As I get older, I’ve started to realize that it’s the lies we tell ourselves that are the most dangerous.
This might involve our physical fitness, or how we treat others. Or it might simply be what we believe to be true about hunting opportunities—specifically, public-land opportunities.
I don’t know how many times I’ve set out for a random state with my Lab and a loose plan on how to find pheasants, grouse, sharptails, etc., only to have locals tell me that the upland juice in their neighborhood is not worth the squeeze.
Almost, without question, it is.
It might not be easy, but it is possible to have a great hunt in a new state, provided you go into it after conducting some research and you set your expectations for realistic outcomes. If you do, you’ll find some states you’ve never thought about that are worth your time and effort. To help you along, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best under-the-radar options out there.
Stubble Flushes & The Sandhills Special
It’s no secret that Nebraska is making a run on its neighbor to the north as far as upland hunting goes. Prairie chickens, sharptails, bobwhite quail, and pheasants can all be had on public land—and occasionally on the same trip—as I’ve discovered a few very special times. The prime destination for most nonresidents is the Sandhills region, where prairie chickens and sharptails dominate. Bessey National Forest is a solid choice for anyone who gets claustrophobic hunting anything that doesn’t offer somewhere in the neighborhood of at least 90,000 acres.
Focus on the prairie dwellers, of course, but don’t forget about the state’s roosters, either. According to Upland Habitat and Access Program Manager, John Laux, Nebraska’s ringneck population is nothing to scoff at. And while most hunters set their sights on CRP and obvious grassland, there is another type of public offering that can hold limits of roosters. “Nebraska generally enrolls up to about 40,000 acres of tall wheat and milo stubble into the Open Fields & Water Program annually,” Laux said. “These fields are generally harvested with a ‘stripper head,’ which depending on the quality of the crop, can provide not only great roosting cover, but loafing cover as well.” While most hunters are targeting nearby CRP, roosters stick to the stubble and often use grassy waterways, plum thickets, and any additional cover they can find.
Laux notes that the best place to find some “stubble birds,” is where most of the state’s rooster action is concentrated—the southwest. Having spent a lot of time hunting Nebraska, I’d only add this: There are pockets of birds throughout the state, and while the early season is tempting, the late-season is a great time to find birds, and without the competition.
Spend some time around quail hunters in the South, who had the benefit of hunting during peak bobwhite numbers, and you’ll hear plenty of bemoaning about the current state of affairs. It’s true that we aren’t experiencing any high-water marks for the most common quail subspecies, of which the mortality rate any given year can come close to 80 percent.
Doom and gloom aside, there are bright spots out there, including opportunities available right now in the Peach State. State Quail Coordinator, Dallas Ingram, had this to say about Georgia’s prospects this season: “We’ve been seeing an increase in quail populations over the past couple of years, with several warm winters and favorable spring rains that have set the state up for great recruitment.” Ingram also notes that the Georgia DNR has put a lot of effort into improving habitat, which is starting to bear feathered fruit.
When asked where he’d send out-of-staters looking to find a couple of coveys, he mentioned several options, but pointed to the bottom left corner of the state as a starting point. “Southwest Georgia has always been a hotspot for quail hunting, with lots of great land in the Red Hills and Albany areas. There are other good opportunities across the Upper Coastal Plain as well, from Dooly to Laurens and Burke Counties.”
Green Mountain Grouse
Vermont wildlife biologist, Chris Bernier, can rattle off quite a few reasons why someone would load up their dog and drive to Vermont, most of which hinge on the state’s grouse numbers. “We have an abundant and widespread population of grouse, and are blessed with an abundance of actively managed public lands ranging from the 400,000-acre Green Mountain National Forest to the highly diverse state-owned parcels,” Bernier said. “Folks coming from out of state can find birds almost anywhere, but they would probably be best served to check out the northeast corner, particularly Essex County.”
Vermont’s upland hunting doesn’t begin and end with grouse, however. According to Migratory Gamebird Biologist, David Sausville, there are plenty of resident and migratory woodcock to be had, depending on the timing of your trip. “If you show up in October, you’ll hit the primetime for woodcock throughout our state. Over the last few years, we’ve had a freeze-up in November, which has pushed the birds out early, so that might factor into hunt planning.” Sausville also says that anyone who is looking to have little to no competition and loves the challenge of late-season grouse, should consider a trip in December, when most hunters have packed up their vests and given up on the season.
Sooner State Mixed Bag
Although their game bags are likely to be anchored by bobwhites, Oklahoma hunters might also add a blue quail, or even a rooster, to their dowry before the day is out. According to Oklahoma Upland Game Biologist, Tell Judkins, most visiting hunters start their search with bobwhites on the mind. “Like many states, we are seeing decreased populations of many bird species, due primarily to a lack of suitable habitat, habitat fragmentation, and use of exotic or improved grasses. That being said, you can still hear the familiar whistle of bobwhites across the state.”
Judkins adds that from 2018 to 2019, 83 roadside surveys indicated a slight rise in numbers, and at the time of this writing, the 2020 seasons look promising. He also says that adventurous hunters should look to the northwest corner of the state if they plan to hunt public land. “Several WMAs in northwestern Oklahoma offer up good quail possibilities, including Cimarron Hills, Cooper, Beaver River, Packsaddle, and Optima. We also have our Oklahoma Land Access Program (OLAP) properties, which offer smaller parcels to the willing upland hunter.”
As someone who has spent a lot of time roaming the vast grasslands in western Oklahoma in search of all types of critters, I can safely say that there are quail to be had here, and that the Sooner State is one of the friendliest to nonresidents I’ve ever hunted.
Wisconsin Big-Woods Bonanza
Upland Wildlife Ecologist, Mark Witecha, advises anyone thinking about a Wisconsin upland trip to check out the state’s Field and Forest Lands Interactive Gamebird Hunting Tool (FFLIGHT), which is available on the Wisconsin DNR’s website. He also proudly states, “Wisconsin is a premier destination for ruffed grouse and woodcock, with millions of acres of actively managed public forest providing extensive habitat that supports strong populations of both species.” As someone who’s spent more time hunting Wisconsin’s public lands than almost any other state, I can assure you that Mr. Witecha is telling the truth.
Timber production is alive and well when you get into the northern half of the state, and that means grouse numbers tend to stay pretty solid from year to year. Wisconsin also experiences a great woodcock migration, meaning that the chance for both species during an October trip is easy enough to come by.
National Forests and Wildlife Management Areas are well marked, but Wisconsin also offers thousands of tracts of private land that is open to public hunting through their Managed Forest Law Program. These parcels won’t be covered in signage, so do your homework before entering. Once you do, you’ll find an ample amount of land to hunt for upland opportunities.
An added bonus in grouse country, beyond timberdoodles, is ducks. If you want to spend the morning pondside waiting on some woodies or mallards, the opportunity to do so on public land is very easy to find, with the hunting surprisingly good. Anyone looking for a true mixed-bag hunt in the beautiful, big-woods setting could do a lot worse than the Badger State.
What About the West?
You don’t need a wide-ranging GSP to enjoy the West and all it offers the upland hunter. Plenty of Midwestern and Eastern hunters make the long trip to big country to target the variety of upland species that can be found from the prairies to the high-country basins. States like Idaho are a bird hunter’s dream. With roughly 34-million acres of public hunting land and a bevy of upland species to choose from, you could hunt a lifetime in the Gem State and not tread upon one percent of the available land.
Of course, you could also hit up Montana or Wyoming as well, which both rival Idaho in available space and species. Or, you could look further south to find quail opportunities that are open when those northern states’ seasons have been closed for weeks. The hottest thing going in upland hunting right now is Arizona quail, with the state offering multiple species, hunting into February, and enough public land to accommodate all comers (nearly half of Arizona is public land).
The left half of the country offers opportunities throughout pretty much every state, right up until you hit the Pacific Ocean, which means you really can’t go wrong if you’re thinking big when it comes to planning a trip. But remember, with big country comes big responsibility. The logistics of a trip to the West will be different from Midwestern and Eastern forays. Proximity to motels, emergency veterinarian services, and just about anything you might need will be different. So plan accordingly, and understand what you’re getting into before you go.