Pursuing a Nebraska Mixed Bag

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Nebraska seems to garner less attention than its neighbors to the north and south. But that’s part of the charm. South Dakota has more pheasants, but Kansas holds more quail and the Dakotas have plenty of prairie grouse. The annual waterfowl migration passes through all four. However, Nebraska often produces good hunting for both upland birds and waterfowl simultaneously, and that’s the cherry on the sundae.

Image 2The author took this bobwhite quail hen with his Cogswell & Harrison 16-gauge side by side.

This diverse range of wingshooting experiences is what originally drew me to the corn-belt state. I first visited in 2003, allotting fewer days to hunt than would have been ideal, opting for a whirlwind trip around the state. Afterward, I continually desired to return and be more thorough, so in 2018 and 2020 I finally did so, eager and ready.

What 2003 did reveal were a few destinations I could explore with the benefit of camping on site or nearby. Listening to coyotes singing in the Sandhills or twilight duck chatter on a lake sure beats the cacophony of hotel doors banging away. The best place to explore this option is on the many U. S. Forest Service lands along with Army Corps Of Engineers (C.O.E.) lands around Nebraska. For those who aren’t looking to camp, there are usually small farm communities nearby that do offer lodging. Either way, you’re seldom far from worthwhile hunting.

Image 3Rusty making a winter retrieve in the Nebraska Sandhill region.

I found it best to spend 7-10 days, starting in the Sandhills region to hunt sharptail grouse and prairie chickens. Further south, anywhere near the Kansas border, bobwhite quail, ringneck pheasants, and waterfowl take over as the main quarry. The tough part? Choosing when to switch from one location to another. It is difficult to leave birds to go find birds when I’m already having a good time. Sometimes, weather makes the decision easy.

This was the case in 2018 when a major winter storm rolled in. Forecast snowfall totals of 24 inches sent me packing on the leading edge of the storm. I have towed a camper in bad weather too many times and consequently beat it southward. December in Nebraska can be that way. Nice one day, then “look out!” the next. The oncoming front also promised a good build up of waterfowl at my next destination.

Prior to hightailing it out of the Sandhills, I spent some mighty wonderful days chasing grouse amongst minor weather events. The only fly in the ointment was that most of the prairie chickens had migrated south for the winter. That’s right folks: a grouse that migrates. However, they don’t go far, usually 50 to 60 miles. I might have knocked on a few doors in that country when I headed south had I not been doing my best to outrun a blizzard.

Image 4Rusty with a sharptail taken with the author’s 16-gauge Fox.

The sharptails, though, were an altogether different story. A good portion of them is generally happy to remain where they are. These grouse kept my dog Rusty, and I, plenty busy in an enchantingly desolate land of sand, cedar, brush and yucca plants. Late season grouse are a wee bit difficult to approach. Much frustration initially greeted my efforts until I wised up and used the terrain to my advantage. When the wind blows, and in Nebraska it blows often, grouse hunker in just below the top of a ridge or point of land, on the leeward side. This will often be the highest spot in the immediate vicinity. Paranoid grouse like to keep a close eye on their surroundings.

By hunting Rusty close in, the two of us could get in range often enough. The best approach is with the wind at your back so the grouse don’t see you coming over the ridge. The problem is that it negates much of the advantage of a dog, since the birds are downwind. I compromised and stitched back and forth from one high point to another, looking for angles that facilitated him smelling the birds without being exposed to their view. It wasn’t a perfect ploy, but things worked out well enough.

Image 5Greenwings in the dekes.

Of course, finding the right place to start in such immense surroundings can be a challenge, but I had an ace up my sleeve, other than Rusty. The best grouse hunting is determined by grazing practices. Pastures that have been idle (not grazed) for three years exhibit much better habitat and plant variety, thus attracting most of the grouse. This grazing rotation plan is often used to enhance grouse habitat. There are two ways to find these locations. One is to look for pasture with a noticeable increase in ground vegetation variety. The other, especially helpful when snow covers the ground, is to look at a grazing map. The overseeing agencies often have a map, sometimes even posted on a general informational billboard at the headquarters, that shows when each allotment was last grazed by cattle. Now that’s a handy bit of info and I for one am grateful they make it available.

One word of caution about the Sandhills region, it has that name for a reason. The easiest way to drive around the sand two track trails is to run lower air pressures in your tires for flotation purposes. This will save a lot of trouble and difficulty. Unlike snow, sand is usually deep enough that digging with a shovel typically only results in a deeper hole, and a still trapped vehicle. Re-inflate before driving on the highway. Since this trick is also of tremendous help in mud, snow and rocks, I carry a quality portable air compressor in every vehicle I own. Get something that fills a tire faster than the thirty-dollar units that plug into a cigarette lighter. I won’t go into detail as to how low to go since vehicle weight, weight distribution, tire size, and tire construction all determine this. Generally a decent bulge in the sidewall is desired. I will say that if the sidewalls wrinkle…you went too far. Running reduced tire pressures also saved my bacon when dirt roads turned to mud further south. It allowed me to drive around while maintaining control of my vehicle rather than going from ditch to ditch and making ruts, a genuine problem that other hunters were experiencing in that country where pavement is rare.

Image 1A bag taken in parts Nebraska.

As tough as it is to leave good grouse hunting, pheasants, quail, and waterfowl are good reasons to do so. One of my favorite haunts is a reservoir surrounded by mostly public land. This public ground is planted, farmed and managed with wildlife habitat in mind. Bays draw a heap of ducks when the migration hits. Hotspots for pheasant and quail shift around from year to year. Hotspots for ducks shift from morning to morning-based on hunting pressure, mostly from guys with duck boats.

I usually start my stay by hunting bobwhite quail then add the other birds based entirely on whim and opportunity. Quail are commonly referred as little gentlemen. Ol’ Bob sure can be, but don’t count on it when hunting public ground. It seems that Mr. Quail has been hanging around darkly lit pool halls and learning some bad habits from rowdy influences like Mr. Rooster pheasant. I found plenty of bobwhites not only wearing their track shoes but also putting them to mighty good use. Both coveys and singles are always a guessing game. Some will beat the dust off your hat brim when they come up around you and others will run hell bent for election the entire length of a shelterbelt. But this unpredictability makes it more fun and I am okay with it.

Image 6A good morning of hunting in Nebraska.

What kind of bird will flush next is a guessing game too. Pheasants and quail overlap their daily movements in this country, especially around food sources like milo or corn. When Rusty is trailing scent hard and fast, I never know if he is following quail or pheasant for sure. Usually, if the quarry is dodging and weaving a lot it is likely a pheasant and I will bet on it by switching to pheasant loads in my gun. That is the dilemma. Good pheasant shotgun loads are a tad sparse of pattern on bobs and good quail loads won’t anchor a pheasant very far from the gun. Number-six shot is a good compromise and pattern density is usually decent enough on the little quail thanks to the closer shooting they generally provide.

Image 7Hunting the edge.

The best tip I have for quail and pheasant is to hunt edges. That advice is universal and applies to Nebraska just as much as anywhere. Birds like to have all of their needs for food, cover and water close together so they can conserve energy and avoid exposure to predators. I will say the pheasant will stray further from an edge than quail, though. Bobs don’t like to go too far out into a big expanse of grass here, unless forced to by hunting pressure. Like all creatures, they adapt as needed. Even so, quail are more homebodies than pheasants. Pheasants will relocate one-half mile to escape pressure with little hesitation; bobwhites like to return to their “living room” as often as possible.

Pheasant tend to be very localized in my experience. I seldom see any big concentration like the Dakotas have, but while there can, and often will be, a rooster or two about anywhere, there are usually one or two spots that hold dozens. Most often, it is in very dense, tall cover. 

I recall a young fellow named Tom giving me a tip about just such a bonanza back in 2018. He didn’t tell me the exact piece of cover but sent me in the right direction. Upon arriving, it didn’t take me long to figure out where the roosters were hiding since a couple of them had loose beaks. When they sounded off I knew where to go. The problem came in the form of wild sunflowers, taller than my head. It was jungle hunting to say the least, but birds were in there and I did my best to get shots off in the tangle. It worked often enough to allow a little bird weight in the bag. If I had a friend along, that friend could have walked along outside the thick stuff and enjoyed some easier shooting. Since I was alone, escaping birds enjoyed an easy exodus.

Image 8A pair of the author’s 16-guage side by sides used to take a big bag of birds.

Another piece of advice is to arrive early on weekends. More popular areas can get busy on Saturdays. This was my chagrin one Saturday this past December. I was hunting for a spot as much as I was hunting for a bird. This cloud possessed a very silvery lining though, an absolute dandy! In my searching I stumbled onto a swarm of over 500 ducks tucked into a secluded cove. And it got even better than that…

In the wee hours of the following morning I hiked back into this bay. The morning didn’t develop into the slam dunk I expected, but it was pretty darn good. That other development I mentioned? Green winged teal flying to a pond behind me, lots of them. I spent the next two mornings on that flooded timber pond with a 20 gauge and sack full of teal decoys. This really added an extra layer of zest to my road trip and these unexpected bonuses always seem be part of the Nebraska experience for me.

The same thing happened two years earlier, on the other side of the lake. Finding a hotbed of teal activity really put the trip over the top for me then too. This is how scouting for one bird while chasing another really pays off. Awareness of what is happening nearby is huge. So is putting in windshield time and as painful as it comes…spending gas money. One of these days I need to take this a step further and haul my goose decoys along, there are an awful lot of geese that hang out in Nebraska during the big push south. Back in 2003 my friend Jacob Binns and I both harvested our first Specklebelly geese only 20 miles north of this lake (another one of those bonuses).

Variety. It’s a lot of what makes Nebraska special. Letting my legs rest from the big mountainsides I hunt elsewhere is pretty nice too. The people and unique countryside really seal the deal, especially if you can take time to see more than one part of the state. I don’t hunt birds in Nebraska every year, but when I do a noticeable void is filled and I soon start figuring out ways to go back again.

Garhart Stephenson is an avid outdoorsman residing in west central Wyoming. Throughout the year he is typically outdoors with rod or gun in the company of his faithful Border Collie, Rusty.

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 January 2023 10:31
Garhart Stephenson

Garhart Stephenson is an avid outdoorsman residing in west central Wyoming. Throughout the year he is typically outdoors with rod or gun in the company of his faithful Border Collie, Rusty.