A beginner’s primer to hunting public land

Ross Bielema

If you aren’t blessed with generous relatives who own a wooded farm or have your own 40-acre slice of paradise, finding a place to hunt is going to come before finding that trophy buck.

Fortunately you live in public hunting paradise, also known as Wisconsin. Slightly more than 7 million acres of land here is open to hunting in some form, including federal, state and county land.

When I first moved to God’s Country in 2000, having previously lived in Illinois and then Iowa, I was amazed at the amount of public land. I spent many years chasing deer and turkeys on public sites in Waupaca and Shawano counties, including Navarino State Wildlife Area, a 15,000-acre site teeming with deer, turkeys, waterfowl, small game and fish. I did take at least one deer from this mini-wilderness.

Although many hunters prefer to hunt private land, public hunting can offer a few advantages. First off, you don’t need to invest thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the land — you already helped pay for it. You won’t need to spend more thousands on taxes (yes, you probably are already doing that, too). You can’t plant food plots or leave your tree stands or blinds on public land all year, but if the hunting isn’t that great or you just want a change of scenery, get out your plat book or cell phone and find a new spot. Or scout multiple spots for many options when the wind direction changes or you tire of wading through swamp or stinging nettles.

One thing you’ll quickly learn about public hunting is that the harder you work to get away from the crowds of lazy hunters, the more success you’ll have. If you have trouble walking or just have no stamina, you can still find a welcome spot. But if you dig deep, get up earlier than everyone else and walk far off the main trails, you’ll find that honey hole.

Famed hunters like Greg Miller and Myles Keller have done well on public land. Deer are highly adaptable and thrive close to humans, as those of us who have hit them with our cars and trucks know too well. Both have written many articles and even books on the topic. A quick internet search will show you a few of the many trophies they’ve taken on public ground. I interviewed Keller many years ago, and he talked about how wise bucks would find relatively undisturbed patches of ground near populated areas where nobody bothered to hunt. Such spots can be found on both public and private acreages.

Finding public spots close to home starts with talking to friends, neighbors and other fellow hunters.

When I grew frustrated 23 years ago that I couldn’t get permission to hunt on private land, a co-worker told me about a public spot in Waupaca County that soon became my go-to hunting area. Nearby were two other state-owned spots. We became fast friends, and I occasionally hunt these areas to this day.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website is a goldmine for information on public hunting, fishing and other recreation on the state’s wooded wonderland. Start your exploration here: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/lands.

State-owned lands are divided into parks, natural areas, wildlife areas, forests and fisheries.

Some parks have sections open to hunting, including Hartman Creek State Park near Waupaca. Most state parks have an entry fee. If you buy an annual Patron license, state parks admission is included.

Natural areas totaling around 406,000 acres may include private land, land trusts and county or local government lands as well as state-owned properties. Most natural areas are open to hunting (check regulations on each site).

State wildlife areas are open to a variety of recreation, including hunting, fishing and trapping. Here’s a list of wildlife areas by county: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Lands/WildlifeAreas/alpha.html.

Shawano County has Navarino listed as its only state wildlife area. Oconto County has both Green Bay West Shores and Peshtigo Brook state wildlife areas.

The state has county, state and national forests. Start here for a look at the first two: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/forestry.

Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is a vast 1.5 million acre haven for hunters, particularly those needing large expanses for their pursuits. Bear, bobcat and previously wolf hunters in particular (wolf season currently is closed) can hunt this area, as do hound hunters. I successfully took a 35-pound bobcat with dogs in 2012 while hunting this beautiful national treasure. Start here to explore this northern Wisconsin adventureland: https://www.fs.usda.gov/cnnf.

This provides details on hunting regulations within the national forest: https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/cnnf/recreation/hunting.

Fisheries areas are bordering creeks, rivers and lakes to afford erosion and development protection.

Check the rules of each area for recreation guidelines.

In addition to public lands, many private lands are accessible to hunting because of state agreements.

The best example of this is vast tracts of privately owned paper company lands granted tax breaks (under Managed Forest and Forest Crop laws) because they allow hunting, hiking and other activities.

Check out this secret treasure (not so secret to bear, bobcat and grouse hunters) here: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/forestlandowners/opentopublicapp.

This site provides access to maps of private land with public access. Note that in most cases, motorized vehicles are not allowed on these lands unless otherwise noted.

The state also has two programs to grant public access to private lands: the Voluntary Public Access (VPA) and the Turkey Hunter Access (THAP) programs. Take a look: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/lands/private.

You can search public lands via this link: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/fl/RealEstate/PAL.

You can also order the Public Access Lands Atlas of Wisconsin, a printed guide, here: www.uwbookstore.com/MerchList.aspx?ID=15893.

This 26-page online guide explains the atlas and also lists additional lands contacts and all DNR service centers: https://dnr.wi.gov/files/PDF/pubs/lf/LF0076_FrontBack.pdf.

If you prefer to hunt close to home or in just a few select areas, you can obtain printed county plat maps from each of the state’s 72 county offices.

I hope you find this guide to public lands usage helpful and enjoy exploring some of the many great hunting spots open to all this fall. Be sure to pick up your trash and be sure of your target (and what’s beyond) when hunting on the lands we share.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at Ross@wolfriverccw.com.