Finding and Hunting Public Land Sanctuaries

I would love to own a piece of ground to call my own someday. I think most of us would. But I grew up hunting on public land and have built many fond memories doing so. State forests, wildlife management areas, tax-forfeit properties – I’ve hunted all of them. In fact, even if I got my dream property, I’d still continue to hunt on public land; at least some of the time.

But one of the largest downsides to public land hunting is pressure. On any given day, you could be sharing the woods with half of a small town. That puts a lot of stress on the whitetail herd, and they quickly react to it by finding safe places to bed down during the day. These public land sanctuaries are usually located in the thickest, swampiest, most remote areas you can find for a very good reason: humans don’t want to go into them! Maybe we’re lazy, maybe we don’t want to deal with the hassle, but deer know this weakness. Here’s how to turn the average hunter’s flaw into your greatest strength.

Step 1: The Hunt for Public Land

Depending on the state you hunt, your approach could be very different. Many states, such as my home state of Minnesota, have very good tools and resources available to help hunters find public land. Start with your state wildlife agency website, which will usually have a page for public lands. Narrow your search down to your area of interest. Also try national forests, county lands, or regional parks. If nothing else, pick up the phone and reach out to your nearest agency office to get some feedback. They should have a solid grasp of what’s in the area.

Step 2: Remote Scouting

Before you head to any of the parcels you found in step 1, I find it very helpful to do some aerial scouting with a program like Google Earth. I use different layers (topography, wetlands, land cover, etc.) and autumn imagery if it’s available so I can see all the funnels and trails. At this point, I eliminate the parcels I don’t like. Once I locate a promising one, I zoom in and look for remote areas or places other hunters might avoid (e.g., hidden corners around beaver ponds, a hardwood island in a cattail swamp, a funnel area choked with underbrush, etc.).

As we established, the general public is fairly lazy. Many try to stay within easy walking distance of roads or trail systems and may even use ATVs or UTVs to get as close as possible. One way to find public land sanctuaries is by going the distance. Focus on the spots that are over one half of a mile from roads or trails and you will virtually be by yourself. I realize this isn’t possible on all public lands or for all hunters, but if you are able to hike this far, you’ll be happy you did so.

However, don’t discount the obvious places either. Sometimes a dense or swampy area right along a road or trail is the secret weapon simply because everyone else overlooks it. My father used this strategy last fall when he harvested a very respectable public land 10 point buck. It was a spot no further than 50 to 60 yards from a commonly used trail. But it was thick with alder brush and full of deer that watched everyone else drive right past.

Step 3: Onsite Reconnaissance

Once you have some spots narrowed down, it’s time to get boots on the ground and confirm your suspicions. Navigate to the spots you located on the aerial maps and start looking for deer sign. Sometimes things will look very different than what you anticipated, and sometimes they will be better. If it’s what you were hoping for and you notice lots of beds, cluster rubs, and maybe even some scrapes (during the fall hunting season), you’re probably onto something special.

After confirming deer sign, you need to plan how you can access the location without alerting deer to your approach. Sometimes that means you’re in for a bit of a walk. Plot out an access trail that doesn’t cross their path to feeding areas, and then set up a stand on the predominantly downwind side. Remember to stay on the outskirts of the sanctuary area itself, but close enough to one of their trails that you can intercept a deer as it returns for the day. I typically clear the major obstructions from my access trail and mark it with glow-in-the-dark tacks so I can find my way in, but not make it too obvious to other hunters should they stumble upon it.

Step 4: The Fun Part

Now that you’ve got your sanctuary pegged, it’s time to get hunting. But you need to make smart moves or else you could ruin it. Remember that the deer hide here because there is little human pressure.

Slowly sneak into the area very early in the morning using your super-stealthy access trail. For these types of stands, I like to get settled in at least 45 minutes before shooting light and sit all day. Deer might come in and bed down within 50 to 100 yards, so I don’t want to get down at lunch and educate them to move on to a different sanctuary. Once the other hunters arrive on their ATVs, I am usually rewarded by watching the deer move in my direction, which is always a sweet sight. If you have an unsuccessful weekend hunt, you should move your tree stand to another location so you don’t educate the herd and burn out your location.

As you can see, it really doesn’t take all that much extra work to find and hunt public land sanctuaries, but it does take some planning and persistence. Stick with it and you’ll probably be surprised at the deer activity you can find on public ground.

  • james

    I’ve been hunting public land for last
    13yrs ,and have & had very good success
    In 2009, I was able to harvest and 8th
    Buck, it wasn’t a record book buck ,
    But still a good memory, it came out of
    A swamp and I was able to close the deal he weighed 145, field wt.

    • Nice job James. It sounds like you have the public land hunting system down!

  • DUSTIN RUTHERFORD

    I HAVE 240 ACRES LEASED THAT JOINS SOMELAND LOCKED NATIONAL FOREST. I GO TO THE HARDEST THICKEST AREA TO HUNT AND HAVE TAKEN SEVERAL NICE DEER INCLUDING A NICE 15 PT A FEW YEARS AGO. JUST TAKES A LITTLE MORE EFFORT. MOST PEOPLE WILL NOT PUT IN THE HARD WORK. GOOD LUCK!

    • Great success story Dustin! That 15 pt probably felt pretty secure in the area you found him. Keep it up.

      • DUSTIN RUTHERFORD

        HE WAS 7.5 YEAR OLD SO IM SURE HE LIVED HIS LIFE THERE IN THAT SWAMP FEELING SAFE AND SOUND. I WAS HAPPY TO TAKE HIM. GOOD ARTICLE. THESE HARD WORK HUNTS ON PUBLIC LAND ARE SOME OF MY FAVORITES. ME AND MY HUNTING BUDDY TAKE FULL ADVANTAGE!

  • Dan Forseth

    Thanks for the article. I found a pretty good public site for this fall, but your article inspired me to work just a bit harder to find an even better one!

    • Thanks Dan! It takes a little extra effort, but it’s usually worth it. Good luck!

      • Gregory Trumpower

        I got lost and ended up in a sanctuary…thick as a brick, had to use hand cutters to open a path to get through, ended up walking a stream bed flowing off the top of the mountain to the hollow and there they were…buck after buck. Safe, secure, water beside them and cool ….when the heard me the booked it…but I know now where they are. Hope their there Sept. 9th, that’s Maryland’s first day.

        • Thanks for sharing that Gregory. I found a similar area along a stream, where I was crawling to get past some of the brush. But it was loaded with rubs and beds. Good luck on opening day!