“NO PLACE TO HUNT” IS NO EXCUSE FOR SITTING AT HOME. MARVEL AT ALL YOUR PUBLIC ACCESS OPTIONS IN THE TOP PHEASANT STATES, THEN HIT THE ROOSTER ROAD.
By Anthony Hauck
It’s paradoxical, this research that tells us one reason people quit hunting, and a barrier to new entrants, is the lack of a place to do it (read: access). Yet all Rooster Land states have done in the past two decades is ramp up program after program designed to carve out more places for you and I to hunt pheasants.
And these programs work. Not just at opening the gates, literally and figuratively, to millions of acres of pheasant hideouts. Most have evolved to include a habitat management angle, ensuring the cover is pheasant-friendly year after year.
There’s never been more information available to the pheasant hunter, so the knowledge gap is a poor excuse. And while private land habitat and access may have eroded, the proliferation of public lands and state-sponsored public access programs could make you look at now as a golden era of public hunting.
The access isn’t always right around the corner, true. But the idea that it doesn’t exist – and that the hunting isn't good -- is just another excuse.
And there will be birds. More in good years, fewer when the sun shines hard or the spigot doesn’t shut. But there will be birds.
Now that you’re plum out of excuses, let’s go hunt.
Despite being the birthplace and headquarters of Pheasants Forever, and arguably the most progressive state concerning modern upland habitat conservation efforts, Minnesota seems to get lost in the conversation of top tier pheasant hunting destinations.
Maybe the 2-bird daily limit for much of the season, until it changes to 3 birds on December 1, keeps nonresidents away (just 1,500 rooster hunters from out-of-state annually in recent years). Or perhaps the 10,000 lakes wash over the fact that quality public land pheasant hunts can be had from Mankato to Moorhead – nearly 250 miles – and that’s but a narrow swath of the North Star’s pheasant range.
Minnesota’s expansive Wildlife Management Area (WMA)
system is the bedrock of public land pheasant production here, with more than 420,000 WMA acres permanently rooted in the state’s pheasant range. While this system dates back nearly 70 years, the advent of the “Legacy Amendment” in 2008, which directs a portion of taxpayer dollars to an Outdoor Heritage Fund and will continue to do so for another 15 years, has accelerated additions to this nationally recognized network. Translation: Each year there are brand new WMAs for you to hunt.
Last season, Minnesota’s pheasant country included 3,510 acres of new WMA land. The pace of adding to this patchwork continues at an average of 7,000 acres per year across the state, with at least half or so landing in the ringneck range. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a listing of the newest WMAs by county (search New WMAs - Minnesota DNR) to aid in research and hunt-planning efforts.
But the acquisition efforts don’t end there. Another 3,015 acres awaited pheasant hunters last season as new, permanently conserved and permanently public U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-managed Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs)
. The blue goose symbol on WPA signs doesn’t mean “waterfowl only” – pheasants can’t read – and as heralded as Minnesota’s WMA system is, WPAs provide an almost-equal amount of the undisturbed grassland in Minnesota’s public pheasant portfolio.
Combined, WMAs and USFWS-managed lands across Minnesota’s pheasant range account for more than 790,000 acres, which is 45 percent of the total grassland in that expanse. It’s a hollow argument to cry there isn’t a place to hunt pheasants in Minnesota when nearly half of the best pheasant cover is open to the public hunter year after year.
If WMAs and WPAs are the crown jewels of Minnesota’s public-access offering, the state’s relatively young Walk-In Access (WIA)
program is a ringneck ruby. The program dates to 2012 and has incrementally grown to approximately 230 pheasant region sites, encompassing nearly 27,000 acres. Minnesota’s WIA administrators have given priority to lands already enrolled in a conservation program, namely the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) but also the Reinvest in Minnesota program, meaning that unless habitat management efforts are taking place, birds aren’t guaranteed but the habitat and opportunity to pursue them is.
Top prospects for under-the-radar public hunting options for pheasants in Minnesota are National Wildlife Refuge
lands in the far western reaches. A large portion of the 11,000-acre plus Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge is open to upland hunting, and with its abundance of cattails, it’s an appealing option for the late-season hunter. Big Stone’s new-ish refuge sibling, the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, was created in 2000 and is still in its infancy of acquiring parcels of land. Six of the existing units, totaling 2,451 acres, are in Minnesota (the other two reside in Iowa).
If you’re under the impression that South Dakota is strictly grand lodges, private outfits and trespass fees, with little to offer the blue collar, budget-conscious or BIY (boot-it-yourself) hunter, here’s a pheasant newsflash: 1.1 million acres of public hunting land opportunities await you within the heart of “The Pheasant Capital’s” core rooster range.
The Walk-In Area program
is massive, with 350,000 private, pheasant stronghold acres leased for public hunting access by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. CRP acres provide the best pheasant nesting cover in South Dakota, and hunters should delight in the fact that nearly 20 percent of the state’s CRP is open to them via this walk-in program. Drought years earlier this decade stressed the working farms and ranches this program rests on, but the emergency haying and grazing payoff comes when weather conditions break right and create the early successional habitat ringnecks thrive in.
With its dual habitat/access components, South Dakota's James River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)
is another walk-in standout, establishing upland habitat on private land to improve water quality in an impaired watershed. The bonus for pheasant hunters is each parcel is also enrolled in South Dakota's walk-in hunting program. This CREP now provides 80,000 acres of public hunter access in eastern South Dakota, with much of the cover in prime establishment for pheasant production. There’s a strong Pheasants Forever connection here as well, as PF Farm Bill Biologists created the landowner relationships and handled contracts for this CREP.
Another notable walk-in variant with a Pheasants Forever angle is the Community-Based Habitat and Access Program
. The Aberdeen area has been bolstered in the public access department by approximately 3,800 acres of new walk-in hunting lands (including 3,000 CRP grassland acres), made possible by a fundraising and organizing partnership of the local Pheasants Forever chapter and community businesses known as the Aberdeen Pheasant Coalition. The Community-Based Habitat and Access Program provides extra funding incentives for landowners to enroll in the habitat and access program. With success in Aberdeen, the program is now being replicated and dotting the public atlas with properties around Mitchell and in Brule/Lyman Counties.
East of the Missouri River in South Dakota is the Prairie Pothole Region
, where Federal Duck Stamp dollars have been cashed in for the creation of 1,000 Warefowl Production Areas (WPAs)
totaling 150,000 acres. The “PPR” overlays almost perfectly with the historic pheasant range, meaning South Dakota WPAs pull double duty in bolstering nationwide duck and goose populations and the country’s top-ranked pheasant population.
Haven’t found your spot yet? There are still 1 million permanent and public state acres waiting for you. The first 281,000 are divvied up across 730 Game Production Areas (GPAs)
. These parcels are the main source of state-managed pheasant habitat and thus count pheasant hunting more than any other activity. A recent survey of GPA users found a combination of resident and nonresident hunters rated the upland habitat on GPAs as fair-to-good. SDGFP staff have identified native grassland restoration and pollinator plot additions as two key areas of site improvement, both of which stand to improve pheasant nesting and brood-rearing habitats in the years ahead.
Finally, for the ambitious and off-the-beaten path hunter, South Dakota School and Public Lands
constitute another opportunity. There are 750,000 acres in this program, almost entirely west of the Missouri River, with a cornucopia of cover-types. Exactly how many of these acres can be pheasant-classified is an unknown. Think high-risk / high-reward, and be prepared to do a lot of research, a lot of driving, a lot of walking, or all three.
Iowa may not boast the gaudy public access acreage totals of its pheasant country neighbors, but agencies and conservation groups, including Pheasants Forever, have created an impressive list of wildlife habitat complexes in one of the country’s most agricultural-dominated landscapes.
Iowa’s Widlife Management Areas (WMAs)
include more than 388,000 acres open to the public, and pheasants are a system-wide resource. The 75 Waterfowl Produciton Areas (WPAs
) in the state -- another 25,000 acres -- are concentrated in just 18 north-central to northwest counties, but the close-working partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has resulted in large, public wildlife habitat complexes. With numerous sites approaching and eclipsing 4 figures, man and dog could spend an entire season touring just a couple of these pheasant-filled prairie and pothole multiplexes.
In the private-public program arena, the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP)
now tops 20,000 acres across 51 counties, and the habitat improvement component of the program means many of these parcels feature top-notch uplands. One wrinkle to continue this program’s expansion is in southern Iowa, where the Southwest Iowa Communities for Pheasants and Farming Initiative parlays Pheasants Forever’s Precision Agriculture & Conservation program resources as an extra incentive to continue landowner enrollment. More than 1,000 public-access acres have resulted from this unique effort.
In central Iowa, the remnant and restored grasslands at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge are lush with wildflowers, big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass and little bluestem - the perfect prairie ingredients for an order of ringnecks. Your hunting boots are welcome at the 4,000 acres of the refuge open to hunting.
Each state’s digital mapping tools, as compared to one another, have their advantages and disadvantages, but Iowa’s Public Hunting Atlas is ahead of the curve in one very helpful regard: In addition to a property’s basics (location, boundaries), there’s a cover-type and expected species breakdown without any extra clicks. For example, the largest WPA in Iowa, 2,125-acre Union Hills in Cerro Gordo County, is comprised of 80 percent upland and 20 percent marsh. That’s a stat line to grab any uplander’s attention.
The program trio of Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS), WPAs and WMAs
present the best and the bulk of public pheasant hunting access in North Dakota. Find that combination of PLOTS, WPAs and WMAs in proximity on the public atlas and you’ve found a solid starting point for going in sight-unseen in this perennial pheasant power.
At the modern height of CRP, North Dakota’s walk-in entry, the PLOTS program, checked in at more than 1 million accessible acres. With a decade of CRP reductions, the program has settled in the 700,000-acre range, but the decreased acreage has brought a heightened focus on enrolling higher-quality habitat, as well as habitat enhancement and development. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department suspects working lands programs, including Pheasants Forever’s Precision Agriculture & Conservation initiative, will become a larger PLOTS program entry point for landowners in the years ahead.
North Dakota also provides 220,000 acres of state-managed WMAs for hunters, spread across more than 200 sites. Dwarfing the pack is the 32,890-acre Lonetree WMA near Harvey, which is extremely popular and with good reason -- it’s well-managed for upland birds.
A few million acres also exist among U.S. Army Corps, National Wildlife Refuge, State School Trust and National Grasslands
ownership, but these aren’t for the pheasant faint. Hours of page-viewing, screen scouting and even calling and emailing are the required investments to find what’s truly pheasant-possible. But the rewards can be big.
By now, Corps land around Lake Sakakawea aren’t exactly a trade secret, but they are a long way from anywhere, so a secluded place to run the dogs, with a chance at birds, can be counted on. School Trust lands (blue blocks on the public atlas) are good to have awareness of, if only to keep in the back pocket on a bird hunt. And the Little Missouri National Grassland -- the largest grassland in the country -- is best targeted for sharp-tailed grouse, but isolated pockets, particularly neighboring private land agriculture, can offer up bonus roosters.
Being the self-proclaimed “Mixed Bag Capital of the World” is nothing without pheasants in the game bag, which is why Nebraska is in the midst of its five-year Berggren Pheasant Plan (named for the late Nebraska Game and Parks Commissioner Lynn Berggren) and its cornerstones of more and better-managed habitat plus increased access to pheasant lands.
Heading the access list is Nebraska’s Open Fields and Waters (OFW)
walk-in program, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2019, with public access now at a program-high of 316,000 acres. Signups have zeroed in on CRP acres and other undisturbed grasslands, but areas where tall wheat and milo stubble are enrolled, notably in the southwest, can also be pheasant plentiful. This program is another marker of “The Habitat Organization” at work for the access reliant uplander, as Pheasants Forever helped initiate, and still contributes funds, to the state’s hallmark access program.
More than 47,000 acres have been permanently protected in Nebraska via hunter-purchased state Habitat Stamp funds. The biggest and habitat-rich WMAs
are closely associated with the State Recreation Area (SRA) system
, gargantuan surroundings of the largest lakes and reservoirs in the state. The southwest part of the state, a perennial pheasant power, is home to four of these, including the 5,500-acre Medicine Creek WMA, which has been extensively managed for wildlife, and the 4,500-acre Red Willow WMA, an upland oasis replete with native grasses, brushy coulees and shrub plantings. Another nearby reservoir, albeit under U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ownership, is the south-central Harlan County Reservoir and its 17,000 acres of possible rooster rousing. These and the other large SRA/WMA settings are known quantities and attract plenty of hunter attention. But their enormity offers the willing upland worker the opportunity to move far away from easy access points.
South-central Nebraska is also the heart of the famed Rainwater Basin, an important resting and feeding stop for migratory waterfowl, and thus home to 61 federal WPAs
. The USFWS Rainwater Wetland Management District
has managed for high-diversity grassland on the uplands of these areas. Wrapped in this diversity is a bug buffet for broods in the summer, loafing and escape cover year-round, and bird-filled fields for the hunter come fall.
One of the largest prairies and rangeland restoration efforts taking place in the country is the Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project (NCORPE)
, a joint project of four Natural Resources Districts (NRDs). The four districts are restoring more than 15,000 acres of formerly irrigated corn and potato fields into prairie to store water in the Ogallala Aquifer. What started as a pilot access program on the restorations has now expanded into 5,120 Lincoln County acres open to upland hunters across three expanses. Pheasants, grouse and quail have all taken a liking to the early successional habitat created by this ongoing project.
With its diverse holding of state, federal and cooperating landowner programs, Montana may be the granddaddy of all upland hunting access.
Montana’s signature access program is Block Management
, a cooperative between private landowners and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Block Management tracts fall into two categories.
Type 1 Block Management Areas (BMAs)
function like walk-in areas in other states. That is, the hunter can administer his or her permission.
Type 2 BMAs
require a bit more legwork in that permission from the landowner must be obtained. Landowners with Type 2 BMAs may also quota the number of hunters and/or hunting days to exert control over hunt quality. Most hunters will take the path of least resistance and default to Type 1, so don’t be afraid to put in a little extra effort to book a Type 2. Fish, Wildlife & Parks Regions 4 (central-north central), 6 (northeast) and 7 (east-southeast) – these the top pheasant regions – contained more than 4.7 million accessible Block Management Acres in ’18. It’s a diverse landscape, and not all conducive to ringnecks, but rooster opportunities abound.
Montana’s overall Upland Gamebird Enhancement Program
strategy includes another walk-in program designed to piggyback on the CRP. Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters
provides payment and management incentives to landowners in return for hunting opportunities. Since 2012, nearly 60,000 acres of CRP and other quality habitat have been enrolled, making it another attractive option to conservation-minded farmers and ranchers … and a valiant effort at keeping grass in the ground and hunters in the field.
Northeast Montana has been the state’s traditional ringneck hotspot, and this is where hunters will conveniently find 44 WPAs
spread over 12,000 acres of rolling hills, native prairie and shallow wetlands. Also included in USFWS management here is the sprawling 31,000 Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge. A portion is open to pheasant hunters in October, but two more units open for a late season upland hunt on November 15. Slide over a grid near Malta and another refuge, Bowdoin NWR, houses a late season December hunt in a special unit. About 40 percent of the 15,000-acre refuge is open to hunting the regular pheasant season.
As one might expect, WMAs
in Montana tend to be big in size and access opportunity. In eastern Montana, near Sidney, the Seven Sisters (1,500 acres) and Elk Island (1,000 acres) are pheasant worthy. The Glasgow-to-Havre Hi-Line run is a good rooster route, with 7 WMA to pick from in a 150-mile stretch. In the central portion of the state, pheasants hang in the willows and grasslands along the Judith River at the 6,660-acre Beckman WMA.
It would take a few light years to traverse the access we’ve covered to this point, but another option that can serve up Montana roosters are Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
tracts. If you love western prairie, there are millions of acres of BLM grassland and rangeland in eastern Montana. Earlier this century, Pheasants Forever and BLM successfully partnered to improve public ground near Billings - areas that have good cover but also plenty of hunter coverage. Move away from this population center and BLM lands run the gamut of overgrazed to gamebird meccas. It’s up to the yeoman hunter to find out which.
Maybe it’s the way the acronym rolls off the tongue. More likely, it’s the more than 1 million acres of access. Either way, Kansas’s Walk-In Hunting Access (WIHA
, commonly pronounced Wee-Haa) program has curried favor with a generation of pheasant hunters and can lay a worthy claim as “most popular walk-in program in the country.”
The modern attractiveness to bird hunters is buoyed by the fact that in recent years nearly two-thirds of lands in WIHA have been CRP acres, the nation’s premiere pheasant habitat. More than half of WIHA lands are found in remote western Kansas, which can help hold down hunting pressure, but WIHA areas statewide provide quality habitat and hunting for both pheasant and quail.
While the WIHA program is the bread and butter of Kansas upland access, the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism owns and manages another 300,000 acres for public hunting across the state. The northwest region, roughly north and west of Salina, is home to 16 wildlife areas
, a combination of which could make a dandy upland circuit. Bring your GPS at Glen Elder Wildlife Area, where you can lose yourself amongst 13,200 acres of diverse habitat. The pheasant population at the 6,500-acre Norton Wildlife Area can be good when local weather cooperates, and the nearly 4,200 acres of grasses and brushy draws at the Smoky Hill Wildlife Area are sure to hide pheasants and quail. Another scenic Smoky Hills giant is the Wilson Wildlife Area, which among its habitat suite offers 5,000 acres of rugged native prairie.
In many circles, Colorado’s uplands might not get the same hype as its mile-high mountains, but quality pheasant hunting can be found tucked away in corners of habitat throughout the eastern part of the state. While a majority of Colorado’s flatlands are privately owned, the plains stretching from the Rockies toward Colorado’s border with Kansas and Nebraska are home to a number of state wildlife areas and more than 156,000 acres of private land open for public access through Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Walk-In Access (WIA)
A growing number of those WIA acres are the direct result of a new Pheasants Forever-initiated program called Corners for Conservation (C4C)
, a habitat project agreement that targets the outlying corners of square crop fields irrigated by center-pivot irrigation. Think round peg, square hole, and you’ll get the idea, as these arcs of habitat — C4C acres are planted with a blend of four warm-season grasses and 13 forbs — are the half-dozen or so acres in each corner of a quarter section that lie outside of the water line.
It all started in 2016 when Pheasants Forever teamed up with CPW, NRCS’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, High Plains Land Conservancy and Muley Fanatics Foundation to create a new program in response to declining CRP numbers across Colorado’s primary pheasant range. C4C offered landowner incentives for habitat and public access, and in return pheasants and pheasants hunters are reaping the benefits. The timing couldn’t have been better, either, as Colorado currently has 1.83 million acres of CRP, but upwards of 630,000 of those acres are set to expire in 2020. Through the C4C program’s first three years, more than 300 projects have been completed, with more planned for this fall.
A public-land bird hunter could do some damage in northeastern Colorado running the gauntlet up I-76 as it parallels the South Platte River from Fort Morgan to Galesburg, where more than a dozen State Wildlife Areas (SWAs)
and plenty of C4C project areas are merely a hop, skip and a jump from one another. On the flip side, if guerilla-style running and gunning on smaller tracts doesn’t suit you, head south toward Lamar where the 14,000-acre Queens SWA and the 8,500-acre Two Buttes Reservoir SWA offer a variety of plenty of room to roam. At Two Buttes, the area below the dam is a mosaic of habitat that's rife with trees, ponds, grassy areas and tangled mats of underbrush where not only pheasants, but also bobwhites and scalies, can be found.
Anthony Hauck has hunted wild pheasants on public lands in each of the states covered in this article, which originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Pheasants Forever Journal.