want (e.g., “Tree Stand 2017”) and change how the icon looks. You can also add trails by clicking along a path and change the thickness and color so it stands out really well. I group these into different folders saved within the program for easy reference later. You can even measure distances or areas with just a few clicks. It’s a truly powerful program.
“Closing the Funnel”
After I’ve found several hunting properties that look interesting to me, I’ll rank them by my gut feeling to reduce the number a bit. You’d be surprised how many potential places you can find. For the hunting properties that make this list, I will make a plan to explore on foot. Using the custom hunting maps I created from desktop scouting, I walk through the public hunting land to see how they compare to my expectations. Sometimes it’s better than I was thinking from my aerial scouting; sometimes it’s a lot worse. You should definitely follow each desktop session up with an in-person scouting trip.
While you’re out, look for animal signs and take pictures and notes. You’re going to explore a lot of ground, so this makes it easier later on. When you’re done, you can collect your notes, points, and trails in Google Earth™ to help you with the next exercise: picking an actual hunting spot. I’ll cover that in the next post.
Sharing and Respect
Ultimately, hunting on public land is a really enjoyable activity in most states; provided you have the right mindset and can be patient with others. To enjoy it, you need to be a respectful and ethical hunter, hands down. If you’re not, you’re definitely not going to make any friends.
That brings up an important point: most public hunting land is already hunted by other people. In some cases, their whole family tree may have always hunted that property. In cases like that, you need to be extremely respectful so you don’t get the cold shoulder. Honestly, it comes down to just being a good neighbor in a way. If you chat with them about where they hunt (so you can find and hunt other areas) and put in the scouting time to familiarize yourself with the land, it will make a good impression on them. If you walk in and start hunting wherever you want, regardless of seeing other tree stands in an area, you’re probably creating a really bad situation.
But if we just band together as hunters and help each other out, who knows? You could find a new public hunting land spot and even gain a new hunting buddy in the process.
Note: Screenshot images via © 2018 Google, Image Landsat/Copernicus. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.