The Unspoken Rules of Hunting Public Land

Public hunting land is for everyone—and that means sharing nicely. Follow these informal guidelines to avoid being a jerk when you’re sharing space.

by posted on July 11, 2023
Deering Unspoken Rules Of Hunting
Image courtesy RealTree Media

Hunting public land is a bit of a gamble in many places. Because it’s open to everyone, you have little control over who you’ll come in contact with, and as you’ve figured out in life, not everyone is pleasant to deal with. The best you can do is be one of the good guys and avoid being the one who creates problems.

Keep in mind that these are called unwritten rules for a reason—they’re not laws. That means they aren’t really rules at all, and you can’t enforce them on someone who refuses to play nice. But in general, public land hunting would be good for everyone if we all remembered these guidelines:

Safety first. The number one rule of hunting, public land or not, is to follow all gun safety laws. Remember that you’re not the only one in the woods with a firearm. Wear blaze orange during rifle season, even if it’s not a requirement. Use your binoculars, not your riflescope, if you want to scan the woods, so you don’t accidentally muzzle a fellow hunter. Let someone know where you plan to be, carry a communication device, be prepared with some simple woodsmanship, orienteering and first aid skills, and carry some basic survival gear if you’re hunting remote areas.

Follow the Golden Rule. Most of the rest of this list is summed up by the rule you learned as a kid: “Treat others how you’d like to be treated.” Don’t do anything on public land that you wouldn’t want others doing. You’re not special.

First come, first served. Whoever gets to a spot first gets to hunt it, period. Get there earlier next time.

You don’t own it. I mean, if you’re a taxpayer, you kind of do own public land, but so does everyone else. Even if you hung a treestand, planted a food plot or hung a trail camera on a particular spot, it’s not “your” spot. It’s a total jerk move for someone to sit in a stand you hung, but it happens, and it’s hard to stop them because it’s generally not illegal for them to be there. You don’t own the land, you don’t own the trails, and you don’t own the parking area, so don’t block trails, don’t try to run people out of a spot you like, and don’t get huffy when someone is hunting where you wanted to hunt.

Hands to yourself. In other words, don’t touch other people’s stuff. Definitely don’t be the girl who sits in someone else’s treestand!

Give people space. If you’re on the way into a spot and you encounter another hunter, if it’s rifle season, wave to make sure they know you are there (for safety) and then get the heck out. If you need to pass through that area to get to where you want to hunt, the courteous thing to do is to go around as much as you’re able. Don’t go traipsing through the middle of their setup while they’re trying to hunt.

How far you can set up from another hunter will vary a lot based on what and where you’re hunting. Use common sense, and even if you’re a respectable distance away, don’t purposely set up where you’ll cut off animals that are on the way to the other hunter.

Have a Plan B. Because you don’t own a spot and you want to be respectful of where others are set up, always have a couple of different places in mind you can hunt based on prevailing wind conditions. If you have an alternative plan, your day won’t be ruined if someone is hunting closer to your chosen honeyhole than you’d like.

Put in the work. Hunting public land is hard, and to be successful, you’ll need to do some scouting before the season opens. Don’t go stomping around the woods on opening day looking for a good spot while other people are trying to hunt.

No spot stealing. If someone is gracious enough to show you a spot they like to hunt on public land, don’t take anyone else there, and don’t hunt there yourself unless you’re certain they’re not hunting that day. Yes, I know they don’t own it, but intentionally stealing someone’s spot that they worked hard to find and then shared with you is a lousy thing to do to a buddy. And be careful sharing photos for this reason; don’t overshare location information on social media, and be aware that your cell phone might be stamping your photos with GPS data that can lead others directly to the spot where the photo was taken.

Leave it like you found it. Clean up after yourself, pack out all your trash, be sure your fire is put out if you camped on public ground, don’t poop on the trail, pick up your empty brass or shotgun shells, don’t go too nuts trimming branches, stop building those little rock cairns for a cute social media photo, and generally leave the land like it was when you found it. That goes for the parking area, too—it’s not a dumping ground for gut piles, feathers or other byproducts of your harvest.

Don’t work someone else’s animals. If you’re hunting ducks, turkeys, elk or another species that involves calling, first, be careful about what you’re calling in (be sure of your target and what’s beyond it applies here!) and be careful about what you’re stalking up on, making sure it’s not another hunter. 

You don’t want to work any game that someone else might be working—if you’re in a blind on public land and the guys 200 yards down are clearly working a flock into their decoys, don’t try to work the birds away from them, and definitely don’t sky-bust the ducks before they can get to the other hunters. If there’s a hunter working a turkey on the next ridge over, back out and let her work it. Don’t try to cut the bird off or get into a calling contest. This goes back to trying to give other hunters plenty of space.

Don’t engage with jerks. Most hunters are kind and courteous, and most people understand that hunting public land comes with some bumps in the road and some inevitable encounters with fellow hunters. That said, some people are just entitled, selfish jerks who don’t respond to reason and logic. If you encounter someone who wants to make an issue of something, let it go and back out of the area. Don’t get into confrontations with armed strangers in the woods. Call the game warden if you have to and settle it later, but hunting brings out strong emotions in people, and you’ll be better off if you choose to be the bigger person and walk away when tempers flare.

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