Rivers of Opportunity November offers more than just deer hunting | By Bob Butz Whenever I recall memories of my best days afield, there always seems to be a river in the scene. Like that day on the Platte-the one up in northern Michigan, just outside of Honor. It’s a respectable trout stream for most of the year, but after Halloween it’s all about steelhead and salmon. I’d put off fishing for them during the peak of the fall run in September, preferring instead to wait until around Thanksgiving after the crowds have headed off to deer camp and an angler can pretty much expect to have the Platte-and the Betsy and the Manistee-all to himself.
That particular day I was up to my waist in a freak late-season run of Cohos, casting an Egg-Sucking Leech.
I started catching the silver beauties just as it began to snow. It was a soft storm dropping downy flakes as big as pillows, a classic North Woods river scene almost cathedral in its beauty. I still get all sappy thinking about it.
Another year, after failing for the umpteenth time to draw one of those coveted Iowa nonresident deer licenses, I decided to head down that way and hunt pheasants instead. My first stop was a lark-Oskaloosa-an obscure little town in the southeast and home to a bowhunting buddy of mine. He doesn’t mess around with the birds, but figured there might be some down along the Skunk River, so I commenced with the drudgery of knocking on farmhouse doors.
I can always put on a good face for a landowner, but past experience when asking permission to hunt in well-known pheasant-hunting towns has taught me it’s mostly a waste of time. Farmers in pheasant country tend to get hounded so mercilessly by an annual parade of trigger-happy high-rollers rumbling around in shiny SUVs that they often get hardened to the point of rudeness to all comers. But in Oskaloosa out-of-staters were still a novelty, which probably had a lot to do with why every farmer I asked not only gave me a kindly go-ahead but even pointed me in the direction of the river bottom where they’d been seeing the birds.
When it comes to great hunting destinations, I find myself remembering the rivers better than I can recall the names of towns. Like in northwestern Nebraska and the country forming the headwaters of the White and Niobrara rivers. Nebraska, one of the most bowhunter-friendly states, offers antelope and deer (whitetail and muley) tags over the counter. In the west, the best November hunting is found in the Sands Hills, Pine Ridge and Oglala National Grassland. Along the Pine Ridge, where antelope can often be found lounging at midday on the edge of the prairie in the shade of the Ponderosa pines, you can find all three big-game species within sight of the stone monument at War Bonnet Battlefield.
[pagebreak] Fowl Waters
To North Dakotans, “East River” refers not to a specific waterway but to all the territory east of the Missouri River. Come November this is about the best destination in the world if, instead of deer camp, late-season waterfowl consumes your mind. Pelican, Stump and Devils lakes get all the press when it comes to diver hunting. But we’re talking greenheads. Clouds of them. Used to be the open water of the Missouri was the only place you had a shot at November mallards after the first hard freeze. Winter has been later in coming to the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region, with the past few seasons producing good shooting on mallards and Canada geese.
Pike County in Illinois is not only one of the most likely places in the state to shoot a record buck (clients hunting the November rut at Harpole’s Heartland Lodge in Nebo took 27 Pope and Young-caliber whitetails in 2003), it’s also a major, though largely unpublicized, hot spot for ducks and geese. Lodged between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, the farm country around Nebo is ddotted with tiny sloughs and soggy-bottom woodlots, a typical black-earth, briar-choked flood plain environ. Forget public land hunting (less than 3 percent of the land in Illinois-basically the Shawnee National Forest in the south-is public). Here, you pay for the ducks like you do the deer.
I passed up a deer hunt at Heartland Lodge a couple of Novembers ago for a less expensive duck hunt that offered the best flooded-timber shooting I’ve seen this side of Stuttgart. For a couple of hours every morning, mallards by the dozens would drop through the treetops along with periodic and strafing swarms of whistling wood ducks. But the best shooting-like most of my best memories-happened on the river itself. Midafternoon found us on the Mississippi, where we gunned for bluebills and goldeneyes from coffinlike layout boats anchored fast in the current at midstream.