Over the past decade, public land hunting has gone from a pastime of a few to a lifelong addiction of many. The growth of public land hunting is great for the hunting community and allows new generations to experience the great outdoors and everything that is involved in public land use. Some of this public land hunting popularization has come from an increase in the availability of solid information on websites like GOHUNT, which helps western hunting be less intimidating, as well as an increased amount of quality digital media that portrays hunters finding success on the public lands of the West. No matter if you are new to public land hunting or an experienced veteran, there are plenty of facts and truths that you should know before venturing into the mountains. I am going to share with you five facts that I have learned that have been proven over my lifetime of hunting public land.
No matter how deep, hard to get to or remote a spot is, I promise you that it is not a secret spot. In today’s day and age of intensive hunting, hunters being physically fit, easy access to obtaining extremely detailed maps, secret spots are not secret anymore. A decade ago, having a quality public land map with road access, landowner boundaries, trails and topographical lines could allow you to find secret “honey holes” that were not accessed by the majority of hunters. Today, you can log onto GOHUNT Maps and research an area with overlays and everyone can see and find that exact “honey hole” in minutes. In fact, you can overlay game migration routes and concentration areas to find even better areas. Though this makes it easy for the average hunter to find good spots, it also makes it complicated for hunters to find spots that other hunters cannot find or are not there. Let's face it, with the advances in maps and technology, your secret spot is probably looked at by thousands online and hunted by hundreds each year.
The second fact that I have come to realize in the last five to 10 years is that if it looks like a prime elk, deer or game habitat during your e-scouting or physical scouting it probably should be avoided. I know this seems contradictory to common belief; however, year after year I have marked out prime elk and deer basins with food, water and cover only to arrive and find what seems like a KOA campground has been set up in that basin. In a perfect world, with no hunters and just you and your quarry that would be the place to be; however, in today's world of hard-hunting hunters, that place is found by many and hunted so hard that your trophy class animals are long gone after the opening day of the season. Remember, if you found it online or in-person and it looks too good to be true, it probably is!
A decade ago, I would always advise my friends and family who were hunting trophy animals in the West to go in deep. If you were trying to find big bucks and bulls, then look at the back of the basin and you will find them. Today, I have come to learn that this advice is trash and, in fact, I strongly discourage hunters from hiking to the back of basins just because they think they will be alone because I can promise this: they will not be alone. In fact, this year, I was six miles deep in an awesome basin that I have had success in the past only to spot over 15 hunters from my vantage point in just one morning! Think outside of the box and find the overlooked basins instead of blindly hiking to the back of the basin.
It is a common thought of many hunters who do not live out West — and even some inexperienced western hunters — that you can hunt hard and will find an animal anywhere on public land. This is false because there are thousands of acres of public land that actually hold zero animals. Whether it's due to rough winters, lack of cover, lack of water or overgrazing of livestock, a large portion of public land is not good for hunting some species. It is a western hunter’s job to not only find a good unit to hunt in using GOHUNT's Filtering 2.0, but also find the areas within that unit that hold the animals. Personally, I have found a lot of success by finding areas with good harvest statistics, but actually less habitat. To me, this means that the animals that are harvested are concentrated on smaller areas that can support and shelter them.
When a lot of people find a good spot that is holding animals in it they are very timid and try to make cautious plays. Though caution is normally a good thing, I can tell you from personal experience that if you find an animal that you would harvest, hunt it hard! Countless times I have been trying to pattern a buck or bull only to have an unsuspecting hunter blindly walk through a bedding area or skyline themselves and alert the animal I was watching. Unless you are hunting in a hard to draw unit, you need to treat each encounter with your quarry as the last time you might see it. Make a move and you will increase your success rate and your skill levels.
Overall, public land hunting is a challenge for all hunters — even the most experienced and best of the hunters. There are so many conditions that are out of our control that it can become quite frustrating. Public land hunting also requires an ever changing strategy to find success, depending on how the majority of hunters are choosing to chase that species during a certain season. Over the past decade, there are a few things that are true that should be acknowledged before hitting the mountains. Your spot is not secret so hunt it aggressively. If you are e-scouting and if it looks too good to be true, you should expect to find a good population of other hunters there. If you are planning on using your physical fitness to go deeper than other hunters, you will not be alone and may find there are no animals that deep anyway. Most of the public lands are not good habitat for animals — at least not the trophy animals. This means that you need to find the areas where trophy animals are hanging out. Finally, but most importantly, when you find a good spot with animals in it, do not play it safe. By the afternoon, the next morning or even sooner, someone else will be there and will find those same animals, too. Make a smart, but aggressive play. You never know if you will find success; however, you will have given it all without regret.