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How to Successfully Bowhunt Public Land

To find consistent success, you must be better than average in every respect.

How to Successfully Bowhunt Public Land
Photo Credit: Tayler J. Larsen/Hoyt

Bowhunting public land is all the rage these days, and rightfully so! Our public lands offer immense opportunities to adventurous bowhunters. We are extremely lucky to live in a country rich in public lands for all to hunt and fish without having to make a monthly payment for a mortgage, lease or club membership.

Still, choosing to hunt public land does comes at a certain cost. Namely, that in addition to outmaneuvering the game animals you are pursuing, you’ll also have to outcompete all the other sportsmen exercising the very same hunting privileges as you!

So, what separates bowhunters who are consistently successful on public land from the rest of the pack? Why is it that some bowhunters seem to punch their tags on public land no matter the state, species or obstacles in the way?

The answer is quite simple: These bowhunters have figured out that they must be “better than average” in every respect, from grit and determination to shooting and woodsmanship skills. Let’s take a closer look at some of these special skills I’ve found critical to my own public-land success and that of other hardcore bowhunters who consistently post better-than-average success rates on the open (to all) range.


Plan to Succeed

Any seasoned bowhunter knows planning is a huge factor to success, and it comes as no surprise it is extremely important when bowhunting public land. Having a detailed plan long before your tires ever start rolling toward your destination is vital, and it’s a common trait among those who succeed year in and year out. I was fairly young when I started hunting whitetails in states neighboring my home state of Ohio, and I learned quickly that the more planning I did, the more success I had.


Modern bowhunters are extremely fortunate to have access to all sorts of high-tech tools such as onX Hunt (onxhunt.com) and HuntStand that make remote scouting easy. Those who take advantage of these tools are way ahead of the curve because they’re able to scout from home and start making plans several months, if not several years, in advance of actually hunting a particular piece of ground.

Developing a plan of attack is something I focus on from the minute I decide on a state, species and unit to hunt. My mind immediately races to digest and study these maps and aerial views of where I’ll be hunting. I want to develop multiple plans for every obstacle that may be thrown my way, whether it’s hunting pressure, lack of water, closed trailheads or lack of game in a given area. Regardless of the scenario, I’ve learned that those who are consistently successful always have a plan; this keeps their minds sharp and focused! I truly believe the average public-land bowhunter doesn’t have enough plans, or doesn’t have a plan at all — and that really puts them in a bind sooner rather than later. With the available resources at our fingertips, there is no reason not to plan way ahead of schedule. This is a critical step in being “better than average” and puts you ahead of the rest right off the bat!

Be Accountable

“Be Prepared” isn’t just the Boy Scouts motto; it’s a mindset shared by successful people. Whether they’re an Olympic athlete, a world-class musician or a public-land bowhunter, successful people prepare and prepare well! In my opinion, there is a big difference between preparing for a public-land hunt and being prepared for a public-land bowhunt! Being prepared means you have done everything in your power to make sure you’re ready for whatever comes your way. That’s something I strive for on every public-land bowhunt.

There are layers to this onion of being prepared, but the first is being honest with yourself about what you’re trying to accomplish on your hunt. Maybe it’s a piece of public ground down the road from you that you’ve never hunted before, and your goal is just to find some deer to hunt. Maybe it’s a high-country mule deer hunt in Colorado, and your goal is to kill a good buck! In either scenario, it’s important to identify the end goal and make plans to achieve it. Being goal-oriented keeps us honest with ourselves and holds us accountable. Being accountable makes me a better public-land bowhunter, because I know I am fully responsible for my success or failure.


bowhunter walking down steep decline
Getting into peak physical condition prior to a public-land hunt will make navigating harsh backcountry terrain easier — and more enjoyable.

If I’m going on a tough, multi-day, backcountry bowhunt, I know I need to be in great shape. So, I will settle for nothing less. This will motivate me to hit the gym at 4:30 a.m. before work every day because I know I need to be doing more than the average guy if I want to be successful! Being in peak physical condition makes a backcountry hunt not only easier but more enjoyable, and that’s the reason we should be out there — to enjoy the great outdoors!

Obviously, our shooting and woodsmanship skills need to be taken very seriously! Sometimes, the difference between filling a tag and failure is only a few inches. Or maybe the difference between finding game and not finding game comes down to our ability to use our equipment, such as a spotting scope and tripod, to the best of our abilities. Be prepared! Know your equipment, and don’t just practice; practice with a purpose! Those who are extremely successful on public land have made their bow an extension of their arm and know their gear inside and out.

Back in my early days of public-land bowhunting, I would get opportunities but fail to capitalize on them. I worked so hard to get an opportunity but failed in the final moments before the shot. My mind hadn’t been trained for those moments, and I hadn’t practiced with a purpose. Those who hold themselves accountable find the flaws and correct them. Since then, I have trained myself to practice with purpose and know my gear inside and out. These are my tools and my lifeline to success out there on public land, and I know when my work has paid off and I get my opportunity, my arrow will hit its mark!


Embrace the Why

In my opinion, the ones who always get it done are those who “embrace the suck” and understand why they are there in the first place. Public land is tough! There is no sugar-coating it, and this is why only about 15 percent of bowhunters who hunt public land are the ones punching tags year in and year out. Still, they love being there! They know why they’re there. They don’t get discouraged and go home! They don’t give up if they miss a shot or mess up a stalk! Nobody and nothing will push them off course, because their unwavering drive to win puts them in position to be successful. Once I learned this trait, my stats on public ground skyrocketed, but I had to earn it! I had to want it! And that’s a common trait all successful public-land bowhunters possess.

Four years ago, I started my journey to kill a Colorado mule deer buck on a solo, high-country hunt. I knew what challenges I would face. I knew it would be extremely difficult and test me mentally and physically more than anything I had done previously, but I wanted to figure it out on my own and learn as I went. I wanted to fail and then fail some more, with the intent of learning and getting better. It took me four years to accomplish this goal. Four years of jumping in my truck and driving 25-plus hours to Colorado, alone and with one goal in mind. Four different hunting units tested my hunting knowledge and abilities more than I could have imagined. Three years in a row, I drove home empty-handed and deflated but never defeated. I would be back! I knew my “why.” Therefore, I never doubted the process or that my moment would come. This past fall, on Sept. 6 at 13,000 feet, my moment materialized, and I made it count! My “why” got me to that moment, as most successful public-land bowhunters would agree.

Not If, But When

If you talk to any serious, successful, public-land bowhunter, you will quickly pick out two additional character traits: confidence and readiness. Those who are successful aren’t hoping for an opportunity; they’re ready and waiting for it! These individuals believe that they will, without a doubt, get an opportunity. So, they are always ready at a moment’s notice, and that makes them deadly! When you have confidence in yourself and your plan, you will always be mentally ready for your moment. These hunters visualize making that perfect shot. They imagine, over and over again, an animal walking within range and doing all of the little steps necessary to get back to full draw. This mindset gives you the mental edge that keeps you glassing during midday instead of napping at camp. It keeps you on the mountain, or in the stand, until last light. It drives you to keep searching and working toward your goal, because you know, without a doubt, that your time is coming. This mindset keeps you in the game mentally, and in my opinion, there is no better tool to have than a confident mindset.

Being mentally prepared and ready for your opportunity will allow you to make it happen when the moment of truth arises, and the successful bowhunters I know are always in that positive mindset. I often find myself thinking, My buck is going to be over that next hill, or, Tomorrow morning is my day! This mindset will prepare you for your moment. You’ll have mentally replayed it 1,000 times, and when your bow limbs bend and that string touches your nose, you will know without a doubt you are ready. This mindset makes you far “better than average,” and that makes you deadly!

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