Dealing With Public Land Hunting Pressure

You can adapt and overcome hunting pressure on public land to become a more successful big game hunter.

Dealing With Public Land Hunting Pressure

The phrase “public land” has a special meaning to many hunters. Still, for most hunters who live within a modest budget, public land frequently is their sole option for hunting. At one time, knocking on landowners’ doors proved an excellent method for gaining access to a place to hunt game.

However, just like in the Midwest, landowners out West have realized that money can be made by leasing out the hunting rights to their ranches and farm ground to both outfitters and private groups of hunters. With this being the case, those who want to hunt are forced onto available parcels of public land.

After spending most of my life pursuing animals on public land, I have seen a lot of changes when it comes to the number of people I encounter on a public land hunt. Several years ago, I realized if I wanted to find consistent success, I would have to change with the times and adapt. For some people, even some in my hunting circle, this change has been difficult and even impossible in a few cases. Either their nostalgic viewpoint won’t allow them to move forward with it not being like it was in the “good ole days,” or they simply don’t want to go if it can’t be the way it once was. Through the changes, I have managed to maintain a reasonable amount of success by focusing on the following key strategies.


Be Mobile, Stay Mobile

As much as I love a huge, comfortable hunting camp with all of my favorite people, I have found I am less successful with this type of hunt. Getting tied down to a base camp is easy to do because moving and finding another area big enough for a large group is such a task. Anymore, on most of my hunts, I travel with everything I need in just the bed of my truck.

By perfecting and organizing my gear, I can go with everything I need to both day hunt from my vehicle or pack in for overnight, if required. Being mobile means I can hike into an area and check out to see if there is ample game. If there isn’t game in the area, I simply drive to the next drainage. By that afternoon, I can be clear across the unit I’m hunting. I use this method extensively. When I find animals, I stay, and if I am not finding game, there is no time to waste, and I move on.

Mobility is a key to success on public land. If you’re not finding game, then move to a new area.
Mobility is a key to success on public land. If you’re not finding game, then move to a new area.

Become an All-Terrain Hunter

Being capable and willing to hunt varied types of terrain can be a game-changer. Like all humans, hunters are creatures of habit. We find specific terrain we like to hunt, and we don’t often stray from that. If you are an open-country hunter, sometimes going in the thick stuff will produce a harvest. Those who are used to timber might find the open country to be more productive than they thought possible. For some, this may be non-negotiable. But for the public land bowhunter with a craving for success, where that success takes place isn’t the most important piece of the puzzle.

As a serious elk hunter, I definitely have an ideal type of terrain that speaks to me in my elk hunting dreams. Still, I will hunt elk anywhere from the desert floor to the shale rock above treeline and everywhere in between. I just live to match wits with big bull elk, regardless of where they reside. 

Be a Jack of All Trades

Just like the ability to hunt varied terrain, having the ability to hunt using different methods can raise your success rate. For example, for years, the only way I had killed elk was by calling. Although I still use this method every year, the number of hunters on public land has made it more difficult than it once was. I still take many bulls utilizing this method, but it’s not always my first choice.

With the terrain piece in mind, for the past 10 years, I have often found myself in more open, less classic elk country. There, I have found that stalking can be exceptionally productive in areas where being able to see and keep tabs on animals is easier. Also, in these open expanses, elk won’t come to calls as well as in timber because they can see where the elk noise is coming from, and they know there is nothing there.

Another thing I generally have with me on every hunt is a portable ground blind. You never know when you might come across a wallow, pinch point, trail or another area that is perfect for an ambush. Friends and I have taken mule deer, elk and pronghorn from ground blinds on hunts, and it’s a deadly method in the right situation. 

Take the Advantage

Just like everyone else, I sometimes get frustrated when seeing other hunters in the field. On almost every hunt, I have to remind myself that they are just after the same thing, and that just like me, they are lucky to have public land to hunt. For the past several years, with an increasing number of people in the field, I have started to realize there is potential to use them to my advantage.

This is especially true in areas in which you are intimately familiar with the landscape. This can be the knowledge of the areas animals tend to escape to when people show up, or it can be identifying travel corridors animals tend to use when they get pressured. In either case, an ambush is highly likely. Like I said, you never know when a ground blind may come in handy. 

Put It All Together

Personally, I don’t think it matters what style of hunt you choose to tackle, a public land hunt is a worthy endeavor. If setting up a base camp with all of your buddies and being able to sit around the campfire every night is your thing, by all means, go for it. Many hunters will be successful using this method this year, just like they have in the past and will in the future as well. That being said, many of the most successful hunters I know use an approach more like I have mentioned above, or at least a modified version of it.

The author with a Utah public land bull.
The author with a Utah public land bull.

As for me, I have always been a student of the game. As much as I long for things being the way they used to be, I have loved learning new methods and challenging myself to hunt in new ways. The rush of a bull elk coming to the call is about as good as it gets, in my humble opinion. Still, watching a bull stroll into a wallow and having no idea you are in the country can make your heart pound out of your chest, just like stalking in on a herd bull with his harem of cows.

In the end, many methods can be productive. Even though it may never be like it was in the good old days, our public lands are rich in game and opportunity. The trick is being willing to do what it takes to adapt and overcome the challenges that come with more hunters in the outdoors.


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