Understanding the Basics for Hunting Public Lands
Americans are blessed with access to hundreds of millions of acres of publicly owned lands. These diverse places are ours to hike, bike, paddle, hunt and explore; ranging from 40-acre pine tracts in Georgia, to 800-acre hardwoods in Minnesota, to million-acre wilderness areas in Montana.
The United States’ public lands are enormous resources for bowhunters. They provide hunting opportunities to anyone with a valid hunting license or tag. Even if you live in a high-rise apartment in a bustling metropolis, you’re probably not far from great places to bowhunt deer and turkeys.
Your bowhunts aren’t limited to your home state or region, either. If you’re willing to travel to bowhunt elk in Western states, you’re just a plane ride or road trip away from adventure. The same goes for hunting moose in Alaska, hogs in Texas or even Axis deer in Hawaii.
Regardless of where you plan to hunt, you must follow certain rules, practices, and etiquette when hunting public lands. By doing so, you ensure everyone can enjoy these public resources as much as possible. Let’s review some basics for bowhunting our nation’s public lands.
Know the Law
Wildlife agencies enforce each state’s hunting laws. Bowhunters must know and understand these regulations whether they’re hunting on public or private lands. You can find each state’s hunting regulations on the wildlife agency’s website. You can also find the regulations in pamphlets where most hunting and fishing license are sold. Let’s review some common topics about hunting laws on public lands.
Hunter-orange clothing isn’t required during archery seasons, but if a firearms season is open at the same time you’ll likely need to wear it. You might also need to follow specific rules when bowhunting public lands that don’t apply on private lands. For example, you’ll often need to put your name and contact information on treestands and ground blinds used on public lands.
Also, screw-in climbing steps often can’t be used to reach treestands on public lands, and stands and blinds usually must be removed by specified dates. You might also need special tags or access permits to bowhunt certain areas. Check all state game laws and area-specific regulations before you start hunting.
Selecting a Spot
Once you’ve selected a public area to bowhunt, get familiar with it before leaving home. That task is easier than ever thanks to high-quality digital map services like Google Earth and hunting-specific mapping apps like onXmaps. These tools help you locate roads, trails, terrain features, and property boundaries.
When preparing to bowhunt from a treestand or ground blind, take time to learn what’s near your setup. For example, look around for signs of other hunters. You do not want to place your stand or blind too close to stands or blinds belonging to other hunters.
If you’re scouting or placing stands during hunting season, realize that game animals are generally most active near dawn and dusk. Therefore, try to do your scouting and stand/blind work at midday. You’ll bump into fewer hunters during those hours. For the same reasons, avoid doing those tasks on weekends, too. And when hiking into your spot for a morning bowhunt, try to get in well before dawn, and stay put for at least two hours of daylight.
To bowhunt evenings, head in during the early to midafternoon and stay until legal shooting hours end. That reduces the chances of disturbing fellow hunters near your access route.
After a successful bowhunt, you must remove the animal’s internal organs to ensure its meat doesn’t spoil. That isn’t a problem on most public lands, but some parks and refuges near urban areas might have restrictions. Make sure you understand what’s allowed before you go hunting. In general, always move the animal away from trails or other well-used areas before you start field processing your harvest.
Field dressing is just one aspect of hunting etiquette that public-land bowhunters should follow. Also learn what other hunting seasons coincide with the times you’ll be in the woods, and keep noise to a minimum even if you’ve just filled your tag. Further, always pack out whatever you packed in so other hunters can enjoy the same experiences you did.
After all, our public lands are unique places that offer seemingly endless opportunities and adventures. The next time you head out on our wonderful public lands, remember the tips we covered, and pause to appreciate these places and everything they provide.