Public land has everything a bowhunter needs.
Pete Hildreth of Des Moines, Iowa, is proof. He is 42 and has been hunting public lands for over 25 years. He’s currently the conservation and recreation division administrator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, but his previous role as a wildlife technician and biologist with the Department introduced him to rewarding experiences and the endless opportunities that public lands provide.
“I’m not a landowner,” he said. “I’ve always been a public-land user because it’s what’s available to me. I take a lot of pride in that. As a public-land manager, I learned that everything I need is there.”
Hildreth hunts public lands for rabbits, mourning doves, pheasants, turkeys and deer. He likes finding new places to hunt and the diversity of habitats, wildlife and landscapes offered by public lands. He also enjoys meeting other public-land users and learning how they take advantage of the resource. He hopes his tips and insights gleaned from years of experience inspire others to explore, hunt and enjoy public lands.
According to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, the federal government owns about 640 million acres of land, roughly 28% of the total acreage in the United States. That’s a lot of property, most of which is available to hunt, fish, explore and use. Four federal agencies oversee these lands, including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.
Each state also owns public lands that are open to hunting. State wildlife agencies typically manage federal lands, as well as the public properties within their state. The amount of public lands varies in each state. For example, almost 96% of Alaska is public land, whereas in Rhode Island, about 1.5% of the land is public. In Iowa, Hildreth’s home state, 97% of land is privately owned, and approximately 1½% (roughly 450,000 acres) is public land that is open to public hunting. Despite these low numbers of public hunting acres, they are quality areas. Hildreth has lived throughout Iowa and said public lands were always within a 30- to 60-mile drive. The state has a Hunting Atlas available to help individuals find public lands.
Wherever you live, public lands have diverse landscapes and wildlife species. Wildlife biologists and land managers within each state work together to create ideal habitats for all species, game and nongame alike. These efforts help wildlife populations flourish. As such, Hildreth regularly sees animals when he hunts. In fact, it’s no uncommon to see deer every other hunt and said he could harvest a deer one out of every four sits. He doesn’t capitalize on every opportunity to shoot a deer because he’s selective in his approach.
During bowhunting season, “I want to harvest a mature whitetail,” he said. “I have shot a few bucks that I consider trophies and was very happy with (on public lands). I never have the mind-set that if I pass on a buck, someone else will harvest it.” Good spots and trophy deer exist on public lands. Depending on the hunter’s personal goals, they may have to invest more time in finding the “right” location or being more selective in what is harvested.
Whether you want to hunt state land or federally owned land, you can locate all public lands using maps found on your state wildlife agency website. Each federal agency mentioned above (BLM, USFS, USFWS, NPS) also has maps on its website.
Hildreth said most public lands have everything you need, including quality habitat, quality wildlife, a spot to park and well-marked boundaries and property lines. Hildreth recommends using the maps to find public lands close to home because they’re easy to get to.
Once you find an ideal parcel of land to hunt, scout it to find a bowhunting hot spot. Look for areas with food, water, cover and lots of animal signs, including tracks, trails and droppings. Next, you should determine what’s around your potential hunting spot. Is it more public land, private land or an urban center? The surroundings might affect how animals navigate and use an area. Try to use that information to your advantage and factor it into your hunt plan and strategy.
If you feel adventurous and up for a drive, explore properties a few hours away. Make a weekend trip out of it and invite your friends. The habitat and terrain can vary greatly from property to property, even if they’re only an hour away. Hildreth suggests hunting new places for a change of pace and scenery — and because you can.
“Without investing any money (on a lease) or buying land, you can travel your state (and the country) to find a place to hunt anytime,” he said. “Going to a new area offers new experiences and makes bowhunting fun.”
The biggest misconception about public lands is that they’re overcrowded. Hildreth said that’s typically not true, but he also doesn’t want to give the impression or false hope that public areas don’t get used because they do. However, usage varies throughout the season.
“Hunting pressure can change throughout the season,” Hildreth said. “Every day could be different.” For example, you might run into 10 hunters on opening day, but only one or two a few weeks later. Public lands see the most traffic at the start of hunting season and during an animal’s breeding season. Whatever you do, don’t give up on an area because you encounter people a few times. Instead, learn to work around them. Consider walking farther than your counterparts or strategizing how you can use their presence to your advantage.
Others worry that the people they encounter on public lands will be rude or won’t want to share the land. Although those situations happen, Hildreth said they’re rare.
“I have definitely encountered other hunters, but people are usually pleasant, and it’s a positive experience,” he said. “A lot of times, I think we’re looking out to benefit each other. Most people want to avoid conflict and ensure everyone involved has a quality hunt.”
He recalled an interaction with two bowhunters on the opening day of the 2021 bow season. They went to the same parcel of land he planned to hunt. For safety reasons, they discussed where they were going. He said everyone was cordial during the conversation. After returning to their vehicles that evening, they swapped stories. On other occasions, Hildreth has helped other hunters retrieve an animal they shot. He’s also had other hunters return the favor.
If you run into someone who gets aggressive or doesn’t want to share the land, be respectful and give them their space. It might not be worth it to argue. If you run into them again, gently let them know the land is a public resource available to all. If the interaction continues to be negative, Hildreth recommends reporting the incident to your local conservation officer so they can monitor the situation and property more closely.
As a U.S. citizen, you’re a public-lands owner. Additionally, each time you buy archery equipment or a hunting license, you’re financially supporting conservation projects that benefit wildlife and wild places.
Since you pay for public lands and inadvertently manage public lands, you should reap the benefits. Get out there, explore, go on adventures and fill a tag with a public-land animal. It’s rewarding and worthwhile.
“Bowhunting public lands gives you the chance to create rich, wholesome memories,” Hildreth said. “If you don’t bowhunt public lands, you’re missing out.”