October 10, 2019
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Bored with hunting near home? Always dreamed of heading west and hiking miles of rolling prairie behind your dog in search of wild birds in new and extraordinary places? Well, your dreams can easily become reality. All you need is 10 days of vacation, a map, a good truck, maybe a buddy to tag along with you, and a desire for adventure. I had all of the above when I hunted these states in the past, and loved every minute of it. So much so that I’m willing to share this game plan with you!
Plan to start in late-October when pheasant and quail seasons are open. But don’t plan on hunting just those two species. We’re adding sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie chickens, and ruffed grouse to your game bag.
I heard the bird flush before I saw it. A flash of color hit my peripheral vision as the rooster took flight, my retriever, Lincoln, hot on his tail feathers. My shotgun instinctively rose to my shoulder, and the echo of its discharge drifted across the field. My first wild Iowa rooster crumpled in mid-flight. A few steps farther on, and my second rooster would fall. And later in the day, two quail would become an added bonus.
Iowa is almost a sleeper state—you don’t often hear much about it, but it holds good bird numbers for hunters embarking on a road trip. If you’re coming from the Midwest, start your trip here. Grab a five-day license for $77, or a full season for $144. Public land is distributed throughout the state; there’s not a lot of it, but there is enough to hunt. The Iowa DNR website offers an interactive map to help you in finding public land. Look for the areas highlighted in green, blue, and orange (DNR-managed areas, refuges, etc.). Be sure to check local regulations before hitting the field. Some spots require nontoxic shot.
Pheasant season: Tentatively Oct. 26–Jan. 10. Quail season: Tentatively Oct. 26–Jan. 31.
A couple of friends and I had spread out and walked in a line behind our bird dogs the entire length of a large swath of public land in the Cornhusker State. As we reached the field’s edge, an explosion of beating wings erupted from the tall grass. Shots were fired, and soon my dog came trotting back to me with our reward: a long-tailed rooster.
Nebraska is a bird-hunter’s paradise, so after hunting a few days in Iowa, hit I-80 and head west. Hunters have access to four different upland bird species in Nebraska: sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie chickens, pheasant, and bobwhite quail. Grab a license for $97 and a $25 habitat stamp before hitting the field.
Pheasants can be found across the state, but your best opportunities are in the southwest or the panhandle. For a shot at Mr. Bobwhite, look to the southeast and west along the southern border with Kansas. As you make your way northwest to head to your next destination, plan on hunting for chickens and sharpies. Greater prairie chickens are found in the north-central part of the state; sharpies can also be found there, as well as in the panhandle.
Sharp-tailed grouse: Tentatively Sept. 1–Jan. 31. Greater prairie chicken: Tentatively Sept. 1–Jan. 31. Pheasant: Tentatively Oct. 27–Jan. 31. Bobwhite quail: Tentatively Oct. 27–Jan. 31.
It’s not nicknamed the Big Sky State for nothing. Clear- blue skies stretched as far as my eyes could see—and so did the rolling prairie hills. My time spent hunting Montana consisted of typical cool, fall weather, interspersed with the occasional light snowstorm—in other words, perfect bird-hunting conditions. Equally perfect was the access to prime bird habitat thanks to the state’s Block Management walk-in program, which gives hunters the opportunity to hunt thousands of acres of private land.
Choose either the three-day license for just $50, or the season license for $110. For this road trip, we’re sticking to the eastern side of the state, where you’ll hunt prairie habitat for roosters, sharp-tailed grouse, and Hungarian partridge. If you want to hit the west, you’ll find higher elevations where you’ll have opportunities for grouse, including dusky, ruffed, and spruce.
Order a Block Management Access Guide from the Montana DNR between June 1 and December 31, so you’ll have one in hand when you have no cell service to access it online. There are two types of Block Management. Type 1 allows hunters to administer their own permission by using sign-in boxes often found at the corners of private lands. Type 2 requires permission from the landowner, or Fish and Wildlife personnel. We recommend hunting Type 1 access units, and there are plenty of them.
Sharp-tailed grouse: Tentatively Sept. 1–Jan. 1. Hungarian partridge: Tentatively Sept. 1–Jan. 1. Pheasant: Tentatively Oct. 12–Jan. 1.
The cool, fall weather made for enjoyable camping after long days afield. It also helped Lincoln, then a young pup, hunt longer and harder through the tall grasses of North Dakota. We were on the hunt for our first wild pheasant, but instead I was rewarded with a Hun! But over the several days we were there, North Dakota would treat us right: a first wild rooster, sharpie, and Hun. This was a few years ago, but North Dakota is still a state I tell people to add to their checklist.
With this mixed-bag opportunity, it’s worth the $100 charge for a license. A nonresident must choose either one 14-day consecutive license, or two 7-day consecutive license periods. If you like it enough and want to come back, you can purchase another license. Plan to hunt the western half of the state as you’re traveling from Montana. Pitch a tent on public land, and plan to hunt the state’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program. This gives you access to thousands of acres of private land and wild birds. You’ll have opportunities to flush pheasants, sharpies, and Hungarian partridge. Seasons are closed for greater prairie chickens and sage grouse due to low numbers. There is also a week in October when nonresidents have to sit the bench and aren’t allowed to hunt state land. Make sure you do your research.
Hungarian partridge: Tentatively Sept. 14. Pheasant: Tentatively Oct. 12. Sharp-tailed grouse: Tentatively Sept. 1.
As I ducked, dived, and crawled through thick forests still in full bloom, sweat beaded down my face. I pushed my way through the dense brush and stopped to rest. Leaves rustled as Lincoln busted his way through the trees to grab a drink of water from my CamelBak. “I think we’re here too early,” I said to my eager bird dog. We were rewarded with one flush in that thick forest, making our trek worth it, and we vowed to come back later in the season after the leaves had dropped.
That’s why Minnesota should be the last state you hit on your way home. Hit Minnesota when the leaves have thinned out, making your quest to locate grouse somewhat easier. However, be aware that the deer gun season starts the first weekend of November! Grab a season license for $102, or a three-day license for $75—and add a pheasant stamp for $8.25. You’ll have no shortage of land to hunt. Minnesota offers 11 million acres of public hunting land, with 528 designated areas in the ruffed grouse range covering nearly 1 million acres. Say what! Grab a good GPS system and a close-working bird dog, and hit the woods for adventure.
As you make your way south, plan on utilizing Wildlife Management and Walk-In access areas to chase roosters as your last hurrah before heading home. The complete southern half of the state is a good bet to flush a few ringnecks.
Ruffed and spruce grouse: Sept. 14–Jan 1. Pheasant: Oct. 12–Jan. 1.
Bonus State: South Dakota
Don’t think we forgot about the rooster capital of the world! Even if you can’t fit it in on this road trip, plan on hitting this state later in the season, or even next year.
South Dakota has a high number of birds, but with that also comes a lot of hunters. Many hunters book with an outfitter because of the high numbers, so hunting public land is a good bet. The season starts in mid-October, but for the first seven days, nonresident hunters cannot start hunting until noon. Plan on hunting late season, because by that time the fading excitement of the opener and the weather will have thinned the sea of orange on the prairies.
All of South Dakota is open to hunting—except for a few wildlife refuges and Game Production Areas. Be sure to check local regulations. Utilize mapping technology, such as onX Hunt, to help you locate public land.
Road Trip Budget Breakdown
One of the many great things about being a bird hunter is that license prices are very reasonable—which makes our hobby extremely affordable. Couple that with ample opportunities for saving money by camping and access to millions of acres of public land open to hunting, and you have a recipe for success. Here’s our estimated budget breakdown for a 10-day wild bird-hunting road trip. Split some of these with a buddy, and it’s even more affordable!
- Starting Location: Springfield, IL
- Destinations: Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota
- Total Mileage: 2,738
- Vehicle: Ford F150 4WD
- Gas: $400
- Lodging: Hotel Stays During Travel (3): $200
- Camping: $185 (save money by camping for free in National Forest areas)
- Food: $300
- Miscellaneous Supplies: $200
- License/Tag: $432.25
- TOTAL: $1,717.25