How to Hunt Public Land
It’s the peak of the elk rut in Colorado. Bulls are bugling from before first light until well after dark. I’m hunting in an over-the-counter unit that I know gets ample pressure yearly because it has a solid herd and good harvest numbers. That’s why I’m set up early, long before the break of day, at the edge of a small meadow situated below some dark timber where I watched a big bull with a harem of 20 cows go to bed the previous evening.
You know the feeling. It’s like roosting a turkey except on a much grander scale. The question of where to set up come morning is already answered. You toss and turn in bed, intermittently watching the clock. I barely slept at all. The walk from camp to my current position is but a blur. I’m thoroughly jacked on adrenaline.
As the sun rises and peels back the shadows I catch movement on the far ridge just above the timber that holds about 21 elk. Hunters walking and glassing. Not in my group. I flash an orange vest, watching them through my binoculars until they see me. This is my valley, go hunt the other 200,000 acres in this unit. Yet instead of dropping off the other side of the ridge, as good etiquette would call for, they angled down the slope toward me at a 45-degree angle, which would put them in close quarters with the bedded herd. It did. And like a covey of quail they scattered like the wind, first into the little meadow for a split second, then in all directions elsewhere.
I watched in disappointment as the bull doubled back and headed over the far ridge in the direction the hunters had come. And I’ll be danged if they didn’t see him too, and turn to go after him.
Learn the Laws
First and foremost, learn the laws of the state you’re hunting in. This includes game laws and land laws, the latter of which have to do with private property and easements. Violations will likely result in your license being forfeited in that state for at least the remainder of the year. But if you’re mindful of boundaries, then you have nothing to worry about.
It has its place everywhere - the golf course, a grocery store, on public land. We live in a much more casual society than existed even just a decade ago. Technology has at the same time made hunting easier and hunters less cognizant of their surroundings. Of the two aforementioned hunters who spooked the elk I’d bedded, one hardly looked up from his phone, probably reading a map. When his buddy got his attention and pointed my direction, he only looked up for an instant then was drawn back to the light of his screen like a moth.
There is so much public land west of the Mississippi River. In the east, well, that gets tricky. There is not so much public land but a bundle of hunters who pursue it. Regardless, allow etiquette to dominate your way of thinking. If you’ve found a spot on the map that you really want to hunt, yet you get there and someone else is already set up, leave immediately and head to that second spot you really want to hunt. It’s simple really. Give other hunters a wide berth and excuse yourself and wish them well in their pursuits if you accidentally get too close. We all make mistakes.
Etiquette in the woods, like patience, is a virtue. The sport of hunting is no longer a means of survival but a mode in which we seek reprieve from the rest of the world. Meat in the freezer or horns for the wall are just a bonus. Remember that most hunters are friendly people, just like you. And for the most part, they will probably yield if you get there first.
Scout in Advance
Either physically go scout the piece of public land you want to hunt or spend a lot of time with a digital map and the internet. While you won’t gather the same information remotely, you’ll at least get a good idea of the roads in the unit, the high points, the water sources, the timber, the meadows, and the dangerous places, geographically speaking, to avoid. Going there will give you an idea on the quality of the animals you’re hunting as well as their early season patterns. You’ll also know if that potential campsite you saw on OnX really is as good as expected.
When you lock the truck and shoulder your pack, know that you’re going to hike harder and farther than the hunters closest to you. Utah, for example, estimates that the majority of its annual elk hunters don’t stray more than a quarter mile from the road. With the advent of digital topographical maps, you should be able to select two or three spots within a unit that may take a full day or more to get to. If you arrive and somebody is already in the area (see: etiquette), keep moving. I can’t tell you how many times that someone in my hunting party has taken an animal on the hike in. With a grin I’ll say it sucks for the rest of us who have to waste a day butchering and packing out the meat. But we’ve accomplished what we set out to do and since the hunter who’s filled his tag has to put down his bow, he’s pretty much retired to camp cook, pack horse, or whatever else you don’t want to do over the next few days.
The hike in to a remote campsite at high altitude can really take a toll on the body, so consider resting up or just doing a little local scouting the following day. Save your legs and lungs for when you really need to push hard to reach an ambush point. If you’re past the point of campfire smoke and all the scents and sounds emitted by road loafers, the chances of your seeing more game animals are really good.
Take a Knife Sharpener
Of all the equipment that could make life easier way out in the backcountry, why would we mention a knife sharpener? One of the biggest challenges of learning how to hunt public land is knowing how to haul out an animal. Elk and moose are huge and generate a lot of meat. To get to that meat you’re going to have to cut through some really tough hide.
That’s why the knife sharpener. Because carrying one knife and one sharpener is much less weight than toting several blades. And it doesn’t take long for a razor-sharp edge to go dull on hair, hide, and bone. There are many worst-case scenarios that come to mind when hunting deep in the mountains and believe it or not, one of the top most is ending up with a dull blade and no knife sharpener when the cleaning and quartering has just begun. Don’t let the celebration dampen due to a dull knife and no way to remedy it, standing there wondering what the hell do I do now.
Even though that little valley held a bundle of elk and one really good bull, I can tell you for a fact that there were a couple thousand more in that unit. I know because three days later, after encountering a few other hunters and countless more elk, I took a nice bull. And while he didn’t make it into the Boone & Crockett Club by a long shot, he was a trophy to me wrought from the toils of hunting public land, which made it that much sweeter.