Here are some ideas to stay active in the uplands during the off season from habitat work to scouting.
It always seems like fall just doesn’t last long enough. We look forward to opening day of grouse season or our first pheasant trip of the year all throughout the long summer months. But before you know it, it’s time to put the shotgun back in the cabinet for the year. While the end of the season is always bittersweet, there’s no need to get too worked up about it. Why? There are lots of things you can do in the off-season months to keep busy, help the bird population, and make new connections for the next upland hunting season.
It seems like everyone always talks about habitat improvements for whitetails these days, but the truth is that these practices generally help other wildlife. Assuming you are a landowner or have a good relationship with one on whose property you hunt, habitat improvements are a great way to make bird hunting better, too.
For grouse or woodcock hunting, the best way to help the birds in your area is to ensure there is a diverse mix of forest types and ages. Both of these species need a habitat patchwork to fulfill their daily or annual needs. For example, they both need early successional growth cut within the last few years to provide food and dense cover. However, they also require mature forests for winter food and thermal cover. For pheasants, leaving even an acre of standing corn or beans throughout the winter can provide a nice caloric boost for them. But you also need to give them cover over the cold winter. If your property is lacking, consider planting strips of native prairie grasses and spruce trees in the off-season to give them a place to hide from the elements.
The best possible way to make these improvements is to have a biologist from your local wildlife or conservation agency come out to take a look. They will be able to tell you what condition your property is in for wildlife and recommend a harvest rotation or management strategy. Generally, they will help you to fill the lowest hole in the bucket, meaning they will suggest fixing any obvious issues first, like harvesting mature timber to make young cover, planting more fruiting shrubs, or a shelter-belt.
Participate in Local Chapter Events
Related to the first one, local chapters of the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society (RGS/AMS) or Pheasants Forever (PF) often have events happening throughout the year that you can get involved with. That might include removing invasive species from a public hunting land, maintaining hunter walking trails, or just gathering together to talk about important conservation issues.
Besides learning about new management practices, you also get a chance to meet other local hunters who are probably just as passionate as you are about the birds you chase. This combination does wonders for scratching the off-season hunting itch. And you never know—you might develop a lasting relationship with a few people and gain some new hunting buddies in the process. It also might lead to being able to hunt new properties. This brings us to the next point…
Scouting New Hunting Properties
Right after the season closes is often a better time than spring or summer to get out and scout new properties. The weather is more agreeable, there are no bugs, you can see through all the leafless shrubs and trees, and water is often frozen which allows access across swampy areas. But if you can tolerate those things, there’s nothing stopping you from scouting year-round.
Start with a quick online search for public hunting lands near you and make a list of ones that you think look good. Then you can use mapping software such as Google Earth to virtually scout the property. What are you looking for? The same things you would if you were there in-person. Look at the overall age and diversity of the forest, neighboring lands that might influence the one you’re inspecting, agricultural use and patterns, and ease of access.
Once you’ve weeded through the initial properties, make a plan to visit each of them throughout the off-season months. You can spread it out across a few months to make this more manageable. When you’re there, walk a meandering trail through as many habitat types or fields as you can find and keep detailed notes. When you get back home, you can compare to the other properties you’ve looked at in terms of the overall offering for birds. By next fall, you’ll have a whole new set of hunting locations in your back pocket.
As you can see, there are lots of ways you can “scratch the hunting itch” in the off-season months. If you’re feeling that itch right now with opening days only three months away, now is the time to get busy and distract yourself. It won’t be long.
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.