feature By: Scott Linden, text and photos | July, 20
Use it or lose it. A friend pointed this out recently as yet another reason to spend time and effort exploring the public land we citizens own and private land enrolled in states’ walk-in hunting access programs. But there are plenty of other reasons to check out such areas including price (free), availability (millions of acres) and prime habitat (sometimes).
So how do you exploit these treasure troves to ensure your success? Here are a handful of tips on making the most of publicly accessible land and some reasons to try them.
Most states publish both hard copy booklets and online versions of their maps around August, once all the rental deals with landowners are consummated. Google “walk-in hunting” and the state you are interested in, and you’ll likely find a link to the information. Many states also publish updates just before hunting seasons open, so be sure to double-check.
Spend considerable time studying those maps to select your base of operations and consider selecting it based on the concentration of nearby walk-in areas. Study Google Earth, too, and you’ll have a better feel for the lay of the land, terrain, crops and cover. Book your lodging early: Many areas have few, if any, hotels or RV parks.
Call the agency that administers your chosen area and talk with the local biologist or game warden. They might clue you in to the better areas, time of year to hunt each and current conditions. The earlier you call, the more likely you are to reach an unharried, cooperative, potential friend in the agency. Ditto for chambers of commerce and visitors’ bureaus.
We were at a four-way stop in Beadle County, South Dakota, me waving the other guy through. Even though he had the right of way, he waved me through. We waved back and forth for a bit, then I shut off the engine and went over to chat. He asked where I was headed, and I showed him the next colored square on the map — a walk-in spot a half-mile distant.
He asked why I was headed so far away when the parcel kitty-corner to us was full of incredible habitat. I told him it was privately owned. He told me he was the owner! We hunted the afternoon — him, me, our dogs, his son and friend — on that beautiful mélange of shelterbelts, CRP land, shrubs and thickets.
Do the Paperwork
Register, phone the landowner for a reservation or sign in at the kiosk as required. In some states, that’s how property owners are compensated for use of their land. In all cases, it’s how local bureaucrats justify their effort to find good ground — there is “demand.”
In Montana once, my host took me to an expanse of swales and gullies enrolled in the Block Management Area program. We registered at the kiosk and cut the dogs loose — a young setter and a younger wirehair. After a little playtime, they settled into a rhythm and coursed the grassy knobs and ditches eagerly. At the edge of a cut milo field, my wirehair hesitated, cat-danced, then froze. Three sage grouse rumbled skyward, but they were out of season. The dog looked back with scorn, I think.
Short grass produced two coveys of Hungarian partridge; the thicker stuff in the creek bottom, a ringneck; and one high spot, a small bunch of sharptails.
I’ve avoided flooded fields, closed roads and unharvested crops (access prohibited) simply by driving past an area the day before a hunt. Seek out alternate parking areas unless restricted, and you might get half an area to yourself.
En route to a big patch of public land in South Dakota once, I raced past a hidden driveway and tiny parking area. It was occupied by a pickup with a flatbed trailer and backhoe, ticking and clicking as it cooled. I hit the brakes, backed into a cloud of my own dust and swung in. The truck had a Pheasants Forever logo on it, and the biologist chaining down the backhoe was doing habitat work at a speck-of-a-public access parcel I’d missed on the map.
He wondered aloud why nobody hunted this gem: tree line, shallow swales, tall grass, ditches and creek beds. I invited him to join us, which he declined, and we were off. With the wirehair bulling through the tall stuff and weaving amongst the trees, we heard a couple of flushes in the distance. As we rounded back into the home stretch, a foot-deep crack in the parched earth held my dog’s interest enough to encourage him to “track” kind of like a slot car — nose down, dog in the cleft, earnest in his snuffling investigation — until he paused, and a rooster hopped to the rim then into the air.
Have a Back-up Plan
If someone beats you to your first choice, you’ll have somewhere else to go. If one spot doesn’t play out, go to the next. More time hunting, less time driving.
Camped at an RV park in Nebraska, I made small talk with a neighbor who, like me, was hunting solo while en route to another destination where friends awaited. In the morning, he was gone before I finished my coffee. I drove the gravel roads toward my public access destination, counting more coyotes than I’ve ever seen. Without much confidence based on the predator numbers, I parked and beeped the dog’s GPS collar to life. The half-mile-wide strip ran along a terraced field adjacent to cut corn, and one ditch held a rooster reluctant to fly until I almost stepped on him. Doubling back to the truck, here came my neighbor’s rig. I waved him in, and we had an enjoyable hunt with another ringneck falling to his shot.
Another pickup prowled the same road, and we wondered if we’d read the map wrong and were trespassing. The window rolled down, and the driver asked how we were doing. We showed him our bag, and he asked if the other side of the road was productive. “Private” I said, to which he replied, “Mine.” We hunted the milo and CRP in a line of three, flying birds from the high spots as two young wirehairs worked off what little energy they had left.
Start at the Edges
Often, crops are adjacent to edges, and birds might hunker there. You could ambush them coming or going. If you bust birds, there’s a 50-50 chance they’ll fly deeper into your hunting area.
Start Deep in the Middle
Yeah, it’s counter to my last suggestion, but the fact is, most hunters don’t want to work very hard. They’ll cover the first quarter-mile of ground from their parking areas. Thickets, tree rows, swampy stuff — birds are often pushed into that cover by other hunters or predators. So if you’re first to an area in the morning, aim for the juiciest cover even if it’s a ways off. Other hunters might push birds deeper into your territory. And when you leave, find the birds they left behind — by hunting along the edges.
Choose the Road Less Traveled
Find the marginal cover — most hunters won’t bother working too hard. Also start your day at the farthest walk-in area from town — many hunters won’t drive that far.
Each parking spot on a string of public access parcels had a truck in it, so I kept driving in hopes of at least getting in some scouting for an earlier start the next day. We pulled into a deserted Waterfowl Production Area where no others were parked. It was at least an open area for the dog to get some exercise. And even I know to carry a shotgun whenever you take a walk.
The WPA was ringed by standing corn, but we were confined to the public area of knee-high grass. Surprisingly, I never found a drop of water on this waterfowl area, but I did find a sharptail on each of four different high spots.
Be Mindful of Ammo Restrictions
More and more public hunting areas require nontoxic shot. Buy it ahead of time — especially if you shoot a subgauge gun.
Later Might Be Better
Most hunters are home by early afternoon. The golden hour prior to sunset can be very productive. But give covey birds enough time to regather for the night, or you might not find any next season.
We were trudging back to the truck from a long, unproductive walk in chukar country, footsore and thirsty. The battered pickup wheezed toward us, rattling to a stop. The driver, a grizzled cowboy, wondered why we were way out here when the better hunting was “yonder, where the green met the willows.” We’d seen the edge of the hayfield that was this ranch’s bread-and-butter crop. We also knew the willows were the demarcation between public land and private.
He allowed as such, but noted that it was his grass and enrolled in that state’s walk-in program, mainly to keep the Canada goose population from grazing his cash crop. He offered us a ride, and we eagerly piled in, dogs and humans rattling down the two-track. We stalked the willows and enjoyed a fast-paced hunt, valley quail squirting from the thicket to the field and back.
In many bird hunting communities, hunters represent economic development.
Public land and privately owned real estate open to the public are unpolished gems awaiting our share of work to make them sparkle. The bureaucrats who administer them track our use. We should use these lands and let them know if we want future access.
Try It Yourself …
You simply never know what you’ll find by poking around among the colored patches on a state’s walk-in map. A little uncertainty coupled with an adventurous spirit might not always end in a tailgate photo, but you will be richer for the experience, the wildlife, the places you visit and the people you meet.
Many states offer public access private land. Add the array of properties administered on our behalf by public agencies, and you’ll find every type of habitat and virtually any species you can hunt. If you’re planning a public land, do-it-yourself trip, here are some of my favorite starting points:
• Southwest Kansas, with jumping-off points such as Osborne, Dodge City and Jetmore; Goodland and Colby also have plenty of private land open to hunting.
• A string of pearls along South Dakota’s Highway 37 from Mitchell up to Huron might pay off for you as it has for me; for “big sky” without a drive to Montana, headquarter in Pierre and explore the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.
• Montana has what I consider the best walk-in program since landowners get paid by the hunter visit: terrible cover, no hunters, no pay; Lewistown is a good headquarters but don’t neglect Great Falls.
• North Dakota’s walk-in program is not as big as some, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality; start in Mott.
• Eastern Oregon has millions of acres of public land and some private ground interspersed offering walk-in access, usually for chukars and a few valley quail; start near Ontario or Burns and carry a survival kit.
Remember that walk-in land inventory changes annually, so stay current with your maps.