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Guide to Finding Public Land Birds

Go deep to gain an edge when hunting public land for upland birds.

Guide to Finding Public Land Birds

Public land can be vast but the opportunity to go further is always present. 

With private hunting lands becoming harder to come by in many parts of the country for a variety of reasons, many bird hunters are having to turn to public hunting lands more than ever before. And while many states provide large quantities of such land for both residents and nonresidents alike, they’re not necessarily always prime hunting spots.

Consequently, public land hunters have learned that if they’re going to be successful, they’ll need to hunt a little smarter—and a little harder—than their private land brethren. One of the main reasons for that is the constant pressure put on the game bird populations in many areas, leaving those who aren’t willing to work a little harder and try some new places with little success to show for the miles on their boots.

Fact is, like the American population, bird hunters can sometimes try to take the easy, quick path to success. That leads to hunting easily accessible areas that likely have already been hit by a number of other hunters. Enough pressure, and birds in those areas move further away from road access and into heavier cover. So simply going the literal “extra mile” can sometimes make all the difference in the world.

Let’s look at how going deeper into areas that are harder to access will make you a more successful—albeit likely more beat and scratched up—bird hunter. At the same time, we’ll explore what a couple of longtime public land bird hunters have found to be some important keys to their success.

upland bird hunter
Going big for birds means being willing to push through difficult and challenging conditions.

Getting It Done on the Prairie  

Tracy Daniel is a retired Oklahoma game warden and avid bird hunter who has chased birds on public lands in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, and his home state of Oklahoma. He says finding places that receive a little less hunting pressure is one key to his and his hunting buddies’ success.

“I try to go to places that I don’t see a lot of other hunters hunting,” Daniel said. “I’ll take a map and look at it, I’ll kind of avoid those spots that are close to big metro areas because I’m assuming they get hunted a little harder. It’s productive to kind of go to some of the more remote areas that you have to walk quite a ways to get back in a little deeper.

“You learn those areas by looking at maps. You look and say, ‘Hey, I can walk back in there. And it’s a mile and a half from the nearest country road.’ There are not lots of people that will walk that far. Most hunters—even bird hunters—don’t get a half mile off the road. Just being willing to walk a little farther, a little harder and a little longer than other guys makes a big difference.”

Daniel said that the time to find such locations isn’t on the day when you are out hunting. They can be located months in advance with a little diligence. “I can sit at home in the evening, get out my cell phone and turn my onX Hunt app on and scroll up into Montana and look at areas and say, ‘Man, that’s 20 miles away from any highway.’ You just kind of think, ‘Hey, that probably doesn’t get hit very often.’ And then when we go hunt those areas, we usually find out we were right.”

upland bird hunter
Digital scouting can go be helpful when planning to be a longways into public land.

While going deep is important, Daniel says much of his hunting success is due to the hours upon hours he spends researching public lands in states and areas where he wants to hunt. “It takes a lot of research to really make your hunt as good as you can make it,” he said. “That research starts this time of year (spring) or even a little bit earlier, looking at maps, going online looking at fish and game agencies’ websites and their reports from the year before on harvest records. A lot of agencies do a really good job on that, letting you know how many grouse were taken in this county and how many prairie chickens were taken in that one.”

He also learns what areas of a targeted state get the most hunting pressure, then tries to hunt in a different area that still has good bird populations but less pressure. “For example, in Montana this past year, we were hunting a part of the state, in the southeast portion, and not a lot of people really hit that,” he said. “And, instead of focusing on what they call Block Management (private lands enrolled for public hunting) we focused on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. Using OnX maps, we really had good luck hunting BLM land. Nobody else was hunting it.”

 Daniel said hunt timing is also important, since it can allow you to hunt with less pressure. That often equals more success. “I hardly ever go on opening days,” he said. “I go to Kansas later in the season in the middle of the week, and very seldom do I have company. Occasionally I do, and usually it’s another out-of-state hunter.”

upland bird hunter with two Gordon Setters
Going big means you and your dogs may have the open country to yourselves.

Looking for public land spots that other hunters might find to be more of a nuisance has also paid off for Daniel and his hunting buddies. “We were hunting up by Shelby, Montana three years ago and there are a lot of waterfowl production areas up there near the Canadian border,” he said. “Those waterfowl production areas kind of get overlooked by upland game hunters because you have to use nontoxic shot. Man, we found some fantastic sharptail hunting on those areas. Plus, we saw only one other group of hunters in a week that were hunting the same type of spots.”

While many parts of the country, like Texas and Oklahoma, have become basically lease-hunting only on private lands, hunters from those states often forget that the same situation doesn’t exist in some other regions. Consequently, a little diligence might even result in you finding some private land to chase your favorite bird. “We’re not afraid to knock on doors,” Daniel said. “For example, in Montana, that state has not been abused very much by bird hunters. And we hardly ever get turned down when asking landowners to hunt on their property, even if he’s not enrolled in the program. They’ll generally look at you and say, ‘You guys drove all the way from Oklahoma to hunt birds?’”

English setter on rock outcrop
Make sure that both you and your dog are ready to go off-grid for birds on big public land.

Grouse in the Northwoods  

Hunting ruffed grouse in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is about as different from hunting Hungarian partridge on the prairies of Montana as you can get and still be bird hunting. Yet, some of the same principles of going where other hunters aren’t as likely to go still hold true.

Dennis Stachewicz, an avid grouse hunter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is the owner of Aspen Thicket Grouse Dogs—a kennel that produces some of the nicest German shorthairs you’ll ever hunt over. While he does most of his grouse hunting near his home on the U.P., over the years he has also hunted public lands in several other states, including Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Georgia, Montana, and Iowa.

To Stachewicz, “going deep” is just another way of saying “avoiding pressure.” And that can be done by hunting areas others don’t reach, or hunting when others aren’t around.

“Generally, a lot of success relates to pressure when hunting on public lands,” Stachewicz said. “A good example would be ruffed grouse hunting, which is kind of my forté living up in the U.P. I know that Columbus Day weekend and the week following Columbus day is going to be the most pressure of the ruffed grouse season. Whether that has to do with a lot of people having an extra day off or whatever it may be, that’s going to be the most pressure we are going to see.”

Northwoods grouse hunters
Northwoods grouse hunters are no stranger to going deep for public land birds.

Understanding that heavy pressure makes hunting different is important. However, even more important is figuring out what to do about it. And, according to Stachewicz, that’s not always easy. “There is no app—no super trick—that can make it easy for you to figure out how to hunt pressured birds,” he said. “That’s something that comes with experience—and I mean boots-on-the-ground experience. Because you have to find the secondary and tertiary level covers that those birds are going to go to. And sometimes they go to a secondary cover for escape, and then they’ll have another tertiary level of cover that’s going to be one that they can live in if they need to. They are generally in closer proximity to one another, but they could be up to a quarter mile away from a spot that you would really want to hunt.”

Stachewicz said a good example was a spot he found last year when hunting with his son. They were way back off the beaten path, in an area only reachable by a side-by-side UTV. They could tell it had been hunted by some sign left by other hunters. However, it was what Stachewicz called a  “beautiful masterpiece of Great Lakes grouse habitat”—an old clear cut of about 600 acres with seven to ten-year-old aspens bordered by a keg alder swamp on one side, a cedar swamp on the other, pines on the far end and some tamarack bogs at the other end.

“We hunted the cut and it wasn’t working for us,” he said. “So we decided to just start making big circles around it. About an hour and a half later we were in the middle of what was a fairly wide-open tamarack swamp—probably one to three tamarack trees per quarter acre—and about every 15 steps we flushed a grouse out of one of those tamarack trees. But it was a quarter of a mile away from the cut and on the third level back from where we normally would expect them, which would be in some of those pine and keg alder areas.”

Stachewicz said he believes the birds had been pushed there by pressure, based on the results they had after hunting the spot several times last season. “We hunted that spot eight times over a span of eight weeks last year, and the first six times we went in there they were in that third level of cover. The last two times were in December before the snow. We had a good two-week shutdown for deer season and probably most of the out-of-state bird hunters had been gone for a couple of weeks, so let’s say about a month of recovery. After a month of recovery, the birds were right in the area where they were supposed to be at the beginning of the season.”

Stachewicz believes that many people don’t kill pressured birds because they’re simply unwilling to do the work that it takes to figure out where the birds went when pressured and then pursue them into those sometimes isolated areas.

“We’re in this vast society that has to have immediate results,” he said. “So the long walk in the woods with your bird dog for three or four hours—half a day hunt—exploring a lot of stuff, that’s gone away. You have people who have smartphones with apps, they have their trip planned out and they have a specific place they want to hunt, and they run and gun it. They put a dog on the ground, they blow through it and if they don’t move any birds they go on to the next one. But if you’re not pushing deep and spending a lot of time with boots on the ground, you’re going to miss a lot of opportunities.”

For his part, Stachewicz finds most of his success in places few other people hunt, even though they have the same opportunity as he does to hunt those spots. “I like to drive a little bit, get off the beaten path and maybe put a few more scratches on the truck,” he said. “Then I’ll park and start walking. “I firmly believe with all the hunting pressure we’ve seen the past couple of years—which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong—but with that increased pressure, we’ve got to become smarter hunters.”

Bird hunter with quail
A bird in the hand is the reward for pushing yourself beyond where many hunters would go.

Work Harder, Go Deeper  

If you’re one of the millions of upland bird hunters who frequent public grounds, you no doubt know how frustrating it can be sometimes. But heeding the sound advice from these two experts can put a few more arrows in your strategy quiver next time you head afield.

If you work harder, go deeper, and employ other tactics to get away from the pressure, public land success can be yours for the having. It still might not be easy, but it’ll dang sure be satisfying to both you and your gun dogs.

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