There are two potential reasons why you may be hunting public land deer this season. First, you may find public land deer hunting challenging and enjoy the freedom the big woods offer. More likely, however, the real reason you are hunting on public land is you have no other choice such as a private lease or your own land to hunt. Hunting deer on public land is the great equalizer. Each hunter has to search for a place to hunt, develop a sound strategy and compete with other hunters all seeking a whitetail buck.
The one advantage hunters have in Pennsylvania when looking for the best public land hunting is that there is plenty of it. Public lands open to hunting can be found in almost every county of the state accounting for more than 4 million acres. All that land, however, comes with a lot of competition and challenges when it comes to deer hunting season.
Finding Public Land Deer Hunting Opportunities in Pennsylvania
The best public land deer hunting opportunities are not as hard to come by as many think. The key is to put the time in and focus on quality areas with minimal pressure and good habitat. Finding these suitable areas is not difficult with the amount of area open to the public.
One place to start your search is with the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) Deer Hunter Focus Areas. This site provides information and an interactive map of recent and current habitat management projects on State Game Lands across the state. These projects are known to attract deer and typically have hunter access areas associated with them. Although these Deer Hunter Focus Areas are a great place to start, remember a lot of other hunters will also be hunting these areas. Ideally, you want to use these locations as a starting point and expand to adjacent areas to hunt whitetails where hunting pressure will be less.
Another starting point for finding public land deer hunting opportunities is the PGC State Game Lands website. This website provides information about the 1.5 million acres of public lands opening for hunting. Here, again, you can use an interactive map to search for areas to scout and download individual maps to take with you on the ground. Both are helpful when planning your public land hunting strategy.
Finally, Pennsylvania State Forests and the Allegheny National Forest also both have vast amounts of land open to public hunting. How to find a good hunting spot on public land starts with doing your research and exploring these opportunities well before deer season starts.
Best Game Lands to Hunt in Southeastern Pennsylvania
State Game Land 145 sits off of State Route 117 in southern Lebanon County. It is approximately 2,800 acres of mixed hardwoods forest. This SGL has many one- and two-acre food plots established to supplement native forage. Hunt thick bedding areas near these food plots to ambush a buck coming or going to feed.
SGL 145 – Lebanon County
Nearby, SGL 156 has over 4,500 acres open to hunting in Lebanon and Lancaster counties. Both mixed hardwood and mixed oak forests exist in SGL 156. Timber management is very active across this area and provides plenty of quality browse and cover for whitetails to enjoy. Hunting public land deer here can be tough as it tends to get pressured, especially during firearms season. Hunt more remote areas and stay away from main trails if possible to increase your chances.
SGL 156 – Lebanon/Lancaster Counties
Another prime public land hunting location in Lebanon and Lancaster counties is SGL 46. Accessible from State Route 897, SGL 46 covers approximately 6,000 acres surrounding the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. Focus your public land hunting strategy on hardwood ridges and adjacent to agricultural fields on this public tract.
SGL 46 – Lebanon/Lancaster Counties
Overlooked Public Land Hunting Places
Among all the public land open to hunting across the Commonwealth, hunters frequently overlook state parks as a place to hunt. There is usually a state park within a 20- to 30-minute drive of almost every resident in the state and many have public land deer hunting opportunities.
Two particular state parks in southern Pennsylvania where public land monster bucks roam are Gifford Pinchot State Park and Caledonia State Park. Both of these parks allowing deer hunting, but they have special regulations hunters need to comply with. Gifford Pinchot is located in northern York County just outside of Harrisburg. The hunting grounds surround the lake and are in turn surrounded by a mix of residential and agricultural lands. No centerfire rifles can be used for hunting in the park but you can use bows, shotguns, and muzzleloaders. Caledonia State Park has a smaller amount of huntable land but it is surrounded by the 85,000 acre Michaux State Forest, which offers its own public hunting opportunities. Similarly, this park has special hunting regulations so be sure to check them out before planning to hunt in either of these state parks.
5 Public Land Hunting Tips for Deer Season
Hunting big bucks on public land does not come easy. Make sure these five public land hunting tips are part of your deer season strategy.
- Scout All Year Long – You have to put in the time on public lands. This means not only hunting but also scouting. Scouting with trail cameras preseason but also scouting throughout the year to find new spots and plan tree stand set ups is a must. The more time you spend scouting the more likely you will beat out all the other unprepared hunters for that buck spot.
- Get a GPS and Learn to Use It – Having a GPS unit is critical to public land deer hunting. It allows you to store hunting spots as waypoints and tracks as trails to your tree stands. Without one, it makes it hard to explore new hunting areas and keep your existing spots as secret as possible.
- Use Hunting Pressure to Your Advantage – Almost everywhere in Pennsylvania on public land, there will be hunting pressure. One tip is to use that to your advantage. Position tree stands around highly pressured areas and hunt the pressured deer. This works well in gun season when a high percentage of hunters are in the woods for the first time walking around and spooking up bucks.
- Don’t Hunt History – Hunters on public land often hunt the same areas year after year. These places are either familiar or they have had recent past deer hunting success here. With public land, however, things change constantly. Either habitat is changing from management activities or consistent pressure from recreation change deer patterns. Assume nothing each year and instead scout each year to determine if other areas are a better choice to hunt.
- Be Able to Adapt Mid-Season – Along with not hunting history, you also need to be able to adapt during the season. Public means anyone can hunt right next to you. You have to have secondary options and be able to adapt your public land hunting strategy on a daily basis based on changing deer patterns or unexpected hunting pressure.
Must-Have Deer Hunting Gear for Public Land
Arguably the two most important pieces of deer hunting gear for public land hunting are a lightweight tree stand and a quality hunting pack. The theme of these two pieces of gear is mobility and being able to adapt.
- Lightweight Tree Stand Setup – Hanging a tree stand on public land has to not damage the tree. This means you have to either choose a lightweight climbing tree stand like the Summit Open Shot Climber or go with a hang on stand and use lightweight climbing sticks.
- Quality Hunting Pack – You will need a hunting pack for public land deer hunting that holds plenty of gear. Large main pockets, accessory pockets, and a comfortable fit as the Badlands Dash Backpack which is ideal for any day hunting public land during firearms season.