A dear friend of mine once said, "Always hunt public, unless you can hunt private, then always hunt private." I'd bet most of us would agree with that sentiment, but I'd also be willing to bet that a significant percentage of us don't have access to high quality private hunting land. Enter Pennsylvania State Game Lands.
The following is meant to serve as a basic startup guide to public land hunting in Washington County. Please keep in mind that your best source of current information including regulations, licensing, season dates and more is available on the Pennsylvania Game Commission website.
By way of background, I moved my family to Washington County over a decade ago. Admittedly, until that point I had but a vague concept of the value of our nation's treasured public lands despite growing up at the foot of a mountain just 940 yards due east of the Buchanan State Forest. I spent most of my time after deer, squirrels and turkeys on a farm that has been in our family for generations and that was a short bike ride away from our place. So when I found myself in Washington County—without the luxury of a family farm to hunt—I spent the next several years learning the lay of the land with minimal resources at a rate of maximum failure. Needless to say, I quickly learned to love and appreciate the nearly 20,000 acres of State Game Lands we're blessed with in the county.
If you're new to hunting, new to Washington County, or looking for a great place to hunt within a short drive of Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette, Greene or Westmoreland counties I hope this blog helps to cut down the learning curve for you. If I'm being honest, I've hesitated for far too long in sharing these spots, and though technology makes them easier to find now than ever before, there's probably a few new hunters out there who are struggling to figure out where to start. After all, these spots are no more mine than they are yours. That's the beauty of public land. Truth is, I'll be happy to see you at the trail head. Just know that my fingers will be crossed in hopes that you're headed a different direction than I am.
If you have yet to obtain your first Pennsylvania Hunting License you'll need to study for, take and pass the Hunter Education Course either in-person or online. The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) also offers Mentored Hunting Permits that allow new hunters (both young and old) to purchase a permit to hunt with a licensed mentor hunter who is at least 21 years old.
WHERE TO HUNT
Below you'll find a list of seven State Game Lands (including Hillman State Park) in Washington County that'll keep you busy for years to come. Click into each listing for additional information. I've also included a link to download the PGC's topographical maps for each property.
To make it easier for you to find each of the State Game Lands I've compiled this digital map that points to a specific parking area at each property. Scout as much as you can and you'll find a few other parking areas that will suit your style and destination best. Most State Game Lands have multiple parking areas and some properties include a few non-contiguous parcels spanning several townships. Take the time to toggle back-and-forth between the roadway base map and the aerial base map to familiarize yourself with the landscape. You can also take the map on the road with this printable version; scan the QR code in the bottom right hand corner and you'll get turn-by-turn directions.
While we're talking about maps, I'd be remiss not to mention one of the single greatest tools worth investing in which is a subscription to the onX Hunt app. Their digital mapping platform offers a number of features that will be useful to you, but primarily it outlines the boundaries of both public and private land ensuring that you always know where you stand. Use it to save waypoints, mark sign, record treks, check wind speed/direction, find new spots and more.
WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT UNITS
It is worth mentioning that Washington County is split into two different Wildlife Management Units (WMU). What's a WMU you might ask? Wildlife Management Units are used to manage all game, except elk, waterfowl, and other migratory game birds. The large-scale units are based on habitat and human-related land characteristics. Human population density, public/private land ownership, recognizable physical features such as major roads and rivers, and land use practices such as agriculture, timber, and development were considered when establishing the physiographic boundaries of Wildlife Management Units. Though the majority of Washington County sits in WMU 2A, a portion in the northeast corner falls into WMU 2B. To my knowledge, there is no public land hunting opportunities in the 2B portion of Washington County, though 2B extends north and does include State Game Lands #203 near Wexford in Allegheny County. When applying for doe tags, you'll need to know which WMU you plan to hunt as the PGC allots a limited number of tags to each WMU.
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Unless you've been camped out under a rock for the last several years, you've likely heard about and maybe even contemplated adding a tree saddle to your tool kit. A number of brands have emerged from this boom, but only one operates out of Washington County, and that's Trophyline. After more than 20 years of ladder stands, lock-ons and climbers, I can honestly tell you that it has changed the way I hunt for the better. So if you're in the market for a top-of-the-line gear setup our friends at Trophyline have offered up a discount on your first purchase.
SPECIAL OPPORTUNITY FOR WASHINGTON COUNTY RESIDENTS
Every other year, Washington County allows resident hunting at Mingo Creek County Park during a portion of the late Flintlock/Archery season. A non-fee permit issued by the Washington County Department of Parks and Recreation is required. Only Washington County residents may apply and a maximum of 75 permits will be issued for each day (excluding Sundays). For more information including dates and a downloadable application visit this page on the county's website.