Petersen's Hunting Expert Picks the 10 Best Public Land Hunts
October 02, 2017
Throw a dart at a map of the United States and there's a good chance you'll hit public land. There's an even better chance that public land is open to hunting.
More than 150 national forests, millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management land, dozens of military bases, and hundreds of national wildlife refuges are filled with everything from deer and turkeys to ducks and antelope. If it's a legal game animal, you can hunt it on federal land somewhere in America. You can even hunt exotics, such as gemsbok (White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico,) sika deer (Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia), and sambar (on St. Vincent NWR in Florida).
There's no question that much of our public land sees more than its share of hunting pressure. That's especially true east of the Mississippi River, where nearly 180 million people live. However, even on Virginia's 1.8 million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forests and the half-million acre Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, an enterprising hunter willing to work a little can find solitude. Hike a half-mile, go on a weekday, or hunt less-popular species or seasons and there's a good chance you'll have the woods to yourself.
Even better, seek out limited-entry hunts. Several states provide high-quality hunts on public land that are available only through a lottery. You can hunt ducks on national wildlife refuges in California, trophy-class elk on BLM land in Colorado, and giant mule deer on public land in Arizona. It can take years to draw some of those hunts, but don't fret. Most of the 600 million acres that you own requires nothing more than a hunting license and an adventurous spirit. It's your land. Go hunt it.
Southwest BLM — Antelope
There's no better state to find an antelope than Wyoming, and there's no place in the state with so much public land as southwestern Wyoming. Hundreds of thousands of acres of BLM land blanket the region, offering a near-unlimited opportunity to chase pronghorns. That is, if you draw a tag. Due to the growing popularity of antelope, along with a significant winter kill in the region last year, the odds of drawing a tag on your first attempt are slim.
"Anywhere there is lots of public land, you'll see an increased demand for tags," says Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Management Coordinator Mark Zornes. "It's taking at least three years in unit 91, which has a good number of pronghorns. Unit 101 is also good, but much of the region was hit with the worst winter I've seen in a very long time. We lost quite a few animals, so tag allocations are down some this season."
Hunters lucky enough to draw a tag should consider skipping opening week, when most of the pressure takes place. Zornes says Units 101 and 91 actually see a significant migration of antelope from as far away as Jackson Hole towards the end of the season in late October.
Not only will you have fresh bucks, you'll also practically have the place to yourself.
"This isn't what most serious antelope hunters would consider a trophy area, but your chances of success are about as high as they can get," Zornes adds. "Drawing a tag is the hardest part."
Wayne National Forest — Deer, Turkey, Small Game
It's true that the biggest bucks in any state come from well-managed private land. It's also true that some pretty impressive bucks are taken off public land every season. Wayne National Forest, located in southeastern Ohio, is no exception. The state has a well-earned reputation for producing quality bucks, thanks in part to regulations that prohibit centerfire rifles and a one-buck limit. The growing interest in quality deer management is also contributing to better age-classes. Many hunters pass up young bucks as they wait for a wall-hanger and shoot does if they are after meat.
Make no mistake: Any public land in a region as crowded as the Midwest and Northeast gets hunted hard. Add Ohio's reputation as a trophy buck state and it's easy to see why.
"Surveys tell us that resident hunters are hunting the national forest less these days because more non-resident hunters are hunting it," says Ohio Division of Wildlife Deer Program Manager Mike Tonkovich. "We don't have any way of knowing what kind of bucks they are shooting, though."
With about 244,000 acres scattered across 12 counties, there are enough nooks and crannies that an enterprising and energetic hunter can find a place to sit and wait for undisturbed bucks. In fact, a study conducted in Pennsylvania found that the vast majority of public land hunters don't go more than 400 yards from the nearest road. Thorough scouting can pay dividends.
Waterfowl Production Area — Waterfowl and Upland Birds
Known as "the duck factory," the Prairie Pothole Region in the northern Great Plains consists of tens of thousands of small wetlands known as "potholes." Among them are thousands owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If you've bought a federal duck stamp, you've helped purchase these lands.
Scattered throughout North Dakota are nearly 1,300 of them, totaling 289,000 acres of water and surrounding land. With few exceptions, all that land is open to hunting. Naturally, waterfowl draw the most interest. Gobs of local birds swarm over the sky in October as they prepare for the upcoming migration. Time it right and waves of ducks fresh from Canada will add to the abundance before the shallow ponds freeze.
Ducks aren't the only draw. Many of the wetlands that serve as nesting sites for waterfowl are ringed with acre upon acre of native grass, cattails, and other prime upland bird habitat. Pheasants, sharptails, and Hungarian partridge provide mixed-bag opportunities on many WPAs. Hunt ducks in the morning and chase other birds the rest of the day. Most WPAs are just a few hundred acres, but jump from one to another and you'll have more than enough land to hunt in a weekend or even a weeklong trip. Nontoxic shot is required for all hunting.
Colorado National Forests — Elk
No state has as many elk as Colorado, and no state offers as many elk tags. In much of the state, licenses are available over-the-counter for two weeklong general firearms seasons. Tags are good for only one of those splits, so make your week count.
Where should you go? Choosing a single national forest or even one region is like trying to choose a favorite child. The good news is that Colorado has a whopping 14.5 million acres of national forest generously scattered throughout its western half. Even better, most of that national forest land is open to elk hunting for anyone through Colorado Parks and Wildlife's general, over-the-counter hunts.
There's no way around it, though. Hunting pressure in OTC rifle units can be high. As with any public land, areas closest to roads and major trails gets the highest pressure. Elk seek pockets of remote country and dark timber, so plan on walking until you find a concentration of animals. Trophy-class bulls are rare in the OTC units, but some good ones are taken in virtually every unit each season. A better option is to hunt lightly pressured bulls during the early archery season. Most units have OTC archery licenses.
In the meantime, put in for preference points and save them for one of the state's premier elk units. Some, like world-famous Unit 2, can take decades to draw, but nearly all of it is managed by the BLM, and hunting pressure is extremely light. It's worth the wait. Even better, 300-inch bulls are common, and numerous 350-inchand- better elk are taken every season.
White River National Wildlife Refuge — Ducks
If watching a flock of mallards teeter out of the sky and into your decoys is your idea of fun, you'll enjoy hunting flooded timber even more. It's one of the most thrilling and challenging hunts you can experience.
Imagine standing knee-deep in flooded timber as the mallards skim the treetops, studying your spread below. Kick the water to simulate splashing ducks and blow the right notes on your call and you just might coax the birds to flutter down through the limbs. On a good day, shots echo throughout the forest, and even on a bad day plenty of hunters come out with a limit of greenheads.
There's no better place to experience a green timber duck hunt than Arkansas, and there can be no better place in Arkansas than the White River National Wildlife Refuge. During peak migration, tens of thousands of mallards swarm this 160,000-acre bottomland hardwood refuge. It is divided into two units. Nearly all the north unit is open to hunting; nearly all the south unit is closed. Even in the heavily hunted areas, the sky just above the treetops is filled with ducks as they search for a place to feed on acorns and aquatic invertebrates.
A boat will greatly expand your opportunities, but there are a few walk-in opportunities. All hunters must quit hunting at noon. No matter how you choose to hunt, thorough scouting can mean the difference between watching mallards and killing them.
A permit (free) is required to hunt the refuge. Permits are available online or at various boat ramps located on the refuge.
Buffalo Gap National Grassland — Coyotes
Buffalo Gap National Grassland encompasses more than a half-million acres, so you can hunt coyotes for weeks and never call to the same spots twice. Not all of it is prime coyote country, though. Much of it consists of shortgrass prairie that offers little in the way of cover or food. However, there are countless brush-filled draws, breaks, and other areas that offer the predators everything they need.
The Grassland consists of blocks of public land interspersed with private land, so you'll need a good land status app to make sure you are legal. Few people in cattle country like coyotes, so there's a good chance you can gain access to some of that private property if you knock on doors and ask. Even if you don't bother with private land, you can certainly sit on public land and call coyotes off private property. Much of the Grassland's boundary is shared with Badlands National Park.
Look for rough, brushy country, but focus on areas with cattle, especially during the calving season. Prairie dog towns are scattered throughout the Grassland, too, and coyotes will hang around them. If you want to add a little variety to the trip, bring lots of ammo for those prairie dogs. Although their numbers are down as a result of a disease outbreak several years ago, populations are rebounding. Some areas are closed to prairie dog hunting, so check the Buffalo Gap National Grassland's website for information on where to hunt them. There is a downloadable map that shows areas with the highest prairie dog abundance, along with closed areas.
Apalachicola National Forest — Hogs
Some call them a nuisance, a pest, and even Public Enemy No. 1, but for thousands of hunters, feral hogs are a first-class animal that offers a fun, challenging hunt. Although feral hogs are scattered liberally throughout the Southeast, Florida ranks as one of the most hog-rich states in the country. Some estimates place the state's hog population at 500,000 animals.
The Apalachicola National Forest offers good hog hunting on over 630,000 acres. It's located in the Panhandle near Tallahassee and consists of a variety of upland and lowland habitats, including lots of swamp.
Hunting in the forest is managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Dogs are legal for hog hunting in most of the area, but still-hunt areas are included in the national forest. Two designated wilderness areas offer remote hunting opportunities, as well. A representative of the FWC says the still-hunt areas tend to have higher hog numbers, mostly because those who use dogs are efficient at finding and killing the animals. Pressured animals find lightly hunted areas.
Generally, hog hunting on any public area in Florida is limited to specific hunting seasons and only with methods legal for those seasons. In other words, you can hunt hogs during bow season, but only with a bow. However, the general firearmsseason for deer is relatively long, offering a two-species hunting opportunity.
Clearwater National Forest — Black Bears
Hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, bears galore, and tags so cheap the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is practically giving them away. Yep, if the idea of spot-and-stalk black bear hunting sounds like something right up your alley, head to the Clearwater National Forest in central Idaho.
"Non-resident hunters can purchase two tags for $41.75 each in a number of units in this region," says IDFG biologist Clay Hayes. "We are trying to reduce bear numbers because they are a major predator of elk calves."
Much of the forest is heavily timbered, so actually seeing a bear can be the biggest challenge. However, Hayes says they tend to follow the food up and down the slopes as those food sources change.
"In the spring they follow the grass line up the slope as the snow melts," he says. "You tend to find them on the south-facing slopes with lots of grass that time of year. Fall can be the best time to see them because they are gorging themselves before they den up for the winter. They can be active for 15 hours a day or even more."
Just as they follow the grass line up the slope in the spring, bears will also follow the berries back up in the fall. Look for chokecherries and other soft mast in openings high up the region's slopes. Hayes adds that several large fires in the Clearwater region created expansive openings that are prime bear habitat, thanks to the flush of new growth that sprang up from the ashes.
Dixie National Forest — Mule Deer
What a difference a few years of good rainfall makes. What was once a bleak outlook for mule deer has turned into a relatively bright future, thanks to a string of wet springs. Although the iconic western big-game animal is facing some long-term challenges, numbers are up throughout much of their range. Utah is no exception, especially southwestern Utah.
Most of the region is either BLM or USFS land, offering an endless amount of hunting opportunities. The Plateau, Boulder/Kaiparowits Unit in southcentral Utah is a particularly good bet for finding a quality buck, says Utah Division of Wildlife biologist Jim Lamb.
"My recommendation is to pick an area within the unit and get to know it," he says. "It's a big unit. You can't hunt five or six areas if you only have a week, so get away from the road and cover lots of ground. The deer are spread out in some areas, and they can be concentrated around what little private land there is, but don't think you have to hunt around farm country to fill a tag."
The unit offers a variety of habitats, from red rock desert to pinyon juniper forests and even aspens. The highest deer numbers are in the northern end, but those willing to hunt hard and cover lots of ground can find some good bucks in the southern sections, too.
It can take up to four years for nonresidents to draw a tag for the general firearms season, but muzzleloader hunters have slightly better odds. Like any popular public hunting opportunity, good things come to those who wait.
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument — Quail
Quail populations rise and fall with spring rains in the Southwest, but the past few years have been good for quail in a number of locales. The half-million-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, located in southeastern New Mexico, is no exception. It's experienced several good years of production, offering superb public quail hunting.
Three quail species are available in the monument: scaled, Gambel's, and the coveted Mearns's, or Montezuma, quail. These gaudy birds are a bucket-list species for hardcore bird hunters and are relatively abundant in certain places.
The Monument is a mix of low scrubby desert with shrubs, cactus, and grasses and steep, rugged mountains with a broad mix of plants among the rocky landscape. Some of it, particularly in the lower, flatter areas, offers sparse cover and little habitat, thanks to long-term over-grazing, that holds quail. As with any quail species, those that inhabit Organ Mountains favor the best cover. Look for varied plant species and thicker cover away from those cattle. You'll know it when you see it.
Scaled and Gambel's quail favor lower elevations, while Mearns's quail are mostly found on higher slopes. However, don't be surprised to find coveys of scalies and Gambel's where you find Mearns's. You can kill birds without a dog, but a sharp-nosed pointer can help cover much more ground. They'll also help pin down scaled quail, which prefer to run instead of fly. Dogs or not, plan on lots of walking across rocky, dry, cactus-laden country.
The Monument consists of three large tracts around Las Cruces. All have quail, but as with any desert environment, some areas have few or no quail. Keep driving until you find good-looking cover.