By Nick Simonson
Every pheasant season – and every opener – teaches me something. This year, hunting solely public-access parcels near home provided even greater insight into the need for areas for all and how hunting them can provide surprising starts and fitting ends to an adventure. When my group of four set out after a mud-slinging trip on soft gravel roads in the early darkness, well ahead of the fleets of trucks that would follow us looking for the same options deep in the country, it wasn’t long until a gray sunrise brought shooting light to the land and the lessons started.
Not twenty yards out into a forty-acre stretch of PLOTS a rooster broke cover, followed by four more. We had stood around the trucks for fifteen minutes, gearing up and talking in overloud voices that reverberated our excitement at the new season and anticipation for what was to come across the small stretch of prairie rising up into the hills. My first shot rang true on a nearly full-colored bird, and my second one chased a far-off flusher over the road to our east. When the feathers fell, we bagged two of the five pheasants just a matter of moments into our hunt, and once again were reminded that the excitement of upland hunting can happen anywhere at any time and being ready for it from beginning to middle to end is the key to success.
Working through the shrubs and cedars of the bottom and up the hill, we encountered no more pheasants. As we made the turn over the rises and out into an open wheat field which held a small drain as its secret golden spot, I watched three sharptailed grouse fly across the horizon and scatter around the edges of the small stretch of habitat. Two landed at its end and I gave our group the heads up on where they’d be at the far end of our walk. As predicted, the first one took off early from the left edge of the grassy stretch, but the second one from the right side hesitated as my lab, Ole, thundered out ahead of my friend Duane’s position. His shot was true and he bagged the bird. He would pick up a second from a rocky hilltop on our walk back to the truck, the extra effort worth it in mixing up our party’s bag for the day.
Returning to our vehicles, we noted another truck parked within eye shot, and it wasn’t long before two hunters emerged from our previously-walked territory, looking at us confused, as if they hadn’t seen the red and white pickups stationed clearly up the hill a few hundred yards from their parking spot. I smiled and waved, making our presence known, in hopes that they’d realize they were walking on covered ground and would have a chance to move on to more productive areas. It highlighted the needs – especially in the first days of the season – for open spaces for all, and the early start required for the best access.
With Duane’s departure, my friend Eric and his daughter Kylie and I continued to a small stretch of grassland with a couple brushy draws a few miles away. Concerned that late in the morning, we faced the same fate as our follow-up hunters had on the first parcel, I inspected the gravel road but saw no tire tracks swerving off the muddy surface to suggest anyone had stopped. We walked deep into an orange-and-purple hued ravine filled with the shifting plant colors of autumn. It was so beautiful in its coloration that seeing it alone was worth the walk to the well-concealed corner.
But to make things even better, Ole got birdy as soon as he caught the wind coming up the draw and we chased up four hens and one mature rooster provided our group with a final shooting opportunity. The moment once again reminding me that some of the best hunting on public lands is found as far away from the access point as possible and requires a little legwork in making those memories. With muddy trucks and some weight in the pouches of our game vests, we headed back to town, happy with the quick opener, the success we found and the lessons learned on lands open to everyone…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: The author’s lab, Ole, stands proudly over two rooster pheasants and two sharptailed grouse. Simonson Photo.