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Tips for Bird Hunting on Public Land

Tips for Bird Hunting on Public Land

Bid hunters hunting on public lands

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!

View Comments (2)
  • I agree that there are miles and miles of public land that hold plenty of birds in excellent habitat. I agree that you have to burn some boot leather to find it. I’m also glad that you didn’t give up the location of one single acre of such land. Those who don’t care to do the work, don’t deserve to reap the benefits! Those who are willing to walk will always find it worth their while. Excellent article!

  • While that may be the case for the author, I have had the exact opposite experiences in my own neck of the woods.

    I grew up hunting and fishing a public area in west Texas that was really amazing. A few years ago that land was the subject of a lot of meetings held by the city that managed it and it’s now part of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Public Access areas. Whether hunting or fishing or just going out to enjoy nature you have to buy a permit.

    I’ve ponied up the funds for the permit each year but have seen no positive change in the quality of the land, which was promised due to the now limited access and restrictions on road use. This year, for the first time since I first picked up a shotgun I’m sitting out the dove season.

    Even though the Annual Public Hunting permit allows you to hunt on the publicly designated hunting areas, I have harvested a total of 3 birds in as many years. Crowds and poor hunting habitat have absolutely taken the fun out of the sport for me. The plots that are within my range are tiny or so overgrown if you managed to down a bird you’d be hard-pressed to ever find it.

    I know that not everyone is this limited and I hope that if you are so fortunate that you remain so. As for myself, I’m afraid that my hunting days may be behind me. I can’t afford the big money leases and even if I could I wouldn’t allow myself that luxury.

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