September 21, 2021
By Tyler Frantz
America is known worldwide as the land of opportunity, and it’s no different when it comes to public land bowhunting. Be it expansive National Forest tracts, Bureau of Land Management properties or state-owned Wildlife Management Areas, American bowhunters are blessed with plenty of options on millions of public access acreage.
After consulting the National Deer Association’s 2021 Annual Deer Report (which compiles harvest figures nationwide) in concert with public land data, archery hunting opportunities and license fees from respective state agencies, several states stood out as truly remarkable public land hunting destinations.
While this list doesn’t claim comprehensive winners and is certainly up for debate, these five public hunting hotspots have at least garnered enough respect to be considered top players in their geographic regions of the country.
The best thing is anyone who buys a license and follows the rules can freely hunt there. Liberty never felt so good.
*Land acreage totals are approximate. License fees include general adult hunting license, archery, and any other permits required for deer bowhunting privileges; Additional fees may be required to pursue other species.
WEST — Wyoming
- Public acres: 31,403,000
- Resident License: $84.50
- Non-Resident License: $482.50
There’s no disputing the wild west is king when it comes to public hunting opportunities, as each of the 12 states with the most freely huntable acres exist in or west of the Rockies.
All of them are wonderful in their own rights, but you can’t beat the affordability, density, and success rate of Wyoming, where 55.9 percent of the state is public land and 55.7 acres-per-person make it second only to Alaska residents in terms of hunter density. It doesn’t hurt to have more than 18 million acres of BLM access either.
In 2019, Wyoming whitetail hunters amassed a 67 percent success rate, finishing only behind South Carolina nationwide, but it also has an estimated population of 345,800 mule deer. Offering archery-specific seasons for deer, antelope, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and black bear — as well as add-on hunting opportunities for turkey, wolf, mountain lion, bison, and grizzly — it is one of the most diverse states in the country in terms of wildlife species to pursue.
Whether staking out an early-season watering hole or attempting a spot-and-stalk mission across the Cowboy State’s beautiful and sprawling landscape, Wyoming really is a hunter’s paradise.
NORTH — Michigan
- Public acres: 7,346,000
- Resident License: $31
- Non-Resident License: $171
You can’t lead the nation in harvested bucks per square mile (3.7), kill more than 200,000 bucks annually (211,228 in 2019, second only to Texas), and be the only non-western state with more than 20 percent of total land acreage allocated for public hunting and not make this list.
Yes, Michigan hunting pressure can be ridiculously high at times, and hunters can’t expect to see tons of trophies running around, but it is a state that consistently fills harvest tags year after year, and that alone deserves recognition.
Its affordable license is a hot draw for residents and non-residents alike to pursue deer, turkeys and bears, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources makes it easy to find places to hunt.
Utilizing the MiHUNT interactive mapping system, hunters can view approximate boundaries of lands open to hunting, including both public tracts as well as private properties available for public hunting through the state’s longtime Hunter Access Program.
Throw in Michigan’s three national forests — Hiawatha, Huron-Manistee, and Ottawa — all of which permit regulated hunting, and it’s clear to see why the Wolverines regularly place in the top two nationwide for antlered deer harvest.
EAST — Pennsylvania
- Public acres: 4,170,000
- Resident License: $37.94
- Non-Resident License: $128.94
Another state that receives plenty of hunting pressure but can’t be overlooked as a credible hunting destination is Pennsylvania, which boasts more public land acreage than any other northeastern or mid-atlantic state. That makes it accessible to many of the major population centers in the east.
With the fourth cheapest resident license and sixth least expensive nonresident license in the nation, Keystone State hunters tallied the third highest antlered deer harvest in America, taking 163,240 bucks in 2019. Pennsylvania also finished second in bucks per square mile (3.6), second in total antlerless harvest (225,191), and second in antlerless deer per square mile (5.1).
While there’s clearly plenty of deer in the state, the general hunting license also includes tags for both fall and spring turkeys. However, with an estimated population of 20,000 black bears statewide, hunters would be foolish not to upgrade by adding a bear tag ($16.97 resident; $36.97 resident), especially since the state harvest annually averages or exceeds 3,000 bears and routinely includes trophy bruins over 600 pounds.
Pennsylvania’s 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands — funded by hunting license dollars and managed for wildlife — provide a prime landscape to concurrently bowhunt for deer, turkeys and bears during late October and early November. You can even try for the limited draw archery elk hunt in September. Hunters can also find success on the millions of acres of state and nationally owned hunting areas up for grabs.
SOUTH — Florida
- Public acres: 6,000,000
- Resident License: $27
- Non-Resident License: $161.50
Few states can contend with the overall length of seasons offered in Florida, where 205 total days of deer hunting exist — 110 of which are archery specific. In fact, 25 percent of deer taken in the state are harvested with bows, and nearly half of the state’s 48,724 bucks taken in 2019 were age 3.5 or older. The chance to take five bucks in one year just serves as icing on the cake.
With a whopping 29.2 percent of the Sunshine State being in public lands, it’s more than just a retirement and vacation destination, though you can easily pair either with some exceptional hunting opportunities. Secure sausage and bacon with year-round unlimited hog hunting, purchase a turkey tag to try for a prized Osceola gobbler, or apply for the statewide alligator harvest program, which carries roughly 1:2 odds of drawing a tag.
Hunters must pay $26.50 to hunt the six-million acres in the WMA system (state owned and public access, some walk-in), but that investment is well worth it. Nowhere else can you take the family to Disney World and fulfill your outdoor fantasies in the same week!
CENTRAL — Missouri
- Public acres: 2,525,000
- Resident License: $19
- Non-Resident License: $265
Everyone knows midwestern states produce big bucks, and while some absolute giants are taken every year in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas, the hidden gem of the heartland has to be Missouri.
With a modest license fee that comes at a fraction of the cost of its neighboring states, and better odds of securing a tag, Missouri also has comparatively more public acres to hunt — and it shows. In 2019 alone, 134,092 bucks were harvested, second only behind Michigan and Wisconsin among other midwestern states.
Its deer season runs for 142 days, 112 of which are archery specific, and a hunting license comes with tags for two either sex deer (only one antlered deer may be taken before November 16), and two either sex fall turkeys. Hunters can also opt for two bearded birds in the spring as for an additional fee.
Missouri’s 2.5 million acres is largely comprised of Department of Conservation Lands and the Mark Twain National Forest, but unique opportunities exist in the form of special managed deer hunts in archery-only urban areas where some massive bucks can be taken. The Missouri Outdoor Recreational Access Program further opens public access on privately owned properties, making the Show-Me state an even more enticing appeal for bowhunters.
While public land bowhunting can be enjoyed in every state in the union, these five states are real leaders in their regions when it comes to public access. It’s reassuring to know that within a reasonable drive of any American town, village or city, quality hunting exists in the land of the free. God bless the USA!