The Year of the Upland Slam
Trudging up a crest in the middle of the sandhills, we stand, looking across the uninterrupted landscape contemplating the direction to go. The chill of early January swept through the hills, and the evidence of a recent snowstorm was intertwined in the grains of sand. A pair of us, each with our bird dog, making one last attempt at Nebraska’s Upland Slam. Our vehicles abandoned and alone, somewhere back near the beginning. Would we run into another hunter on this section of public land? And if so, would we acknowledge one another, wondering why the other was crazy enough to pursue birds in terrain such as this?
From sunup to sundown we hunted in search of a sharp-tailed grouse. A few close calls kept us pushing harder, with a mere 15 miles under our belts that day. That evening spent reflecting this past season when several of us decided to come together and attempt Nebraska’s first year of the Upland Slam. The challenge, hosted by Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, offered to all hunters, was to harvest the four primary upland birds that call Nebraska home. The birds consisted of the ring-necked pheasant, the northern bobwhite quail, greater prairie-chicken, and the sharp-tailed grouse.
There is a direct correlation between hunters and conservation, with one of these examples being the Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman Robertson Act, that was introduced in 1937. As hunter numbers decline nationally, so does funding that benefits habitat and all wildlife. The Upland Slam is an opportunity to remind Nebraskans about the great upland hunting opportunities the state offers, as well as encourage someone new or lapsed to get outdoors.
The challenge began with the Prairie grouse season opener on September first. It didn’t take long before a few of us started talking and planning a trip. What started as an idea to go camping and hunting, turned into forming a group that would hopefully inspire others to get out and do the same. We were a unique collaboration of experience, the epiphany of nontraditional hunters. A combination of new and seasoned, all women with very different backgrounds. Heather Francis, one of the team members, hadn’t hunted in several decades.
“I remember going quail hunting with my dad when we lived in northeast Nebraska,” stated Heather. “We moved to another part of the state, and I just hadn’t gone since.”
The sandhills brought back memories for a few of the team members and would create new memories for us all. Taking advantage of the many public land opportunities, we relied on word of mouth and a Public Access Atlas to decide where to start the adventure. Landing on an Open Fields and Waters site, we were eager to get moving.
The birds were plenty, the shots misaligned, the laughter lasted long into the evening as we collected around the campfire reliving the day’s many adventures. From porcupines to pointed songbirds, we relished these moments spent together. The group aptly named Beyond the Shot, which became evident on this hunt, as the experience was so much more than just a harvest.
The hunt would conclude after two days, seeing greater prairie chickens and sharpies, and having more opportunities than anyone would like to admit, but none of us officially logged a bird for the challenge. The successes would come later, as we continued to hunt individually in our respective parts of the state.
Pheasant and quail season marked it’s open on October 27th, providing the opportunity to once again come together. The trip started on a large waterfowl production area, and soon after entering the field a rooster ring-necked pheasant presented itself. To our dismay, he too would elude our shots.
We continued to walk with purpose and excitement through the thick prairie grass. The previous spring providing heavy vegetation for the birds to hunker down into. The tricky longtails held tightly as the sun started to set. We picked up the pace hoping to flush a bird before shooting light ended. We waded through the wetland and were encouraged to see several birds flush, but again left with empty vests.
After two days, only one of us would connect with a ring-necked pheasant on this outing.“Beyond the Shot has been a great experience, harvest or not. The weekend trips in the first year created memories of pure enjoyment, relaxation, and so much laughter as we figure it all out,” says Kelsi Wehrman, Pheasants Forever Nebraska State Coordinator. “Being a mom of three, it’s always hard to find the time to justify a hunting trip, especially to the kids when I come back empty-handed. However, the trips with the gal’s result in a rejuvenation that is hard to describe, while we enjoy Nebraska’s landscape through hunting, creating bonds lasting well beyond the actual harvest.”
We continued to learn how to hunt together, figuring out what worked best for the group and each other’s dogs, and made friends with a local landowner that graciously opened his property for us, hoping we could be successful on his land.
The season continued, and we would each collectively add birds to our vest, not one of us completing the challenge but coming close. “I didn’t harvest anything, but that’s the first time that I’ve gotten to shoot at quail in close to 40 years,” exclaims Heather Francis. “To me, watching the dogs work was one of the highlights of the, Beyond the Shot trips. That and being in the sandhills, this is one of my favorite parts of the state.”
What the group did accomplish was the original intent.
- To inspire hunters, young and old.
- To encourage someone new to get outdoors and see what hunting has to offer.
- To promote the beauty of the uplands, and all that encompasses time spent there.
- To highlight all the incredible opportunities that hunting provides, beyond the shot.
Although the challenge was technically incomplete, we found plenty of success in the new lands hunted, new species added to our vests and the multiple friends and memories made this past season.