By Nick Simonson
In the fading light of the second day of Minnesota’s pheasant season, I peeled gravel from behind the red truck full of hunters that slowed my caravan’s way out from the large block of public lands just east of Ivanhoe, Minn. Impatient, I grabbed the blacktop and sped away from the setting sun. My hunting companions only caught up with me when I slammed on the brakes after missing the grassy approach to a short quarter of a Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and whipped a U-turn. Pointing at the spot as they approached me and made the same about-face, I pulled in and shut off the truck.
“It’s probably been hit five times in the last two days, but we don’t have much else around here to try,” I said, referencing the used car lot of Chevys, Fords and Dodges we had seen while making our way to the spot, “besides, we’re running out of daylight,” I concluded, not expecting much from the public land so late in the opening weekend.
On the back half of the forty-minute walk, we each bagged a rooster, and our trio left the WMA more than happy with the results of having three on the tailgate. Whether we just got lucky and intercepted the birds moving out of the adjacent uncut corn fields into their evening cover or trampled through an area that folks hadn’t hunted hard didn’t really matter; we did what we had to do in order to find success on public land.
Public lands are the backbone of hunting in the upper Midwest. Whether it’s PLOTS in North Dakota, Walk-In Access (WIA) in Minnesota, or the national network of Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) or the aforementioned WMAs found throughout these states and others, places open to hunters of all stripes and all plates provide the opportunity for success, and knowing how to hunt them is key.
Like the WMA on opening weekend, these public lands are meant to be explored and rarely give up a shot at a bird on the edge of a gravel road. Walk into them, work areas far away from the access points, and key in on edge cover such as grassy stretches next to adjacent farm fields to find birds, or areas that transition to sloughs. Cruising the outside, or hitting the short stuff right off the parking lot rarely pays off, especially in high-pressure situations like the first two or three weekends of the season. Sure, it requires a little work, but covering as much ground as possible will result in more birds. Besides, it feels good to burn a little boot leather.
While hunting a stretch of PLOTS recently in western Morton County, N.D., I crested a small rise into a cut field that was part of the enrolled private land. Just over the ridge was a dip that drained into a private pasture area to the north. It didn’t look like much, and appeared to be another 300 yards off the edge of the grass, but I figured it was worth a little exploring. As I came over the second rise, the drain rolled up from the pasture and out into the cut field and was about 30 yards wide – perfect for my young lab and I to cover. A rooster pheasant was our reward not 20 steps into the cattail mix, coming on an exciting trace, flush and retrieve by the pup. Sometimes, getting the most out of public land means looking for areas that other people might have missed, or didn’t have the gumption to go after. Don’t let distance on these parcels keep you from success.
Time It Right
The hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset are golden times in the field, no matter where you are. Time your hunts on public land to coincide with these stretches of heightened animal activity and explore cover the way birds would. Go into the deeper stuff from field edges as the morning wears on, and come back out from it as evening approaches; odds are you’ll encounter birds there. If you’re confined to mid-day hunts, find the thick stuff and work into and out of it until you identify the areas birds are relating to, based on that day’s conditions.
The majority of hunting pressure comes on the weekend. If you have a day off from work, or are looking to take one – give midweek days a shot for your best hunting opportunities on public land when no one else is hunting it. Instead of sneaking out to the golf course on these warm autumn afternoons, book it to the nearest WMA at noon and close out the day with a birdie of a different kind. Upland game species are less pressured at midweek than they are on Sunday afternoon, particularly early in the season and will hold tighter and be less spooky when you take to the trail.
Don’t Overlook WPAs
Many hunters don’t want to deal with the switch to steel required to hunt federal lands, but WPAs can hold a good number unpressured pheasants and grouse, simply because most people think of the areas as places for sportsmen who are after ducks and geese. With a lot of great steel loads available today in more traditional upland shot sizes like four, five and six, suitable shotgun shells are no longer a limitation on WPAs. For those eyeing the upcoming deer season, you’d also be surprised at the big bucks that inhabit these traditional duck-hunting haunts. Pay a couple extra dollars and load up on steel shells, and start circling the green squares on your hunting map as part of your next public land adventure.
Love for Late Season
Finally, after harvest and deer season are in the books, public lands truly shine. With their stands of grass, sprawling cattail sloughs, brushy cover and other great thermal habitat welcoming birds that have been pushed from fields cut by combines and from private groves and shelterbelts by the stomping masses chasing antlers, birds find a winter home on public land in the late season. Don’t pass up the opportunity to follow tracks along a frozen slough into January for some of the best hunting of the year, battling not only the birds, but also the elements for a memorable experience.
There are so many opportunities to tap into the public lands that abound throughout the upper Midwest. When it comes down to it, getting out there, getting on them and giving it your best shot with these tips, and a few others you figure out, will help develop a greater sense of appreciation for all the access we have and make you a better hunter in the process.
(Featured Photo: Private lands opened to the public can provide great hunting for pheasants and other upland birds. Simonson Photo)