There has always been an astigmatism about hunting public land. Some of it probably warranted. Most everyone has heard the horror stories about people walking in on your set up, shooting at decoys and placing climbing stands 1 tree over from yours. Rude hunters who have no respect for the land or the others sharing it with them. I get it.
Now lets fast forward to the present time. Like most sports, hunting has changed by leaps and bounds over the years. Education & technology are among some of the influential guides that have helped hunters mature since "Back in the Day." Granted that's not always the case, but lets try to look on the good side of humanity.
This past weekend, after my son called up a first turkey for a close friend of his, he said to me " we have been blessed on WMA's this past year." After a second I realized how true of a testament that was. Back in August we enjoyed the excitement (and humor) of our first gator harvest. In October, Dude took advantage of an early season quota hunt and shot a nice buck before the statewide season even started. And finally, this past weekend, he and his Track/Field coach called in a gobbler not long after first daylight. In addition, we have had years of enjoyable hunting in the National Forest that one of our leases boarders.
When looking at all of this, I came to the conclusion that with enough leg work and homework, some of those public land fears can be erased. Now all of this didn't happen at once. We have had many years of unsuccessful hunts. But of course anytime you get to hunt it is successful with or without a harvest. The point I am making is that with enough time and effort spent studying, scouting and yes even hunting to figure our where the pressure is, anyone can take advantage of our awesome WMA's and National Forests. We are all already a paying for it through our license and fees. Might as well enjoy it! Some times you just need to be willing to out walk the next guy. Most hunters, just like on private land, are not super excited about straying to far from their vehicle. If you are willing to walk and explore, you can find some uncharted and unharassed locations. Now this is often more feasible on a National Forest than a WMA as the acreage for a WMA is more limited. But even so, if you happen to live near a WMA, you can spend some time in the off season checking out the hard to get to places. We were fortunate enough to find a land owner who had property that butted up to a WMA. This offered access to tons of areas that would take a long hike from the main road. He since sold that piece of land but the knowledge gained gave us enough confidence to make the journey back there when the next deer season rolled around.
I could go on and on about how to avoid the crowds but the fact is you wont always be able too. There may be others just like you who are willing to lace up their boots. The best way to handle running into some one is to always be courteous. Offer help and always have a back up plan. So my best public land advice is as follows:
1) Ride the roads during hunts you may not be attending. This will help you learn where a majority like to park and hunt.
2) Enter Quota hunts. These have a limited number spaces thus a more controlled amount of hunters in the woods as compared to an open hunt. Plus folks that take the time to go through the application process and wait the often 2-3 years to get drawn are more often than not, dedicated hunters and not fly by night, pull up at the gate on opening day dudes. Not always the case but the odds are better.
3) Walk around during the off season or even small game season. Your license fees grants you access (check you local regs just in case) so use it.
4) Don't be afraid of the crowds. It is a "Public" hunt so you are eventually going to run into people. Have a positive mind set. You get more with sugar than you do with salt. Always have a plan B & C and don't be afraid to walk.
5) Go and hunt there often. The best way to learn is to gain experience by taking your lumps. You may get lucky enough to show up your first day and bag what ever you were after but that would be the exception. Success is usually gained over the long haul and the journey is half the experience.
6) On National Forest, look to aerial photographs. Find where the main roads turn sharply to one direction then look to the opposite. Often there are places that get overlooked because they seem to far of the main path.
7) Talk to the Game Wardens. It's their territory. They have a pretty good idea of what going on and what has worked in the past.
8) Again....be nice. We are all brother and sister hunters. No game is worth the trouble of arguing and fighting over. If they do not reciprocate, politely tip your had and head to plan B.
We are blessed to be part of 2 private land leases as well as access to some other private tracts. These are always my first priority. However, the challenge of outsmarting my quarry as well as other folks is often alluring. Plus some of the WMA's offer opportunities and some Really Quality land and wildlife. You just have to put on your thinking cap and your walking shoes. If in the future our land owners sold the properties we are leasing, I would have no problem spending time on the public land of our great state.