At least a couple of times a year I volunteer at various outdoor sporting events to help Pheasants Forever recruit new members and renew existing memberships. It gives me a chance to hear what’s on the minds of our most important constituency, and let’s face it, who doesn’t want to spend a few hours talking about birds, dogs and kids with like-minded outdoors lovers?
When people hear that I’m on the National Board of Pheasants Forever, the comment I most often get is “man, you must have some great private land honey holes to hunt with your connections.”
Nope. I do nearly all of my hunting on publicly available lands – and I rarely come home from a hunt empty handed.
Sure, I have a couple of landowners who I’ve met over the years who allow me access on occasion, but like most of our members, I can’t afford my own 1,000-acre private sanctuary or spending $200/day at a fancy lodge. Instead, I take advantage of all of the great public hunting opportunities we have in front of us.
Here are five tips that I try to follow to improve my success when hunting on public lands.
1. Read the Reports
Nesting and cover conditions can vary widely – even within the same state. One farmer I talked to in Kansas said it’s the best growing season he’s had in 15 years, while another just an hour away said most of the early-season rains missed him. In Minnesota, a big gully washer in one county can wipe out a nest of chicks while lighter rains a few miles away can foster protein-filled bug hatches that help chicks make it through those critical early days. Every pheasant producing state publishes its early season forecasts, and you can also learn a lot to get you started by reading the annual Pheasant Hunting Preview issue of Pheasants Forever Journal.
2. Get Some Good Maps
If you’re a gadget geek, you can certainly go ahead and purchase maps for your fancy handheld GPS with all public lands marked on them. But if you’re not into the electronics, you can do just fine purchasing a set of detailed maps for your area at any one of the major sporting goods stores. And don’t forget the state-by-state maps of public areas that provide annual updates for public lands and walk-in areas. A good example is the PLOTS map in North Dakota and the WIA maps available in Minnesota and Colorado. They give you the added benefits of being able to hand-write notes from year to year, and also work really well when you forget to charge your batteries.
3. Take a Pre-Season Walk
A map can only tell you where the land is – it can’t tell you how good it is. While it would be nice to assume that every piece of public land held birds, some are just better than others. If the first time you lace up your boots and hit the field is on opening day, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. Take the time on a nice cool morning a couple of weeks ahead of the season to identify a few promising locations, and then take a little walk. Pay attention to the cover, the food sources and of course any birds you see coming in and out of roosting and feeding areas. If the birds are there pre-season, they’ll be there during the season as well. Also pay attention to the surrounding area – again looking for food sources and private lands that might serve as refuges once the hunting pressure starts.
4. Pick the Right Time of Day
I hunt different types of cover during different parts of the day. In the mornings, I like to hunt the high grass adjacent to food sources, hoping to catch them before they move into heavy cover to get away from the pressure. Mid-day I make my way to the heavy stuff – hunting the edges of cattail sloughs (get in shape and prepare to get your toes wet!) and willow thickets. During the “golden hour” right before dusk I move back to the edge of the food plots hoping to catch them heading to roost at night. If you want to avoid hunting pressure, I highly recommend Sunday afternoons – it’s amazing how many some-time hunters prefer the armchair and pigskin to the shotgun and shoe leather.
5. Pay Attention to Habitat
Pheasants Forever is “The Habitat Organization” for a reason. If you’re randomly zigzagging back and forth across an open field of all the same type of cover, you might stumble upon a bird or two, but you’re leaving a lot to chance. Instead, look for seams and edges – places where the cover changes from one type to another. Pay attention to the proximity of roosting cover, food plots and hiding places. Get off of the beaten path and put some air in your lungs. You’ll have a much better chance of finding birds, and it’ll make your walk much more interesting as well.
I’ll leave you with a bonus 6th tip – join Pheasants Forever and get involved! The time and money you spend with this wonderful organization results in more high-quality habitat that benefits pheasants, quail and other related wildlife. You’ll make friends, make a difference, and make your chances of finding birds on public lands much more likely.
A Pheasants Forever national board member, Matt Kucharski and his Labrador retriever, "Lucy," and German shorthaired pointer, "Bella," reside in Maple Grove, Minnesota.