Let’s face it. Not all of us have access to high-quality, low-pressure, private hunting land. In fact, for many of us — myself included — public land is where we spend the majority of our time in pursuit of white-tailed deer. For some it is a decision made for the challenge and freedom that hunting public land presents. For others, it is simply a factor of not being in a position financially to purchase or lease a place to hunt. In that way, public lands level the playing field and provide every deer hunter a place to hang their stand, so to speak.
Unfortunately, public land hunting often gets a bad rap among deer hunters. That could be because most public land hunters, at one time or another, have had some type of negative experience while hunting state or federal land. That experience may have been walking up on another hunter or having another hunter walk up on them. It may have been something much worse, like having gear stolen or getting in a verbal altercation. A lot of the negativity toward public land hunting, however, is greatly exaggerated or just downright unfounded. While it certainly can present some challenges not associated with hunting most private lands, public land deer hunting doesn’t have to mean fighting crowds of hunters or being relegated to low deer numbers and poor quality bucks. Opportunities abound for excellent deer hunting on public lands, and some world-class bucks are shot on these state- and federally-owned lands every year. The trick is knowing how to find and access these hunts and then, once you do, capitalizing on the opportunity.
What Makes a Quality Public Land Hunt
For most deer hunters, finding public land near their home that is open to deer hunting shouldn’t be too difficult. In fact, according to NDA’s 2016 Whitetail Report, there are over 50 million acres of state-owned lands open to deer hunting across the whitetail’s range. That consists of state Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), state forests and in some cases, state parks. What that doesn’t include are the millions of additional acres of federally-owned lands such as National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges and military bases that may also provide deer hunting opportunities.
While finding a public place to deer hunt may not be difficult, what can be difficult is finding one that provides a high-quality hunting experience with a realistic chance of killing a mature buck. That’s because most public hunting areas are managed to provide maximum recreational opportunities. These areas serve a diverse group of users and must cater to not only a variety of deer hunters, but also to turkey, small game, and waterfowl hunters, as well as a whole host of non-consumptive users. There are, however, state- and federally-owned lands that are being managed under the QDM philosophy to create a higher quality deer hunting experience. This is typically done by a combination of limiting hunting pressure, encouraging adequate doe harvest, and/or protecting younger age-class bucks.
While it seems the number of state- and federally-owned lands implementing various QDM practices has exploded over the last several years, it is certainly not a new phenomenon. In fact, Georgia may have been the first state ever to manage a state-owned property for better quality bucks when they implemented a 4-point-on-one-side antler restriction on what is now known as B.F. Grant WMA back in 1974. That just happened to be the same year that Thomas Cooper killed a 215 7/8-inch non-typical on B.F Grant that was recognized as the largest buck taken in North America that year!
Now 45 years later, the WMA still has antler restrictions in place — though over the years they evolved into what is now a 15-inch outside spread or a 16-inch main beam — and it continues to produce some very impressive bucks. While another 215-inch deer may not be likely, numerous bucks in the 120- to 140-inch range have been killed there over the years, including a great 9-pointer taken by Luke Copeland in November of 2013 (pictured right).
State wildlife agencies aren’t the only ones that have seen the benefits of offering quality public land deer hunts. Some federal lands, such as those associated with military bases, also operate on QDM principles. One such area that has seen its share of great bucks is Ft. Knox Army Base in Kentucky.
Beginning with the 2001 deer season, Fort Knox implemented QDM throughout the 109,000-acre installation with the primary goals of producing healthy deer, improving the sex ratio of the deer herd, and providing quality hunting experiences. To accomplish this, they implemented a selective harvest strategy. Looking through past harvest data, it was determined that a 12-inch-outside-spread antler restriction would protect all yearling bucks and some 2½-year-olds. This antler restriction was coupled with a more aggressive antlerless harvest in an effort to maintain an overall healthy herd with the opportunity to take mature bucks, and the program has worked. In the four years prior to the QDM program, 60 percent of the harvest were bucks and only 17 percent of antlered deer harvested were 3½ years old or older. In the last 14 years under QDM, only 51 percent of the harvest were bucks and 49 percent of the antlered deer harvested were 3½ years old or older. Additionally, some tremendous bucks have come from Ft. Knox during that time, including Troy Gentry’s 181-inch typical 10-pointer pictured below.
While antler restrictions can certainly increase the odds of producing mature bucks on public lands, they may not be the most important factor when choosing a quality public land hunt. There are plenty of examples out there of tremendous bucks being killed on public lands without any type of antler restrictions in place, and on the flip side, there are some public lands with antler restrictions that rarely ever produce big, mature bucks. Antler restrictions are just one tool for getting more bucks into a mature age class, but the same results can often be had by simply limiting the amount of hunting pressure an area receives. On public lands, this is often done through limited hunting dates as well as by limiting the number of hunters participating through some type of lottery or quota system. All of the examples discussed in this article thus far limit the number of hunters allowed on the property through a lottery.
Opportunities abound for quality hunting experiences for those willing to do their homework, make calls, research harvest data and put in the necessary legwork.
In some cases, however, no quota is required. Hunting pressure is limited by the sheer size or ruggedness of the area. This is especially true in much of the big-timber areas of the Northeast and upper Midwest. When you take into account the large acreages of forested public lands, combined with a relatively short firearms deer season, a portion of the younger bucks are bound to live to see another season. Two prime examples of this are the Adirondack Region of New York and Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Management Unit 2G in the Allegheny Mountains. Both areas contain hundreds of thousands of acres of public land highlighted by rugged terrain, remote access, and low deer densities. These factors can make for some tough hunting but also offer the real potential to kill a mature buck.
Additionally, some public hunting areas — particularly military bases and wildlife refuges — have areas that are off limits to deer hunting due to security issues or to protect another wildlife species, such as waterfowl. These areas can serve as makeshift deer sanctuaries, allowing even more bucks to reach maturity.
Locating and Applying for Quality Public Land Hunts
While there is a wealth of information about state and federal public lands on the Internet, you can save yourself hours of preliminary research by starting with an old-fashioned telephone call to your state’s deer project leader (you can find their name and number in NDA’s 2019 Whitetail Report). By laying out exactly what you are looking for in a public land deer hunting spot, you should be able to get some suggestions on what your state has to offer.
Only after talking to the deer project leader would I turn to the Internet to start researching individual opportunities to come up with a game plan. Over the last several years, state and federal agencies have also done a tremendous job making public land information available online. From basic descriptions of the area’s location and habitat to detailed maps and harvest data, information that once would have taken weeks to gather is often just a few mouse clicks away. Some things to look for when searching for a public deer hunting destination include: days of hunting pressure, hunter density, area size and habitat quality, hunting requirements, and antler restrictions. If it is a mature buck you’re after, it would also be a good idea to study harvest data, if available. If that information can’t be found online, then contact the wildlife biologist responsible for that particular tract of land and ask about the age structure of the harvest, the quality of bucks taken, as well as the overall success rate.
Of course, you will also want to know if there is an application process for hunting the area, and, if so, what are your odds of being drawn? Some of the better quota hunts here in my home state of Georgia take three to four years to get drawn with a preference point system in place. If you’re not familiar with that system, for each year you’re not drawn for your preferred hunt, you get a preference point, which increases your odds of being drawn the following year. When you are finally drawn for the hunt, you lose the preference points you applied toward that hunt.
Some areas, like Arkansas’s Sweet 16 WMAs, require you to be drawn but do not work on a preference point system. Each year you have the same odds of being drawn as everyone else who applies. So, in theory, you could put in for 20 years and never be drawn or you could be drawn five years in a row. The point is, every state is a little different in how they handle these types of hunts. Know how your particular state operates and the likelihood of you getting to hunt. If your first choice is an area that may take multiple seasons to draw, then it would be a good idea to have some backup options, particularly ones that don’t require a drawing.
While antler restrictions can certainly increase the odds of producing mature bucks on public lands, they may not be the most important factor when choosing a quality public land hunt.
Lastly, do not wait until the last minute to look into these limited public land hunting opportunities. Many of these hunts require applying well in advance, and if applying for one on a military installation, you may need documentation above and beyond what you would normally need for a deer hunt on state-owned land. Do your research and know exactly what is required to apply, as well as when and where to do so.
One of the greatest tenets of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is that wildlife are a public trust resource, giving all of us — regardless of our social or financial status — the opportunity to get outdoors and hunt. And for those of us who hunt public land, it doesn’t have to mean fighting crowds of other hunters or dealing with poor quality habitat, low deer numbers or an inferior age structure among bucks. Opportunities abound for quality hunting experiences for those willing to do their homework, make calls, research harvest data and put in the necessary legwork. No, killing a great buck on public land probably won’t look much like the hunts you see on the popular outdoor television shows, but in the end, a mature deer taken on public land is an accomplishment like no other.