I have been an upland bird hunter for over 20 years and one thing that I can assure you is that the private land available to hunt is not becoming more abundant.
Due to higher crop prices in the past, as well as, the ability to lease land for some pretty good change, it is making it more and more difficult for the average sportsman to find a place of solace to pursue their passion for the great outdoors. This is why I turn to the public land that is readily available not only here in South Dakota but across the entire U.S. There are roughly640 million acres of public land in the U.S. and approximately 5 million in South Dakota alone. Much of this land is the vast open lands in the West but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a pheasant habitat haven just a few miles from your home awaiting you for your next hunting excursion.
I hear lots of complaints about hunting public land so I’m putting together a few pointers to help you increase your chances on your next outing and hopefully you, too, will find that our public lands (Your land) are much better than you may have expected.
For me, bird hunting has always been about watching my dogs work the fields and seeing them run free just as a bird dog’s spirit is meant to do. If you have never hunted with quality dogs you will be amazed at the natural instinct these animals display and you may never want to hunt without a good bird dog again. I personally would prefer to take my camera and my dog over my shotgun and no dog. I may be a bit bias as a German Shorthair Pointer owner, but I will honestly say any good bird dog is worth having if you are a beginner or a veteran bird hunter.
You will be glad you have a dog by your side. A quality dog is probably the most important factor when hunting public lands. Many of the hunters that hit the public spots don’t get to hunt too often so their investment in a good dog is limited, if at all. A good dog can come in just behind a group of hunters and pick out birds that the other dogs never caught wind of as well as work the birds to where you will get a good shot. Many times late in the season, depending on the weather, the bird can hold tight and without a quality dog you will walk right by them within a few feet without flushing the bird. Trust me when I say, a good bird dog is not only going to make your hunting experience a lot better and more memorable but will quickly become another member of your family.
What to look for as far as public land with potential birds being present?
I look for a few particular types of habitat based on time of day and season as well as the amount of people in my group. Hunting solo or with 4 or more hunters will certainly determine the spots I will hunt. Early in the season I look for short grass located near milo or corn fields and will work the edges of those fields in the morning or evening. This particular field edge hunt is effective on a solo hunt as it’s nearly impossible to venture out into tall grass alone early in the season and cover it effectively. The bird’s first instinct is to run if possible so when hunting large grass fields you can rest assured those birds are running all over on you.
You will encounter birds running the fence lines or field edges as well and that is where a good dog comes into play. Your dog is faster and will get the bird to pin down (hopefully) allowing you to catch up prior to its flush. Of course if you have a hunting partner to assist as a blocker then you’re in business. Always err on the side of safety when using blockers and know what’s in your line of fire. As the season progresses and the birds become more pressured, or educated, you will have to be a bit more stealthy and look for not so obvious plots of land. Of course the public land that is harder to get to is always at the top of my list hoping that it gets less pressure, but that’s not always the case.
So keep in mind that these birds have seen and heard hunters for over a month now and are very weary of what’s going on. Always move into the field quietly and, if hunting alone, walk fast to catch the birds off guard. Avoid yelling at your dog and silence the beeper collar if you use one. Park your truck a good distance away from where you think the birds may be held up at and try to work your dog into the wind to those hot spots. When the snow is flying and the temperatures are frigid look for the some of the thickest cover you can find. And if you can find thick cover near food, then you have hit the jack pot.
Many public areas will have food plots left in them for the winter so make note of these locations as you come across them throughout the season as spots to hit in late season. I look for marshy areas with cattails. Cattails make great shelter and the marsh can hold some open water for the birds. Usually the hunting pressure is pretty minimal by this time of year, but so are the number of birds, so you may have to work at it a bit harder. And just the opposite of earlier in the year, I try to move slower now, allowing the dog some time to work the area. However, when you find birds in late season don’t be surprised to see several at one time. It will be crucial to be ready when approaching what looks like a hot spot. Pay attention to fresh tracks in the snow, the tracks can tell you where the birds are entering or exiting the field to a food source. If you don’t see any tracks in the area don’t stick around; most likely there aren’t any birds present.
I usually hunt solo or with a very small group but on occasion I venture out with a large party of hunters (five or more). With this type of party, your options really open up and you are now able to hunt those large grass fields anytime of year as well as stage blockers at several locations to prevent the escape of running birds.
When looking for plots of public land to hunt with larger groups, I will focus on CRP (Crop Reduction Program) or WIA (Walk in Area only) as these areas are in partnership with land owners and are usually larger tracks of land with working farm ground near by. Late in the year the crops are out and the birds will be holding tight; usually holding up near the field edges close to crops for easy access to the food left on the ground after harvest. Walking standing crops is also a great method with a large group of hunters as you will need those blockers to prevent the birds from running out the edges on you. I very seldom hit standing crop when I’m solo hunting unless it’s a very small milo food plot where I can see the whole plot from one end.
The greatest thing about pheasant hunting is it can be different everyday and no two spots are the same. Birds will behave different in locations and you will almost always encounter something you didn’t expect. As American sportsmen, we are blessed to have the abundance of public land available and much of this is credited to our conservation leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Ding Darling, Aldo Leopold and many others. These lands are your lands and your right to access these lands should not be taken lightly. It doesn’t matter where you live in the U.S. as all public lands are just that “Public To All”.
Almost all states these days have public land atlases that show you where you can hunt, hike, fish and do other outdoor recreation. Take a moment to identify those lands near where you live or even where you would like to take your next hunting adventure. I can attest these properties are good for wildlife and for all of us. Our state agencies have done excellent work managing these lands on limited budgets for all of us to enjoy; so enjoy them and remember to pack out whatever you pack in. Don’t leave a mess behind and be a good steward to lands that we all can share.