There are a lot of misperceptions surrounding upland populations. The most prominent come from the gloom-and-doom naysayers who will proclaim to anyone who will listen that there simply aren’t any game birds left. This is not a localized habit, but the reality is that in some areas, bird number are down or nearly non-existent.
That doesn’t mean it’s time to paint the entire pheasant or quail population with the same brush. There are birds out there to be had that you don’t need to pay $200 a gun per day to access. Those birds, which also include a variety of grouse and prairie chickens, all reside on land that is open to you, which leads to the other major proclamation I often hear regarding upland opportunities - that public land is a waste of time.
Again, this is at worst a localized problem. There are tracts of public pheasant habitat near my house in the Twin Cities that are pretty much bird-less. There are simply too many hunters and not enough pheasants in this region to populate ground that gets pounded every day of the season.
If I commit to driving at least an hour or two from the metro area, the pheasant world changes, however. It’s a sacrifice and would be easier to have a pile of wild birds in my backyard, but that’s not how things work. There are birds to be had; they just take a bit of extra effort. This is the case in many, many places right now.
The weather sucks, the parking lots are full of piles of bird-dog poop and spent shell casings and nothing will come easy. The good news is, you’ll have the hard hunting to yourself, especially if the weather turns sour. Most people are fair-weather hunters, and most of the weekend warriors give up by the time the season is a couple of months old.
The sudden lack of hunting pressure will work in your favor and so will the fact that public land often contains the best cover around. This is typically because public ground tends to consist of the kind of terrain that can’t be farmed, which means that the places wintering game birds like to go to survive also happen to be the places we can all hunt.
To put it another way, that cattail slough that held a few random roosters throughout October and November might now be the premier spot for pheasants to hide out when all of the crops are picked and they need some geothermal cover just to survive. This means that lackluster early season public dirt can suddenly fill up with birds when Mother Nature says it’s time. When it comes to pheasants, that happens a lot.
To a certain extent, primarily in the Plains states, the same phenomenon happens with quail. That gnarly homestead that is surrounded by plum thickets and sumac may not appear to be worth the five-minute hunt, but if there are quail nearby you might just find a covey or two there simply because it’s the best cover around.
December necessitates a new attitude toward public land and a new way of thinking about how birds will use it.
Prepare To Work
If you want easy bird hunting, you can certainly pay for the opportunity to hunt planted birds along carefully groomed walking trails. Late-season public land birds don’t work that way.
They won’t be easy, and they won’t be scattered everywhere. Winter has a tendency to push game animals into very specific spots that are advantageous to them. That’s where you need to get to, and it might take a couple of miles of walking to get there. My buddies and I have a spot like this in northern Wisconsin for grouse hunting. It’s a long, long walk back to a small patch of clear-cut that is ringed by pine trees. We hardly ever flush a bird on the way in or out, but when we get back to the wintering hole we always put up plenty of birds.
Sometimes we walk out with several, which makes the walk back much more tolerable. On paper, it seems like too much work, but the moments when the dog dives into the thick stuff and the ruffs start coming out of the upstart forest like popcorn are truly special.
While it’s easy enough to plan for our own comfort during late-season hunts, we often don’t think about our dogs in the same way. Their paws are a major consideration, and if your dog has been loafing around the house for a month and you suddenly ask him to pound away in the snowy grouse woods for a day, his paws might not take it. Keep your dog active outside with training drills and general exercise, so that when you do ask for a full-day hunt out of him, he can deliver.
Pay attention to water as well. Late-season iced-over bodies of water can pose a hazard to you and your dogs. Busting through or falling in can change a normal hunt into something truly dangerous in a heartbeat. Make sure to have full control of your dog around any thin ice and proceed wisely around it.
It won’t be easy, but it will be fun. Get out there and see for yourself what the local bird populations are really like on public land this month. You might find that what you’ve dreaded as a lost cause is something else entirely.
Something totally worthwhile.