Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The Golden Rule, aka the law of reciprocity, is a cultural principle that covers every aspect of life, bowhunting included.
When bowhunting public lands, everyone must follow a certain etiquette if everyone is to enjoy the experience. Common courtesies go a long way, but let’s review eight rules of hunting etiquette every public-lands bowhunter can live by.
1. Scout Midday
Deciding where to place your treestand or ground blind takes time and requires boots-on-the-ground scouting to find the perfect spot. To make the most of your hunting time, study maps of land you plan to hunt before arriving. Identify possible stand locations and, after arriving, restrict your scouting to the midday.
Animals are most active in the morning and evening, which is when most bowhunters are in the woods. Scouting at midday decreases the chances of disturbing others.
2. Don’t Crowd Others
As the sun peeks through trees and the forest awakens, you scan your surroundings and your heart sinks. Less than 100 yards away, perched in a sturdy oak, waits another bowhunter in a treestand. This is a common public-lands nightmare that plays out often.
When selecting a hunting spot, be mindful that others could already be hunting it. Besides looking for good habitat and deer signs, you must also look for treestands and ground blinds left by others. Once you find a spot to set up, check the area to ensure you aren’t encroaching on someone else. In general, leave at least 200 to 300 yards between you and other hunters’ stand sites. In open areas with greater visibility, you might need to be even farther from others so you’re not watching each other all day. Those situations get awkward, to say the least.
When possible, reduce those situations by talking to other hunters when seeing them in the parking area or along access trails. Briefly discuss where each of you is sitting. Most hunters won’t reveal their spot’s exact position. That’s fine, but exchanging information about the general area you plan to hunt reduces conflicts by ensuring you respect each other’s turf.
3. Label Your Gear
Several states require hunters to tag stands or blinds left on public lands. Even if the law doesn’t require this identification, it’s still smart to label your gear with your name, address and phone number. Leaving a stand or blind temporarily on public property during the hunting season is usually legal, but should an issue arise with your setup, fellow hunters or a conservation officer can reach you. An ID tag also shows you’re a responsible person and you’re actively hunting the site.
4. Know the Boundaries
When bowhunting public lands, you must respect other users and those owning private lands bordering the public property. Study maps and aerial photos of the area, and use a GPS unit to ensure you know your location at all times. In fact, mobile apps like HUNT by onXmaps show property boundaries and identify the landowners on aerial photos. Also, don’t set up on property lines. Imagine you own that neighboring property, and then follow the Golden Rule.
5. First In, Last Out
Anytime you move around on public lands you risk bumping into other hunters. It’s bound to happen. You can reduce those encounters by arriving early and staying until legal shooting time ends. If you accidentally hit your alarm’s snooze button and don’t reach your spot until well after sunrise, you risk disturbing other hunters when hiking deep into the public property. The same goes for leaving early. Even if the action is slow, hold tight until after shooting hours to avoid disturbing others bowhunting nearby.
The exception to that advice is when trailing arrowed animals. Blood trails can lead you to unfamiliar areas and into another hunter’s turf. No one likes seeing another person during prime time, but most bowhunters understand the situation.
6. Pick Up After Yourself
Nothing gets under my skin more than finding trash left by other hunters, whether the land is public or private. If you pack it in, pack it out. Period! If you find an old jerky package or candy wrapper, pick it up, please.
7. Field Dress off the Trail
Speaking of leaving unwanted items, let’s address where to field dress game. Before cleaning an animal, move it away from paths or trails others might travel.
8. Respectful Pack Out
A unique aspect of hunting many public lands is that foot traffic is often the only access method allowed. Therefore, successful hunts almost always require a pack out. Game carts can make this task easier in relatively flat, open areas, but thick cover and steep terrains without trails require a pack frame, sturdy legs and strong shoulders. No matter how you get your animal out, assume others are hunting nearby. Your hunt might be over, but don’t whoop and holler in celebration. Keep your voice low, use designated trails whenever possible, and take the safest, most direct route from the kill site to a trail.
Bowhunting public lands can be an awesome experience when everyone thinks before acting. Keep others in mind whether you see them or not, and never forget the Golden Rule.