Public lands checkerboard the American West. Some parcels are larger than the size of a few East Coast states, while others are small enough to see across. Put together, public lands provide more opportunities than are ever fully realized. The key is doing research and scouting to find the hotspots that are being overlooked for various reasons. This is why you need to invest in a do-it-yourself plan so you can take real ownership of the public domain.
Last season, I was hoping to not only spend some time hunting with my 13-year-old son on public land near home for mule deer and pronghorn, but I also hoped to save a few days for myself. National Forest, Bureau of Land Management and state parcels dot the Wyoming landscape, but after a lot of searching on land-use maps, my son and I targeted two small plots that are surrounded by prime, private land. We couldn't cross the private fence to get after the animals, but then deer and antelope don't read maps all that well.
Budget Your Money and Time
By staying out of the high country my son Cole and I were able to scout more diligently throughout the summer instead of just taking one scouting trip prior to opening day. Nonresidents, of course, don't have this luxury. But then again, they can. How about taking the wife and kids out in early August to fish for trout and see the sights? You could use such a trip as a recon adventure so that when you come back out in the fall you can get right down to getting to the game first.
On our scouting trips we soon knew where we wanted to hunt. One of the public parcels we targeted allows limited livestock grazing and thus it attracts attention from pronghorn and mule deer looking to find high-quality browse. We also discovered that one corner of the property butted up against a private grain field that seemed to be the center of attention for most ungulates in the area. The public side of the fence held the best water source. A large reservoir held water throughout the year, making it a favorite stop for animals after browsing on the native vegetation or after a visit to the neighbor's grain field.
After mapping out where the heaviest big-game traffic is, we faced another dilemma: Most of the animal action was taking place on the far side from the established public-access points. That was no surprise, but definitely a budget killer for hunting time. One of the plots gave us no choice. We had to park where everyone else parked and hike to the hotspot. The second plot gave me another option, as I'd become friends with a nearby landowner. Despite the fact that he'd leased his hunting rights to a group of nonresidents, he granted me access across his land for backdoor admittance to the public land. This put us on the opposite side of where the public could enter, and smack in the middle of the buck zone. It was time to test our plan.
Put the Plan into Action
The following weekend I took him pronghorn hunting. We wasted no time getting to the back of the public land via the access from the friendly rancher. At sunset we spotted a nice pronghorn watering on the large reservoir, but shooting light ran out before we could close the distance. I had a hunch the buck would be back.
We reached a likely ambush location before sunrise the next morning, and sure enough, the buck and two does trotted back into the reservoir valley, but the shot was too far. When the trio dropped out of sight, Cole and I made a stalk and were soon peeking over the top of a rise face to face with the bug-eyed trio.
"He's not going to stand there long. Shoot him square in the chest," I instructed Cole. He didn't need any urging as the shot rang out a millisecond later. The .30 TC Hornady bullet from his Thompson Center Icon planted the buck on the spot. Two down and now it was my turn on our public honey hole.
My schedule only allowed weekday hunting and school duties kept Cole from joining me. I was bummed, but I was looking forward to hunting the public land when most folks would be at work.
We already had figured out the pronghorn hotspot, so I returned there and two days later tagged a heavy-horned buck with lots of curve. The backdoor entrance worked again. Nevertheless whereas the pronghorn stayed at the farthest extreme of the property, the muleys stayed in an intermediate zone of rough country. I soon discovered other hunters were putting the moves on every buck on the property.
Two things saved my hunt. First, a massive snowstorm dumped snow overnight causing most hunters to pick another day; second, once the snow melted the gumbo made the hike into the mule deer country twice the work. I gritted my teeth and hiked in the dark to not only beat the other hunters, but to take advantage of frozen mud.
Later that morning I spied a lone buck breaking ranks from a group of does. He bedded by himself in a sea of high sage. Seeing a window, I dropped to my belly and started crawling to close the distance on the buck. It worked and at midday the buck stood to stretch giving me a window to duplicate my son's 300-yard shot.
So last season my son and I shot four animals off checkerboard parcels of public land using common sense and by investing plenty of sweat. None of the animals will make the record books, but all were great hunts on land the public owns.