Lots of birds and plenty of opportunity. Seasons that end Jan. 31. If you’re an upland hunter who hasn’t yet been to Nebraska this season, an unforgettable adventure awaits.
How good is the upland bird hunting in Nebraska for 2020? To get the inside scoop HuntStand spoke with the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission—and what we found will make upland hunters everywhere smile. Maybe the best news? There’s still plenty of time for your family and friends to add to your upland memories this season.
Let’s start from the start: What’s the state of upland gamebird populations in Nebraska for 2020—can you offer a brief rundown for the major species?
NE Game & Parks: Upland game bird populations are faring well overall in 2020. According to our July Rural Mail Carrier Survey (RMCS), pheasants were up 5 percent statewide this year, with some very notable increases in some of our core pheasant areas in western Nebraska.
Quail populations are still rebounding from spring 2019, when severe winter weather impacted adult survival. Counts from the 2020 July RMCS and Whistle Count Survey were down slightly compared to 2019, but nesting conditions were good throughout their core range in southeastern and south-central Nebraska this summer, so that has helped our numbers.
Prairie grouse production has been below average two of the last three years, but populations remain strong in the Sandhills, which represents their stronghold in Nebraska; this opportunity is one of our best-kept secrets.
For 2020 the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission is asking hunters to attempt a “Nebraska Upland Slam” which means harvesting four different species of birds: a sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie-chicken, ring-necked pheasant and northern bobwhite quail. What are some details behind this initiative, and what does it mean for hunters and Nebraska?
NE Game & Parks: The Nebraska Upland Slam is in its third year and has been a huge success. It challenges hunters to harvest Nebraska’s four primary upland game bird species in a single season, and we’ve seen it motivate hunters to pursue a mixed upland bag in our state. During the past two seasons, hunters from 22 states have participated in the slam and 262 completed the challenge. New hunters have been encouraged to go afield, with a surprising 212 harvests being the first in someone’s lifetime to harvest that species of upland game bird. To top it off, in a state that’s over 97 percent privately owned, over half of bird harvests occurred on publicly accessible lands. For more info about the slam click here.
Let’s talk about public hunting opportunities: What are three tips to increase success for upland hunters concentrating on public lands?
NE Game & Parks:
Do your homework and know where the birds are. Be familiar with Nebraska’s upland game bird distribution. Check out the 2020-2021 Upland Game Bird Hunting Outlook beforehand. Don’t head to an area that ranked low on the Outlook expecting to get into high numbers of birds. The Outlook along with other helpful species distribution information is found here.
Get off the beaten path. Although Nebraska has over 1.2 million acres of publicly accessible lands, not all these lands receive an equal number of hunters. Consider heading to regions of the state that are a further drive from higher-population centers. If hunting in western Nebraska, grab a copy of the Stubble Access Guide or check out these sites online—there are over 40,000 acres of tall wheat and milo that don’t receive quite as much hunting pressure as sites published in our regular atlas.
Use online resources to plan. We have the Public Access Atlas—which displays the 1.2 million acres of public lands—available in several different formats on our website. The interactive map is a great scouting tool allowing you to look at public access boundaries and aerial imagery at the same time. For example, this is useful to identify woody cover or where productive edge habitat might be for quail hunting. The atlas changes each year so it’s to a hunter’s benefit to look for new sites each year.
How about some tips for introducing youngsters to upland hunting—does a particular species or state area (less-challenging terrain?) offer better opportunities for a successful first trip?
NE Game & Parks: The best suggestion here would be to check out our upland hunting page and click on the “Youth Hunts” banner. The statewide Youth Pheasant, Quail, and Partridge season occurs a week before the regular season opener and allows youth a chance to get out there and chase birds before the adults do. Pen-reared pheasants are also released on some public lands for this season and again before Thanksgiving, and this can offer an easier introductory hunt. There are also a handful of youth-specific sites that can be reserved ahead of time online through our Passing Along The Heritage (PATH) program. A final tip is to choose a day with warmer temperatures and try to scout out the site ahead of time to maximize experiences afield for youngsters.
What types of trip-planning resources do you offer out-of-state upland hunters?
NE Game & Parks: A one-stop shop would be our upland hunting webpage found here. This page also showcases our popular “Trip Planners,” specific to Pheasant, Quail, Prairie Grouse, and an Upland Mixed-Bag hunt.
For out-of-state hunters, what is a Top 5 list of worthwhile side trips to add spice to a trip?
NE Game & Parks:
Fish Sandhills lakes while pursuing prairie grouse. These clear lakes can offer top-notch opportunities and oftentimes are underutilized.
Dove hunt while you prairie grouse hunt. Both have Sept. 1 openers and certain areas of the state have good opportunities for both species, while others have dove food plot plantings nearby to grouse access.
Combine a pheasant or quail hunt with fall turkey or deer hunting possibilities. Nebraska offers the best turkey hunting opportunities in the nation with over-the-counter permits. Many deer seasons (archery, rifle, muzzleloader) all overlap with upland bird seasons. Some permits are by draw, but others can be purchased over the counter.
Bring a youth along. There’s nothing quite like passing along hunting traditions to the next generation. We have discounted small game permits for youth under 16 and deer and turkey permits for only $8.
Check out a State Park or State Historical Park. These areas offer scenic views, places to stay, historical treasures, and much more to add some extra fun to a Nebraska trip. What are the popular trends in lodging for Nebraska upland hunters and why?
NE Game & Parks: Early season grouse hunters often capitalize on camping opportunities on certain types of federal lands. While camping is still possible during early pheasant and quail seasons, local hotels and motels welcome hunters (and are dog-friendly) in many small to mid-sized communities. Consider a stay at one of our State Parks or State Recreation Areas.Any special state info/updates on dealing with COVID-19?
NE Game & Parks: There are no special restrictions for upland hunters this year. General reminders are to maintain social distancing, utilize hand sanitizer and practice handwashing as well as wear face masks as desired or as required by some municipalities. Respect the wishes of other hunters in the field and err on the side of caution. Keep an eye on the news, as things are always changing in these uncertain times.Lots of upland hunters focus on the season openers but the seasons are long; what about late-season opportunities? Any tips/info for those who focus on the latter stages of the seasons?
NE Game & Parks: Upland seasons for pheasant, quail, and prairie grouse run through Jan. 31, 2021. Hunter use is always highest during the first week or two of each season (prairie grouse and pheasant/quail). During the late season, hunters typically find more solitude, more crops harvested, and snow cover can provide some excellent pheasant/quail hunting opportunities. Like many hunters, traveling uplanders have a wide variety of states from which to choose; why should that state be Nebraska in 2020/21?
NE Game & Parks:
Nebraska offers a long season, and an annual permit allows you to hunt all of it. Yes, you need a new permit to hunt January 1-31, 2021, but you can use that permit again next fall.
Nebraska offers a variety of opportunities for a mix of birds depending where you are in the state, and you can mix up your game bag with other hunting opportunities as well.
Abundant public access. Hunters can find about 1.2 million acres throughout the state. In recent years, Nebraska’s “walk-in” program, Open Fields and Waters (OFW), has grown substantially. Current enrollment is greater than 350,000 acres (an all-time high) which helps make that 1.2 million acre total that is appealing to hunters statewide.