Hunting public lands.
It can be a daunting challenge.
And, it can be especially tough in a state like Nebraska where only 3 percent of its total land acreage is open to publicly hunt, though more public access walk-in property (approximately one-million acres) is available to hunters this year than ever before in history.
So, how does one successfully pursue wild game birds and animals on publicly accessible lands here in the Cornhusker State?
It doesn’t come easy. It takes time, effort, research and scouting. But, the delicious rewards and indelible memories are worth it!
So, I offer you a plethora of helpful hints, tons of tips mind you, that I have collected from our wildlife biologists who manage our public lands, public access program properties or the various wildlife species on them.
Todd Nordeen of Alliance, big game research and disease program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission provides the introduction. Todd is a longtime commission employee who has served in different capacities and worked across the state.
“The state of Nebraska is approximately 430 miles long and 210 miles wide and within that is a diverse array of wildlife management areas and public lands open to hunting, fishing and a variety of other outdoor recreational activities. The diversity across the state is immense with a variety of habitat types including woodland, grassland/prairie, wetlands, and combinations of varied habitats. Nebraska has over 300 state wildlife management areas as well as many other public lands. In all however, available public access encompasses only about 3% of the land in Nebraska so below are some tips that may improve your hunting success on public lands.” — Todd Nordeen.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
In advance, understand the game species you are planning to hunt and gain knowledge of its seasonal habits and preferred habitats. Closely examine topographic maps, aerial photos and public area maps. Look beyond the public land to check out what the habitat on the surrounding landscape is like. This will assist you in triangulating the best possible location to hunt. Note natural funnels, harvested row crop fields, livestock grazing pastures, existing water sources, etc. Key into those natural transition areas where edge habitat exists or two or more different habitat types meet.
Talk with biologists, field personnel, conservation officers, other hunters, or nearby landowners. Devise a strategy. Plan to make site visits.
PUT FORTH EXTRA EFFORT AND GO THE DISTANCE
Put in the extra effort and footwork, particularly on state wildlife management areas. Consider hiking further, deeper into an area. Get far away from roads, parking lots, signs, and easily accessible areas or those frequented most often by hunters.
Take to the back corners and the odd areas, the odd patches of habitat. Wade the creeks, climb the big hills, hit the heavier cover, and go the long distances. You need to get where the other hunters haven’t been. It’s best to pick a good vantage point and let other hunters push game to you. Make sure to pack a bag with your essentials for the entire day; plan a longer hunt and make it worth the while.
Escape routes for deer that lead directly into the thickest cover or bramble available also need to be highlighted. Areas like this serve as protective sanctuaries that deer use when hunting pressure becomes substantial.
Wetlands (marshes) are important features in the landscape that provide numerous benefits to wildlife and should not be overlooked for hunting everything from ducks to bucks to even rooster pheasants.
Identify and evaluate areas for the species of choice using Google Earth, onX maps or other vivid map apps to your advantage. Look for planted food plots, clear cuts and water sources to pinpoint your quarry. If you’re hunting deer, turkey or elk, note their travel corridors and bedding/roosting areas. Plan your own travel route using satellites and mark GPS points. Use them to get into your hunting spot during low-light hours in the most unobtrusive way. The Smartphone you have will be an invaluable tool.
For big game species, consider using lockable trail cameras to identify and evaluate areas of use by the desired game species. This will help prevent interruptions to the daily routines of game on the area yet provide information on game trail use, feeding areas, watering sites and movement patterns. Using modern technology significantly reduces human disturbance on potentially already high-pressured public areas.
KNOW THE REGS
Public areas have standard and specific regulations. Read the public lands atlas, hunting guides and regulatory signs on the areas for those details. Be able to recognize property boundary signs. All of this will assist with the selection of areas to find individual game species.
SCOUT, BUT DON’T OVERDO IT
Extensive and intense scouting before your actual hunt is necessary on public lands and is critical for success. However, be mindful of over-scouting an area or going to an area too often prior to the hunt. Some species, such as elk, do not tolerate much disturbance and will leave an area if disturbed even a small amount. Scouting during midday hours for big game is strongly suggested as it decreases the chances of hampering other hunters.
WHEN TO HUNT
Avoid busy times, hunt weekdays, if possible. The middle of the week is the optimum time to go. Sunday mornings and the time frames on Saturdays when the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football team is playing on television both tend to be the lighter traffic periods on weekends for public hunting.
Be aware of your exact legal shooting hours for your desired game but hunt those hours other than first couple after sunrise and last couple before sunset to avoid a lot of hunting pressure. Keep in mind that late season hunting on public lands offers much potential with little competition in the field.
PLAY THE WIND
Play the wind for species such as white-tailed and mule deer that are sensitive to the smell of human presence. Many big game species have a tremendous sense of smell which is the main part of their defense mechanism system. Besides practicing scent control, stay downwind or at least a good distance away from where you expect to see them.
GET FAMILIAR WITH A FEW AREAS OR NEW AREAS
Give thought to hunting a few public areas and get very familiar with each of them. Try to alternate among areas when possible to prevent continual disruptions to an area or parts of an area. Also, look for new additions to state wildlife management areas or Open Fields and Waters tracts. These are brand new, prime hunting lands that haven’t already been heavily utilized.
BE FLEXIBLE, ADAPTABLE
Be flexible and willing to adjust where you’re hunting. As things change, be ready to move to other locations within a public area or a go to a different area all together. Wildlife movement patterns and habitat choices shift as seasons change and are influenced by hunting pressure.
BE PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY PREPARED
Most state wildlife management areas and public lands are “walk-in only.” Get physically and mentally prepared for the hunt. As bighorn sheep hunters say: “Get in Sheep Shape.” Good physical and mental conditioning will improve the chances of success on these publicly accessible walk-in areas.
BRING GOOD OPTICS
On your public lands hunt, employ good optics or spotting equipment. Binoculars and spotting scopes greatly minimize foot travel, and decrease the chances of spooking game, most notably in western Nebraska where there are larger expanses of public land. You will be able to watch from afar. Study the behavior of the animals, observe where they are headed, and then plan to make your move.
HUNTER ETHICS AND SAFETY
Apply good hunter ethics and safety when hunting public properties. A safe and ethical hunt is an effective hunt.
Be a good steward of the land, pick up spent shot shells, rifle cartridges and litter seen. Don’t damage wildlife habitat.
Be respectful of other hunters and outdoor enthusiasts. There is no need to ruin another’s time in the outdoors! Make certain there is adequate spacing or a safe distance between you and another hunter or hunting group. If some other hunter is in your favorite spot, it will give you an opportunity to explore new options and perhaps find your next honey hole.
For safety, always comply with blaze orange clothing requirements for big game hunting. It is also a good idea to wear some blaze orange when mobile and hunting upland or small game or walking to and from your hunting spots for waterfowl, turkey or other game species. With camouflaged hunting blinds, put some blaze orange tape on each side of the blind so it can be seen from all sides by other hunters. Additionally, in a moment before firing a shot at a game bird or animal, ask yourself: Is the shot flight path clear? Is that a legitimate target? And, what am I going to hit if I miss!
DON’T GIVE UP!
Absolutely, do not give up on hunting public lands! Some publicly accessible areas can be quite challenging to hunt. Persistence and the utilization of these tips should help improve your hunting experience on public lands.
To get a complete listing of Nebraska’s public hunting lands, click here.
Good hunting to you!