As I wrote a while back, I have roots in a region long considered one of the nation’s premier pheasant-hunting destinations – southwestern Nebraska. Not only did my first hunting experiences involve pursuits of Rowdy Rooster, one of my first jobs was a part-time position at a McCook motel where I witnessed the influence the pheasant season can have on a local economy. Each November, it seemed every bird hunter and his dog from outside the area converged on that motel and others in the community of 8,000.
Out here in the Panhandle, hunting is at least equally as big. Pheasant hunting, not so much. Upland bird hunting seems to play a secondary role to big game – not surprising for the only part of Nebraska featuring a lot of public land and an enviable mix of elk, muleys, whitetails, pronghorns and bighorn sheep. I do not know that it should play second fiddle as an upland bird destination, however.
During outdoor pursuits near my home of Chadron, I am frequently amazed at the number of pheasants I encounter. Sheridan, Box Butte and parts of Dawes and even Sioux counties are teeming with the colorful game birds. Not surprising to me, an annual survey conducted by rural mail carriers consistently places the northern Panhandle either first or second in pheasant densities among Nebraska’s regions. Along with an ample population of sharp-tailed grouse, the Panhandle provides an outstanding venue for upland bird hunting.
That is why I was glad to see two sizable chunks of the Panhandle identified as a “Pheasant Opportunity Areas,” or POAs, in the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Berggren Plan — the comprehensive document approved last year to improve the state’s pheasant hunting.
Members of the Commission wildlife staff have long been forging relationships with area farmers and ranchers to provide public access and habitat improvements. From what I hear there is already increasing interest from Panhandle landowners to enroll in the Open Fields and Waters Program and other access initiatives for the coming year. An installment of that effort will play out Monday evening (Jan. 23) when landowners within the Northern Panhandle POA and Commission staff will meet in Alliance to discuss the Berggren Plan. (By the way, landowners who have not signed up for the free meal have until 10 a.m. Monday to do so.)
Thanks to the Berggren Plan and cooperation from landowners and businesses, it may not be long before the pheasant opener means busy times for motel employees from Gordon to Sidney. The potential is certainly present.