With a little determination and walking, bird hunters can hunt “in private” on public lands and have a great upland hunting experience
In many upland circles, public land hunting gets a bad rap. There are boundless opportunities and locales for bird hunting public land to spread their wings. Many states have thousands upon thousands of acres of both public and public access lands waiting to be explored and hunted. It’s sad to say, at least in my experience, that public lands are frowned upon simply because they are open to the public. It takes the savvy and determined bird hunter to find some prime hunting grounds.
I pretty much exclusively hunt public land, and on rare occasions, private. Given the choice, I would rather hunt public. The quality hunting I get on public land is outstanding. My experiences on these lands have not come without a little boot leather on the ground scouting and exploring the backroads and public access tracts for places that would hold birds. Too many bird hunters use hunting on public lands as a last resort. Why? Is it the perceived “pressure” typically associated with public lands? Or is it the notion of accessible open lands lacking in game?
Some of the best places to hunt are often passed up, overlooked or ignored. Why? Because hunting on public land is hard. This is partly due to the high “foot” traffic, lack of land access, location, hunting pressure and probably a host of other reasons. This attitude is common among most hunters whether you’re hunting upland birds, waterfowl, deer, or other species. Hunters just don’t like to hunt public lands because they assume that public access lands are going to be full of hunters and offer little to no game. And it’s not just on opening day, but a commonly held thought throughout the season. Public lands are hit hard, there is no way around that. But I’m here to tell you that through my experience of trial and error, hunting public ground can take place in private. Here are six easy and quick tips to help you hunt privately on public land.
Bigger does not always mean better in public land hunting
Don’t judge an area by its size. Personally, I think areas are often (though not always) passed up because they appear to be small and/or insignificant. I tend to bypass the larger areas because I know they’re going to be hit first and hit hard by everyone. I specifically target small “clumps” of public land during the beginning of the season, as most hunters are in medium to large groups. These groups head for the large expanses of lands, leaving the smaller tracts untouched.
Go where no one else has gone
Stretch your legs. To find anything, hunters must spend some time walking and scouting. The goal is to walk farther than the average bird hunter and reach those areas that have not been pressured or hunted. It’s safe to say that most hunters forego traveling more than a mile from their vehicle or road. Those remote spots deep in the grasslands, fields, and woods will increase a hunter’s chances for success. This is why hunters should physically condition themselves to walk long distances, if necessary. Once these places that hold birds are found, they become sanctuaries for the bird hunter who found them.
On the flipside to bypassing large areas, sometimes the tracts are just big. This is when technology and maps come into play. It has been my experience that hidden hunting gems lie amidst these sizeable tracts. Not really a problem, but more of an inconvenience in finding and getting to them. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking over a ridge or through a line of hedgerows or tree line to discover that upland oasis.
Many hunters simply continue driving by because they cannot observe what lies beyond whatever is blocking their view. Stop the truck and get out and walk a bit. Explore. I’ve had many occasions where I have walked a good distance in some prime habitat but have seen nothing. No birds. Wasted? No, because at the end of many of those empty rainbows lay a pot of upland gold. Just when I thought the property was a bust, eureka! Birds, and more birds. It makes sense that these birds probably had been pressured enough and they relocated onto the same piece of land.
These are the areas that will be named and marked on my map. Yes, it may take a lengthy walk to get there, but I know that no other hunters have made the trek. I now have a public place all to myself — to hunt in private.
Watch what other bird hunters do on public land
Take advantage of other hunters’ habits as they enter public land. You can tell the predictable parking and heavy traffic areas on public lands relatively easily by the number of vehicles in parking places. Use this to your advantage. Instead of parking where everyone else is, look at your maps, GPS, and Google Earth overlays to find out-of-the-way locations to park. This will benefit you in two ways. First, these isolated areas can become pockets of populated wildlife. Birds will be pushed from the high traffic areas to relocate in less pressured areas. Second, use the “parking lots” as a sort of blocker as you approach from other entry points.
Be smart about pressured public lands
Hunt pressure spots early. If you are going to hunt an area known to be hit hard, you may have to sacrifice some sleep. If time and locations are limited, you may have to get out in the field and be ready for legal shooting time. Be flexible and alter your methods. Areas pressured in the mornings may be huntable in the later hours. Use these pressured spots to your advantage and hunt smaller or adjacent areas that may hold birds that fly out of the pressured field.
Think outside the box on where to hunt public lands
Hunt in unusual places. This goes along with the first point of not judging an area by its size, BUT it also means that hunters should look for those out-of-the-way areas. This may cause you to drive a bit, but you could be rewarded with a vest full of birds. Lands that stand “alone” may be too out of the way for other hunters to check out, leaving that tract to another hunter who is determined to put in the extra effort.
Think outside the box and hunt WPA’s (Waterfowl Production Areas). These offer excellent cover for pheasants. Don’t pass up those “bare” fields with brushy cover and plum thickets waaay off in the distance, because I guarantee you, others have.
Explore diverse overlapping public land habitat
Look for lands with overlapping habitat. A diverse piece of public land that contains brushy cover, corn, milo, draws, thickets and ponds may hold a smorgasbord of different birds. Hunting pheasants in corn rows may flush a covey of quail or doves feeding. Cut corn or milo may hold prairie chickens as well as pheasants and quail. Walking a pond in the middle of an open prairie may yield a few ducks. Wooded plots, streams or creeks can hold pheasant, quail and snipe.
Use these tactics and tips to help give you a better chance in locating birds. Take note that these may not work all the time, but it gives you CHOICES. These tips have worked for me and I follow my own advice to typically end up with birds in my vest. You may not limit out, but you’ll get to watch your dog work, explore new areas, and you may find that elusive honey hole. It’s up to each hunter to determine who they will share these locations with, and maybe along the way, new coveys, coverts and birds will be added. Good luck!
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.