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Wisconsin offers many great public lands that are often ignored or overlooked in spring by turkey hunters and trout anglers.
Wisconsin offers many great public lands that are often ignored or overlooked in spring by turkey hunters and trout anglers. / Patrick Durkin/Correspondent

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We often hear claims that people quit hunting or fishing because they can't find good places to chase deer, ducks, trout or walleyes.

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Some folks even contact me for "where to go" suggestions. Maybe they think I'm guarding the gates to secret, sacred lands, boat landings and fishing piers.

Honestly, folks. Do I look like St. Peter?

The fact is, most of us drive by great hunting and fishing grounds regularly in Wisconsin, yet we ignore them as if they're historical markers. Maybe we assume there's nothing behind those little white signs whose green block letters read, "Public Hunting and Fishing Grounds."

Most folks probably just want shortcuts to hunting and fishing success. But if we can't bother checking out public lands we see while window shopping from the road, is there any way anyone including the Department of Natural Resources can steer us to outdoor fun?

Must the DNR send staff into our homes to help us scour its websites for hunting and fishing options at state forests, parks, trails and wildlife-management areas? And if that doesn't work, do we skim the lists of lands still open to the public through our managed forest laws, or the 91 percent of Stewardship lands that allow hunting?

Or do we just skip to Step 3 and take referrals on which county forest, national forest or national wildlife refuge best matches our interests? Lord knows we balk at Step 4, which is paying $25 apiece for county plat books to pinpoint public lands. Can't someone just copy or scan the appropriate pages and circle the lands for us?

The evidence suggests Wisconsin is blessed more than most states with public lands. But we must do our own homework to find them, and we shouldn't assume they're all scarce, overcrowded, overhunted and overfished.

Sure, on opening weekend of trout season and gun-deer season some public-land parking areas resemble Lambeau Field's tailgating lots. But many more don't, especially during the year's other 361 days.

I'm reminded often that Wisconsin citizens own endless strips of land bordering diverse, scenic trout streams, and many such properties are great for hunting turkeys and bowhunting deer. True, you can't use these lands as access points to private lands, but it's fair and legal to try calling game to where you're hiding on public lands.

In my case, I'm better at trying than succeeding. When visiting nearby public lands last week, I couldn't fool any turkeys with my tricks. Even so, it was satisfying to park in the empty lot at a public entrance, hike southward a bit and start calling and sneaking up the creek bottoms.

Along the way I startled deer and squirrels; got startled myself by bugling sandhill cranes; listened to singing robins, cardinals and chickadees; and got cursed by crows, bluejays and Canada geese.

The turkeys, though, wouldn't reveal themselves. Just to taunt me and make it personal, they left feathers and droppings atop fallen oak leaves, and their three-toed tracks in the wet, auburn sands. If that wasn't enough clues, I also found where a flock had scratched and grubbed for acorns, worms and insects.

I followed the tossed and tousled leaves up a ridgeline through oaks and pines and paused to admire a buck rub on a 3-inch thick white pine. Unlike the open, sterile, rolling woodlands I passed through earlier with their sandy soils and red oaks and pines these hills and hollows featured dark soils, thick underbrush, white oak, red oak, black cherry, white pine, white ash and scattered aspen.

Not by coincidence, this site held more deer and turkey sign, too. I surveyed the hillside fanning out below, spotted a huge white oak, and took a seat on its shaded side.

If the turkeys wouldn't answer my calls by gobbling, maybe they'd simply walk over to investigate.

Ninety minutes passed without a sight or sound of turkeys. The only thing calling was the impatient workload in my home office 10 miles away.

I stood and followed a deer trail toward the overflowing trout stream below. I had hoped to cross it and return by shortcut to the parking lot, but my 14-inch rubber boots were a foot short of such plans.

No problem. By shadowing the creek for a mile or so, I soon reached the same destination without leaving public land.

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. E-mail him at patrickdurkin@charter.net.

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