Updated: Apr 2, 2020
Public land bowhunters are a special kind of men and women who are always up for the unique challenges presented on public land. Often times, one must work both smarter and harder to consistently find success on over-pressured hunting grounds, but this doesn't always need to be the case. In some instances, public land hunters can work smarter, while still reaping the benefits of working harder, by using something not typically found on public land: private land.
Although I have access to a few private properties scattered throughout rural Pennsylvania, most of my hunting in and out of state is done on public land. This is largely due to the fact that there is an abundance of it close to my home, and it has allowed me to fill my tags over the last couple of seasons. Because of this, I do not spend much, if any, time going from door to door, asking for permission to hunt private property each year. I feel that it is extremely important for a hunter to always have as many options as possible come fall, but in my case, I'm confident in my spots and have no real need to switch things up yet. Don't ever be afraid to ask for permission, as you never know when an incredible opportunity will present itself to you. That being said, even the most die-hard public land bowhunters can find extreme value in private land, even if they're not hunting it.
When the question, "What does it take to be successful on public land?" is asked, a tactic that is always mentioned is to "go deeper and farther than anyone else." Some will even go as far to say that they never hunt within 1 mile of the nearest road or parking lot. While I agree that getting off the beaten path is the best way to avoid increased hunter activity, I also believe that, sometimes, there is more than one way to achieve the same result. In other words, even though many of us go to the gym to work out, most of us also try to find the closest parking spot to the front door. When I hunt public land, I always try my best to be efficient in saving time and energy while simultaneously staying as undetected as possible. I will never sacrifice stealth for a short cut, but if it makes sense, I will do anything to make my life easier, especially when dragging a 4 1/2 year old buck out of the woods. A common problem with public land is limited road access and designated parking areas. Everyone is leaving from point A and heading to their own point B. There are times when this makes the most sense, and I will leave Point A and walk 1, 2, or 3 miles into the wilderness to my stand location. These times include time of day, such as avoiding walking too close to a food source for an afternoon sit, wind direction, and many others. There are other times when there is a better option: not using the public land access areas. So, how does one cut down on time and still get farther or deeper than most other hunters? This is where private land comes into play.
I wrote earlier that I spend little time knocking on doors for permission to hunt. However, something I do spend a fair amount of time doing as needed is asking for permission to walk through someone's private property so that I can access the same hunting spot that I was planning on hunting anyway. Even though these areas are closer to roads than some feel comfortable hunting due to expected pressure, I have found that these areas are still nonetheless the best spots because they are far enough away from the nearest public access point. It's not uncommon for landowners to deny hunting access to hunters they don't know, but many landowners are more willing to allow those same hunters to walk through a private property as long as they are respectful of any "ground rules." In my opinion, there are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that even if a landowner hunts, they may let you walk their ground to hunt public land if you are only using a piece/corner of their land that they wouldn't be hunting anyway or would be hunted during a different season. The second reason you may get permission is that you could be requesting permission to cross a section of land that is conveniently near a private road but far from any structures, including homes and barns. In this case, the landowner may feel more at ease knowing that you will not be hunting right in his backyard, shooting deer he feeds year round. A third reason is the landowner simply doesn't own enough land to hunt, maybe just 1 acre or less, but that 1 acre sits right against public land that you want to hunt. Below are 2 examples of how I have used private land to my advantage when accessing and hunting public land. The screen shots were taken from my trusty HuntStand App that I love to use when scouting and hunting alike.
In this picture, the red lines represent the boundaries of a small tract of public land I frequently hunt, approximately 700 acres. The white lines show 3 different travel routes that I have taken to one of my stand sites, all from the only 3 designated parking/access areas for this particular public land. While not a long walk, all of these routes do take me about 20-30 minutes to complete. The orange line represents a 4th travel option that I have used that allows me to be at my tree-stand in just 5-10 minutes. The difference here is that the orange line originates from a small development where no landowners have more than 2 acres of property, and the land is not huntable due to state safety zones. I asked the landowner if it was okay with him to occasionally park in a spot of his choosing to access this stand. Because the ground was not huntable to him anyway, he had no problem letting me park in his driveway and head off to the woods.
This picture shows a much different situation from the first but one that is seen in many different public lands across the country. This time, the white line shows the only access road to this public land running across the top of the ridge. Despite being relatively flat and well kept, with gear, it does take a considerable amount of time to walk the 1.25+ miles back and a considerable amount of energy to drag a deer out. The orange line is a mere 200 yards long, slightly steeper in elevation gain than the grassy road on top of the ridge but certainly doable with some effort. This route differs from the previous example in that, rather than it being someone's house, this access point was from a private road leading to someone's home back further in the woods. Although he did hunt the property, he felt that this spot wasn't a spot he was interested in hunting anyway, so he allowed me to walk through it in route to the top of the ridge. In the four years I have spent hunting these spots, I have never run into a fellow hunter, so clearly, the proximity to private access points does not encourage increased pressure, at least not by rule. However, there's always an off chance that in the future, you could come across someone who thinks just like you in terms of easier access points, though.
In closing, don't be afraid to ask a landowner for permission to use his property as a travel route, even if you know he doesn't allow hunting. This good relationship could help you get faster permission to recover or track a wounded deer that leaves public land or could even lead to some great hunting opportunities in the future if you can show you're a trustworthy individual. You never know what answer you'll get, but it could be one that allows you to hunt smarter, not harder, and to be more efficient.