Most outdoorsmen dream about that adventure of a lifetime, whether it’s stalking Cape buffalo in the veld of sub-Saharan Africa or going toe-to-toe with trophy tarpon on the Belize flats. But what about targeting giant walleyes in Green Bay in the pitch black of night? Or pass-shooting rocketlike prairie chickens in the Sandhills of Nebraska? Numerous unique and challenging experiences are available throughout the Midwest for anglers and hunters alike.
My friend Dave from Minnesota brought a bunch of his hunting buddies to South Dakota one recent pronghorn season. They went after the antelopes with bows; three-quarters of the party took bucks that contended for spots in the Pope and Young book. Between knocking on doors and hunting public land, they had more land available to them than they could have hunted in an entire season.
While Wyoming leads the nation in terms of pronghorn density (followed by Montana), South Dakota continues to hold a solid third-place standing. The hunt Dave experienced is not uncommon after proper research and planning. The state also offers guaranteed archery pronghorn permits, which you can purchase throughout the season.
South Dakota’s third-place ranking may seem average, but its strong population, guaranteed licenses and abundant public land offer pronghorn bowhunters a solid reason to hunt the state. The majority of the population is found west of the Missouri River, the highest densities in the northwestern and southwestern corners. (These areas border the pronghorn-rich states of Wyoming and Montana, after all.) Research Harding, Butte, Fall River, Perkins, Meade and Pennington counties, but don’t overlook counties with lesser densities, as they also can harbor big bucks.
Winters can take a toll on pronghorns in the northern ranges, but South Dakota has not experienced a severe winter since 1996-97. Since then, the herd has been steadily rebuilding and expanding its range. Annual summer aerial surveys estimate the herd at approximately 40,000 and provide solid data to assist the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks in determining license quotas.
Even though the West is a big place, locating a parcel of land to hunt can still be a tedious and frustrating job. Bowhunters have one advantage: Pronghorns still haven’t gained the big-game notoriety that elk and deer have in most states, and some landowners allow free or cheap access to help control pronghorn numbers on their ranches. Even if you don’t run into a friendly, open-gate landowner, pronghorn-perfect public lands abound and many herds make their homes on these parcels offering guaranteed access. You can base your hunt around public land, then freelance by knocking on doors to acquire an empire of hunting land.
In South Dakota, three major players provide public-land access: the South Dakota DGFP, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service. Don’t let the word “forest” fool you. The NFS also administers the National Grasslands; three major ranges are located in the state. The 200,000-acre Grand River National Grassland is located in the northwestern corner of the state. The Buffalo Gap National Grassland sits in southwestern South Dakota and includes nearly 600,000 acres of land. Finally, the Fort Pierre National Grassland holds 116,000 acres of prairie along the Missouri River in the central region. Each has a stable population of pronghorns and limited roads create safe havens for herds.
Don’t overlook the forest edges, either. The NFS manages two major timbered areas: the Black Hills National Forest and the Custer National Forest. Both areas include fringes of prairie that pronghorn utilize. The Cave Hills and Slim Buttes areas of the Custer National Forest have pronghorns within their boundaries; the edges of the Black Hills National Forest hold antelope as well.
BLM holdings dot western South Dakota. Most of the acres are found in the extreme western and northwestern portions of the state. The BLM manages nearly 280,000 acres in the state. These acres are open to hunting, but a public access route must be used to legally access the land.
Finally, don’t underestimate state-owned or leased property. South Dakota manages nearly 200,000 acres of game-production areas. Several can be found in pronghorn country. The real blessing for pronghorn bowhunters lies in the Walk-In Program. Started in 1988, this program leases private land and opens it up to the public for walk-in hunting. The program currently accounts for more than 900,000 acres, many of them in big blocks in the western part of the state. Past leases have accounted for more than 50,000 acres in one contiguous block.
South Dakota may not be able to compete with Wyoming for pronghorn numbers, but the quality of its bowhunting is second to none. For licensing, hunting information and public land brochures, contact the South Dakota DGFP. –Mark Kayser
When to Go: South Dakota’s pronghorn season typically begins in mid-August and lasts through October.
Contact: National Forest Service, 202-205-8333, www.fs.fed.us; Bureau of Land Management, 202-452-5125, www.blm.gov; S.Dak. DGFP, 605-773-3485, www.state.sd.us/gfp.
And you thought you had to travel all the way to Montana for a true spring-creek trout adventure. Not so. Southwestern Wisconsin, a rolling upland spared by the last great glaciers, abounds with cold spring creeks that flow from nutrient-rich limestone. After decades of silting and degradation, many creeks are being rehabilitated into first-class trout waters. Fishing organizations, including Trout Unlimited, assist the state in revitalizing stream channels and installing lunker structures, which stabilize stream banks and provide critical refuge cover for small-stream trout. Public access is excellent, with many easements across private land and legal wade-fishing on virtually all streams. The picturesque hardwood hills smack of New England, and there are literally hundreds of enchanting valley streams to explore in a dozen counties adjacent to the Mississippi and lower Wisconsin rivers. To get an inkling of what a tremendous concentration of spring creeks this is, check out the maps on pages 18, 22 and 23 of the Wisconsin Trout Fishing Regulations and Guide available from the Wisconsin DNR.
How good is the fishing? Some rehabilitated streams support several thousand wild (not stocked) brown trout per mile. The fishing for adult browns in the 11- to 15-inch class is superb, even by Montana standards, and some bragging-size browns are present. Lately, I’ve been catching fat brook trout, including a few in excess of 15 inches, on a growing number of streams. Most anglers flock to a few well-publicized, special-regulations streams, like the Big Green and Castle Rock near Fennimore and the West Fork of the Kickapoo near Viroqua. My advice is to explore as many streams as possible. Walking your tail off on new water (sometimes miles at a time) will quickly pay dividends. I enjoy great fishing on dozens of uncrowded streams each season. Milwaukee Map Service’s road map of southwestern Wisconsin is invaluable for navigating back roads. You can make your base at one of many affordable motels or quiet campgrounds.
Fishing is catch-and-release with artificial lures and barbless hooks from March through the last Sunday in April. The general season opens the first Saturday in May and runs through September (special regulations apply on some streams). April sees hatches of blue-winged olives, caddis and midges and is prime time for hunting big browns in lower watersheds with streamers, spinners and small crankbaits. May and early June bring pleasant weather and good hatches. Hopper and beetle imitations fish well in July and August, especially on cool headwaters. In September, as streams cool, browns and brookies adopt their spawning hues and move upstream in search of gravel, and the fishing and scenery are excellent.
Vernon County has spring creeks galore. Crawford and Richland counties rank among my favorites, but there are many superb spring creeks for ambitious anglers to explore in neighboring counties. Most streams are within 200 miles of Chicago, the Twin Cities and Milwaukee, making southwestern Wisconsin an exciting and convenient haven for Midwestern trout bums. –Rich Osthoff
When to Go: Wisconsin’s trout season lasts from March through September, but the best fishing is had in the early and later parts of the season.
Contact: Wisconsin DNR, 608-266-2621; Milwaukee Map Service, 800-525-3822.
If the idea of hunting deer in severe, unforgiving terrain makes your knees weak, you may as well turn the page. But for bowhunters unafraid of tough climbs, the hills of southern Missouri and the 6,600 acres known as White Ranch Conservation Area in Howell County present that challenge.
While the state actively manages the White Ranch area by planting small food plots and conducting controlled burns to create edge habitat, big woods comprise most of the area. Wildlife Regional Supervisor Larry Rieken strongly recommends that all hunters carry a GPS unit or compass when hunting White Ranch. The region is laced with countless ridges and drainages, which can cause hunters to loose their bearings.
Additionally, Rieken warns hunters to be physically prepared. White Ranch has a good whitetail population, but the terrain and size of the area makes scouting more difficult than that involved in a typical northern Missouri farm hunt.
Hunters can maximize their scouting efforts by working the crests of ridges. Deer will often frequent higher ground, especially level ridge tops, so they can see approaching threats and line up multiple escape routes.
In addition to offering comfort and safety, ridges usually produce the most reliable mast crops. Late spring frosts, which are common in this part of the state, can damage budding oaks and hickories in low-lying areas.
When scouting ridges, pay special attention to natural funnels. “Deer are efficient in their movements,” explains Rieken. “They will cross at low spots, such as saddles.”
Topographic maps are an excellent tool for locating prime ridges and saddles before you even set foot on the property. Hunters can purchase topo maps from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey and Resource Assessment. For White Ranch hunts, request the Lanton 7.5-minute quad.
With 16 primitive camping sites, you should have no problem finding a suitable place to stay after a day in the White Ranch woods. All sites are accessible by gravel roads that wind through the area. These roads are labeled trails on the Department of Conservation map, but they’re easily navigable and you don’t need a 4×4 to travel them. Access to the White Ranch Conservation Area and its interior roads is provided by State Routes 17 and 142.
Don’t forget your camp stove and an ample amount of water to drink. You can boil water from area streams to wash your pots and pans, but you should pack your drinking water. Fortunately, all of the campsites are located near roads and parking areas so you won’t have to pack supplies too far into the woods.
Lastly, portable tree stands may be left in place between September 15 and January 31; you must identify your stand with your name and address. Of course, the use of nails or other damaging materials is prohibited.
For more information regarding hunting or camping at the White Ranch Conservation Area, contact the Ozark Region of the Missouri Department of Conservation. –Brian Ruzzo
When to Go: Missouri’s archery deer season typically opens in early October and closes in mid-November.
Contact: Missouri DNR, 573-368-2125; Missouri Department of Conservation, Ozark Region, 417-256-7161.
The sun has already slipped behind Henderson Point and rosy mares’ tails sweep up into the darkening blue, but twilight lingers at this latitude. There is ample time to launch your boat and ease into the channel to Rileys Bay. From here, it is a five-minute run to the open waters of Lake Michigan’s Green Bay: Walleye Country.
As it melted, the Wisconsin Glacier filled Green Bay with water and left 80 miles of reefs, rocks and ridges along the Door Peninsula, which juts out into Lake Michigan like a hitchhiker’s thumb. At night in spring and fall, walleyes prowl this structure for smelt, alewives and fingerling yellow perch.
On most nights, you can catch a limit of “eater” walleyes and be in bed before midnight. When the bite is really on, you’ll play catch-and-release all night with big walleyes and greet the dawn exhausted but primed for another go.
Troll with 7-foot, medium-action glass rods rigged with level-wind reels and line counters for precise line control. An 8-inch wire leader will protect your 10-pound-test monofilament line from the sharp-shelled zebra mussels that cling to the rocks. Snap on floating minnowbaits that will dive and hold a steady depth when trolled. Color matters less than presentation; put the baits right in their faces, a foot or so off bottom. A locator will show the reefs and drop-offs that hug virtually the entire Green Bay shoreline. Or use a map to find Larson’s Reef, a series of offshore humps and ridges that stretch from Sherwood Point southwest to Snake Island. Public landings provide access in most villages and harbors.
Troll with the contour in 6 to 9 feet of water, following the breaks, cups and points. With a partner, run lines off either side of the boat and off each transom corner. Run the least-shallow line 40 feet back; the one just below it at 50 feet; the next, 70 feet; the last, 90. If you let out all four lines at once, they will stay parallel and baits won’t cross as you follow the contour.
When a walleye hits, set the hook, then keep tension on it as you reel down to fighting position. As you bring a walleye up in this clear water, you’ll see its bubble eyes glowing. Don’t shine a light on the fish until it is in the net; direct bright light can cause it to dive, which could break off a short line. After you boat a fish, reel in the rest of your lines and reset them all together as before. It takes coordination and cooperation to pull this off in the dark, but if you know your boat and have a good partner, night-trolling is an exciting and productive way to catch walleyes on Green Bay.
A few precautions are in order when venturing out onto big water at night. Get a marine weather forecast before you launch. Don’t go out if a storm threatens and don’t go out alone. Tell someone where you are going, and carry a cell phone. Take a GPS reading of the landing when you launch, since every mile of shoreline looks the same in the dark. Get on the water before nightfall to locate reefs and other structure. To avoid mishaps, stow all baits, rods and other gear not in use. A compass and spotlight help deal with fog, which is common here. A headlamp frees both hands for handling rods and netting fish. –Dan Small
When to Go: Green Bay’s best night-fishing for walleyes occurs in spring and fall.
Contact: Dale Stroschein, 888-879-5548, www.sandbaybeachresort.com.
They appeared as little more than dots at first, flecks of black riding the waves just above the sea of grass that is north-central Nebraska’s Sandhills Country. Slowly, and then more quickly, the pepper-specks grew. Finally, we could make out definite shapes. Bird shapes.
“Don’t move,” hissed John, our young guide and host. He was lying to my left, covered in corn stubble. “You make the call, but don’t move until you’re ready.”
In front of us, stubby yet obviously strong wings sculled the dozen or more pheasant-sized birds closer. Beside me, our black Lab, Maggie, whined. “Easy, Maggie,” I whispered. “Easy…easy…now!”
At my elbow, I sensed my wife, Julie, rise, her shotgun already at her shoulder. Mounting my own gun, I picked a drab brown bird at the tail end of the group. Glimpsing daylight between my target and the front bead, I slapped the trigger. A bird some 4 feet to the rear of my intended target crumpled. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one bird at the head of the flock puff and sag. A split second later, my brain registered the roar from Julie’s muzzle.
As abruptly as it all happened, it ended. Always on her game, Maggie was already out from underneath her pile of stalks and was nosing the ground for the first bird. “I’ve got mine marked down,” said Julie, a grin splitting her face from ear to ear.
“Well,” asked our young guide, himself smiling wide. “What do you think about this pass-shooting prairie chickens thing?” Finally, it was my turn to flash a smile.
For those who haven’t had the experience, an afternoon spent huddled in the Nebraska corn stubble waiting out the evening flights of prairie chickens is a tough time to beat. This particular hunt took place in early November, but this unique type of upland hunt, more reminiscent of waterfowling than grousing, only heats up as the temperature falls.
“Grouse–chickens and sharptails both–love the bugs they find up in the hills,” says Delten Rhoades, owner and operator of Sandhills Adventures guide service, based in Brewster. “But once the weather turns cold, these birds don’t have any choice but to come down to this cornfield or these center pivots. And that’s really when the pass-shooting gets good.”
Chickens, Rhoades continued, are extremely predictable from a time standpoint. Pass-shooters typically have opportunities in the morning, often between 8 and 9 a.m., and get a second chance in the evening from 4 p.m. until just before sunset. Most of Rhoades’ pass-shooting is done in and around a local cornfield. While camouflage verging on the invisible isn’t an absolute necessity, a camo pattern heavy on tans and browns can certainly help hide hunters from these sharp-eyed prairie grouse.
But pass-shooting isn’t the only way to fill a three-bird daily bag of Sandhills prairie grouse. Traditionalists, among whom I must count myself, can still walk off as much boot sole material as they wish in search of birds around the Brewster area. And should you tire of chickens or sharpies, the Sandhills area (and Sandhills Adventures) offers excellent pheasant-hunting opportunities. –M.D. Johnson
When to Go: Traditionally, the Sandhills grouse season opens the second Saturday in September and runs through the end of the year. Ringnecks, both wild and liberated, can be hunted on lands enrolled in Delten Rhoades’ preserve program from September 1 until March 31.
Contact: Sandhills Adventures, 888-462-4868, www.sandhills-adventures.com.
For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/regional