I have been hunting public land now for almost 40 years. Most of that time has been a positive experience and safe experience. Living in Wisconsin, I have access to over 34 million acres of land; I always say to many places to hunt and not enough time to cover them all. Often I hear, "I don't hunt because I don't have a place to go or feel unsafe on public grounds." "I'm just not interested in putting in the work" is what I hear instead. That's okay; it keeps the pressure down and gives me more land to hunt.
Let me share some ways that I practice safe hunting on public land; these methods will be geared toward turkey hunting, but they can be applied to all uses of public land. If you have been unsure about hunting public land, follow this advice and use the vast land resources available. If you spend time scouting, know your public land boundaries, and share the resources, you can find public land hunting enjoyable and safe and have many opportunities to see the game.
Know Your Boundaries
One of the most common arguments with property owners is you trespassed. Years ago, I would study and buy maps and plat books of areas I wanted to hunt and use those with my handheld GPS unit to determine property boundaries. Today with the mapping technology available, you can easily determine the boundaries on your phone or with customized downloadable maps to your GPS units. There should be no excuse for trespassing onto private property nowadays.
There will be times when you pull into a parking spot, and it will have several vehicles there already. If you are lucky, the hunters will also be there, and you can discuss where everyone is planning on going. Don't be afraid to ask questions of your fellow hunter; the more details you share, the safer the hunt will be. Some good questions are: how many hunters do you have with you, what direction will you be heading, and how long do you think you will be hunting today? This scenario is why scouting is essential; know the area, and if you think it will be crowded, then have a plan B and go to a different location. If I know someone will only hunt in the morning, I may return to this original spot later in the day to see if okay to hunt the area now.
Keep Your Distance
Give your fellow hunter space; turkey hunters benefit from walking into an area and listening to turkey sounds. Let's be honest; not many of us in the woods will sound like national turkey-calling champions, so we should tell the difference between a hunter-calling and a real bird. Show respect and back to that bird, and let them try to close the deal. It seems not to be a good idea to attempt to run in and intercept that bird; you don't know what the other hunter is doing. In this scenario, I have had some success on birds, where I will back off 400 or more yards and wait to see what happens.
There have been a few birds I have taken over the years where I heard a hunter working a bird, heard a shot, and within 30 minutes or so, I could get a bird to gobble and called him into the location that I set up away from the first hunter. Keeping your distance from other hunters also keeps the peace in the woods; plenty of woods and birds to chase, and getting into an argument over it isn't worth it.
Become a Weekend Warrior
The weekends are when public land gets used the most, and the flocks of weekend warriors hit the woods. If you can hunt public land during the midweek, you will feel like you own 1,000s of acres of land all to yourself. I learned this a long time ago when I worked retail, and my day off was during the middle of the week; I seldom saw another hunter and had to compete for locations.
If you can get a midweek hunt in, and you have to be a weekend warrior like many of us, some tips for getting the best public land experience are:
- Show up early. Try to get to the spot before others; this may mean that you have to be onsite an hour early.
- Go Deep. Most hunters don't like to walk into the woods very far; if you are willing to get over the half-mile mark, you will not see many hunters follow you.
- Use different access points. Many access points on public land are traditional parking lots leading to a trailhead. These trails have been walked by many. Use different access points that are not as commonly used. Example: Several areas I hunt have streams, and I will use the stream as access instead.
You can have a safe and successful hunt on public land if you do a little work. Get a good mapping app for your phone or download good maps onto your handheld GPS and use it to determine the public land boundaries. Think about your safety; if you carry decoys, use orange flagging or brightly colored decoy bags. Call off another hunter if you think they are too close to you; better to be safe than sorry. If you choose to use water as your access point, wear your PFD. Have a good flashlight to help guide you in the dark when heading out in the early morning or coming back in from evening hunts. Celebrate The Experience!