Find Hidden Public Hunting Lands Near You

July 10, 2024 By: Cheyne Matzenbacher

Hunters are always looking for a great place to hunt, but many hunters don’t have access to private land or don’t know where to start when it comes to public land hunting. Most hunters are aware of public land hunting opportunities on wildlife management areas, state and national forests, and national wildlife refuges, but there are some hidden and often underutilized public land hunting gems out there. And many times, all you have to do is sign up.

Who Knew?

I grew up in Arkansas and had several private land hunting spots there, but when I moved to Missouri, I had to find new places to hunt closer to home. I started my search using the OnX Hunt app to locate public lands near me.

I knew about the National Forest and some of the more popular Conservation Areas, but then I stumbled upon a “hidden” goldmine of prime hunting land right next to my house!  I live just a stone’s throw from one of the state’s many lakes and found out there are thousands of acres of public land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all around the lake, and the majority of it is open to hunting.

I began to plan for this hunting adventure, but quickly found out that most of the acreage was only accessible by water, so that’s when I came up with a great idea… a “hunting boat”. I had always wanted a boat, and since we now lived so close to the lake, I thought this was my chance to make that happen.  

I pitched my wife the idea of getting a boat to be able to access thousands of acres of prime hunting land within minutes of our home instead of trying to buy a piece of hunting property. She actually said YES! Besides giving me access to all that awesome public land, the boat has been a really nice addition to our family so we can go fishing too.

Win, Lose, or Draw

Many states offer special draw hunts, managed hunts, or controlled hunts that are often located in those places we dream of hunting when we visit them because deer there are incredibly visible, predictable, both! Places like city, county, and state parks that are typically thought of as wildlife preserves and off limits to hunting.

Many of these places offer managed draw hunts to the public, where they close the property to public access for a few days and allow hunters to come in and harvest deer to help reduce high deer densities or aid them in their deer management goals — a win-win if you ask me!

Several state game agencies have online pages for “managed” or “controlled” deer hunts. The Missouri Department of Conservation’s page offers hunts that take place on natural areas, wildlife areas, nature center properties, city parks, county parks, fish hatchery properties, nature preserves, shooting range properties, lake properties, conservation areas, state parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and more!

The sign-up period for these managed hunts is limited (July 1-31), so sign up now! What a great resource for trying to find a cool place to hunt!

Texas Parks & Wildlife Department also has a similar online-only drawn hunts page where license holders can apply for these special hunts, not just for deer, but for many other species of game. There’s a good chance that your state has these types of hunts too, so it would be worth it to go search them out!

Looking for a Velvet Buck

While researching states that offered a chance to harvest a buck in velvet in NDA’s 2024 Deer Report, I learned that my home state of Arkansas responded to the survey and said they had a deer season open early enough in the year for hunters to have such a chance at a velvet buck. I thought this was a typo in the response because I have hunted the state for decades and never knew of such an opportunity.

I then reached out to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission for some clarification, and they told me Arkansas has a special urban archery hunt in several cities across the state that opens September 1! Registrants must pass a shooting proficiency test, pay a nominal fee, and be a license holder before they can participate, but that’s a small price to pay for such a cool opportunity.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one looking to be able to harvest a velvet buck in Arkansas, because they now have an early September buck archery hunt starting this season.

What Else is Out There?

After finding these hidden public land hunting gems in my home states, I wondered what other kinds of cool hunting opportunities were out there that hunters might not know about when looking for a place to deer hunt, so I asked several of my colleagues from NDA that live and hunt all over the United States.

NDA’s Chief Communications Officer, Lindsay Thomas, told me about a really awesome hunt in Georgia on Lake Lanier, just outside Atlanta. It is a 38,000-acre Corps of Engineers reservoir where hunters can apply for an archery permit to hunt several of the islands in the lake, boat access only. This is one of those unique opportunities that happens to be just outside a major metropolitan area!

He also mentioned that several states have hunting opportunities on military bases, airfields, and even missile ranges. Many of these bases have large acreages, like Fort Stewart in Southeast Georgia, which was one of the first large blocks of public deer hunting land in the state. These can be great places to look into for your state, but make sure you follow the rules and regulations on these sites so you don’t become part of a live-fire demonstration by accident!

Senior Director of Conservation, Matt Ross, who resides in New York, also had some great recommendations for “hidden” public land hunting. Not just in his state, but all across the country. He referenced Cornell University’s Community Deer Advisor website that provides guidance for communities that are confronting deer issues.

Not only does it have a ton of resources to help out with municipality deer issues, but it also provides examples of how these municipalities are managing their deer through hunting. Take a look on there and you just might find a city close to you that is looking for hunters to help with their deer management program!

Matt also mentioned that there are opportunities on New York watershed lands, The Nature Conservancy lands, and even many golf courses that utilize hunters to help meet their deer management goals. The Nature Conservancy has land all over the country, not just in New York, that you can look up to see if they allow hunting in your state too!

Even More…

Another couple of cool public land hunting opportunities that were mentioned by NDA staff included scout camps, experimental forests, college/university lands and research farms, botanical gardens/ arboretums, fruit farms/orchards, timber/paper company lands, utility company lands, and even some National Parks, National Monuments, and National Grasslands.

Make sure to do your homework on these places as some of them have extra regulations on their properties that need to be adhered to and not all of these types of properties are completely open to the public. They’re definitely worth checking out though.

There’s also numerous lottery/drawing permits across the country where you can purchase a chance for a tag in a highly coveted hunting area, or even auctions where the highest bidder goes away with a tag for the hunt of a lifetime. Don’t overlook these opportunities either!

Photo courtesy of the Wyoming Game & Fish

Private Land Made Public

One last hidden hunting opportunity of note that is gaining some steam across the country is “Walk-In” private land access programs that open private lands to the public for hunting. Many private landowners are offering up their land for public use and receive some monetary compensation for doing so.

This has been a big win-win for landowners and public land hunters by opening up tens of thousands of acres. Many states have these types of “walk-in” hunting areas, but make sure to check your state game agency regulations for these properties, look for signage, and I always recommend having an up-to-date boundary map since they can change from year to year.


So, whether you are a new hunter that just finished our Field to Fork program looking for a place to hunt, or you are like me and are looking for some public land to hunt closer to home, or you just want a cool hunting adventure, I encourage you to dig a little deeper into what your state and other states have to offer. You might just find another hidden public hunting land gem like I did. Good luck!

About Cheyne Matzenbacher:

Cheyne Matzenbacher is an NDA Deer Outreach Specialist in Missouri. A Missouri native and lifelong deer hunter, Cheyne works with private landowners to establish and support Wildlife Management Cooperatives in the southern half of the state.