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Use it or lose it. A follower pointed this out recently, as yet another reason to spend time and effort exploring those private lands enrolled in states’ walk-in hunting access programs. But there are plenty more, including price (free), availability (millions of acres), habitat (some good, some not), and sometimes, less competition from others than on “public” land.
Those topics will have to wait, because this essay is about exploiting these treasure-troves to ensure your success. Here are ten tips on making the most of “walk-in” land.
1. Plan ahead. Most states publish hard copy booklets and online versions of their maps in about August, once all the rental deals with land owners are consummated. Google “walk-in hunting (state)” and you’ll likely find the page.
2. Many states publish updates as the season opens, so double-check.
3. Spend considerable time studying those maps in relation to your potential “home base.” You might consider choosing your HQ based on the concentration of walk-in areas. Study Google Earth too, for a better feel for the lay of the land, terrain, crops and cover.
4. Call the state agency that administers the walk-in program and talk with the local biologist in your chosen area. They might clue you in to the better areas, time of year to hunt each, and current conditions (burns, harvest, snow cover).
5. Scout early, if you can. Nothing beats boots on the ground. I’ve avoided flooded fields and unharvested crops (access prohibited until completed) simply by driving past some areas the day prior. Seek out alternate parking areas unless restricted.
6. Pick nearby alternate areas. If someone beats you to the area you have somewhere else to go. One spot doesn’t play out, go to the next. More time hunting, less time driving.
7. Phone the landowner or sign in as required. In some states, that’s how they are compensated for use of their land.
8. Start your hunt close to the edges. Often, crops are adjacent and game birds will likely spend some time there. You might ambush them coming or going. If you bust birds, they will more than likely fly into your hunting area, not out.
9. Be mindful of ammo restrictions. Sometimes, you’re hunting waterfowl country and may need non-toxic shot.
10. Choose the road less traveled. Find the marginal cover – most hunters won’t bother working that hard. Thickets, tree rows, lighter cover, swampy stuff … birds are often pushed into that stuff by other hunters.
11. Go later in the day and season. Most hunters are home by early afternoon – and once the snow flies. The golden hours prior to sunset can be very productive. Give covey birds time to re-gather for the night, or you may not find any next season.
Privately-owned open-to-the-public real estate is a big part of the land inventory hunters enjoy. The bureaucrats who administer it track usage, and make many of their decisions based on it. Take advantage, be respectful, be safe, and good luck!
When you go:
  • Take that hard copy of the hunting atlas just in case you don’t have cell service.
  • Fill up your gas tank at every chance. Don’t ask why I know how important this is.
  • Order your dog food here – you may not be able to find it in a small, rural town.
  • Get the OnX chip for the U.S. or your chosen state.

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Who can argue with giving thanks all year round? But this is the time of year when it comes to the fore. If you need motivation, consider that gratitude has direct, personal benefits including better physical and psychological health, reduced aggression, and higher quality sleep. (I have yet to find any data suggesting it will help my shooting, but still searching.)

We’re lucky – every day, we play with dogs and walk around in beautiful places, often with good friends and family. So, considering what we do for fun, what are you grateful for?

(And if you’re willing to share, I’m doing a special Thanksgiving Upland Nation podcast on the topic featuring your calls. Send me an email with your phone number – I’ll be reaching out on Tuesday, Nov. 26 from 5-6 p.m. Pacific time and will put the podcast up on Thanksgiving Day.)

Your gratitude could be for a loyal dog, new hunting partner, even being able to walk the fields, considering your knees (hah!). Just recapping my last week I have plenty – maybe it’ll help you get started:

– A week of walk-in hunting in Kansas, where the birds were not exactly blackening the sky, but were plentiful enough to keep men and dogs occupied. The communities we visited were full of welcoming people with deserved pride in their community – I’d share a Thanksgiving table with any of them.

– Flick kept his weight on – a rare occurrence in a wired-for-hunting Type A dog. Usually, a long day in the field and you can count his ribs from 50 yards. (Wish it was that easy for me!) I used every trick in the book on this picky eater, with hotel “free breakfast” deals the clincher. Scrambled eggs are now his favorite kibble enhancer.

– Careful preparation also kept Flick’s feet healthy. Check me, veterinarians: soft, flexible pads handle rocks and rough country better than hard ones – fewer cracks and less peeling. A product called “Pad Heal” was the ticket, easy to apply with a brush (Flick thinks every spray bottle contains a hissing rattlesnake).

– Our training is about where I would expect for Flick’s age and my woefully-inadequate “expertise.” His retrieving is not polished, but at least shot birds were delivered “to foot.”

– We dodged dicey weather, too. Yucky stuff surrounded every hunting/TV day but on the days we needed it, the sun shone.

Now it’s your turn. What are you thankful for? Keep it within the hunting/dog sphere (save the rest for around the table on Thanksgiving Day). Comment below and on the special Thanksgiving podcast – email me with your number here, and stand by between 5-6 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday Nov. 26. Then, listen starting at noon on Thanksgiving Day, here.

Oh, and thanks.

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It’s the meat of the season here. Whether yours is just starting or well underway, maybe you can relate to a brief accounting of mine, so far.

It’s been a fall chock-full of what defines “why we hunt” in every survey I’ve ever asked you to respond to. Sure, birds and plenty of them. But so much more.

One hunting friend is a big fan of the mobile app OnX Hunts, marking everything from elk wallows to covey flushes and shot birds. He also marks what OnX calls “Sasquatches.” Those are spots on the map that look tempting from behind the wheel at 80 miles an hour, that bear further inquiry. I’ve been in search of my own Sasquatches all season, purposely avoiding tried-and-true honey holes for new adventure. I’ve found prospectors’ cabins, oases in the desert, chukars on level ground, buckaroos’ willow corrals, in stark landscapes where Natives have trod for centuries – and still do periodically (did I mention the pictographs?). It’s working for me – how about you?

Killing birds and eating them? A fantastic culmination to the hunt. But between the packing and the unpacking, there’s the people. Stars aligned on every trip so far, where I’ve made new friends, re-acquainted with old ones, and met some memorable characters. Each has enriched my life – are you keeping your eyes open for those kind of opportunities?

“Carpe’ diem” is Latin for “seize the day.” But even on a long-distance, well-planned excursion (add TV crew and it’s almost like moving an army), there is room for spontaneity. A brief stop, longer conversation with someone at a gas station, buying a beer for the guy on the next stool … you never know what will come of it. New hunting spot, access to private ground, unfamiliar dog breed, all have come from having no expectation but for a little fellowship.

Strong bird populations in many places are a pleasant surprise. Most stunning has been the number of Huns in hardscrabble places that are more akin to rattlesnake habitat.

Two-year-old Flick has also dazzled me well beyond his age and abilities. I won’t take most of the credit, but his training apparently “took.” Long, steady points, retrieves to foot (versus “to hand” – we’re not quite test-worthy), stunning endurance, and even a water retrieve on camera. As Wayne and Garth said “I’m not worthy.”

People, places, a good dog and a few birds. What else is there to life? You tell me!

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