By Chad Love
The epiphany, such as it was, came as my hunting partner and I were trudging back to the truck after a long, lung-busting hunt pursuing sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens on the 116,000-acre Samuel McKelvie National Forest, in north-central Nebraska.
After topping another of the giant, undulating grass-covered hills that give the region its name, we paused to catch our breath and give the dogs some water. As we looked out across the vast, largely unpeopled swath of land, my partner turned and said, “You know, this country doesn’t necessarily make you feel lonely, but it does make you feel damn insignificant, doesn’t it?”
That sentiment pretty much sums up the experience of hunting in the Nebraska Sandhills. This immense, wide-open region of north-central Nebraska is one of the world’s great grassland ecosystems and a true ecological treasure. More important, it offers fantastic and largely underutilized wingshooting on hundreds of square miles of public land.
Where to Hunt
There are four tracts of federal public land in the Sandhills region: the 116,000-acre Samuel McKelvie National Forest and 72,000-acre Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, in the north; the 90,000-acre Nebraska National Forest, in the central part of the state; and the 45,000-acre Crescent Lake NWR, on the western periphery of the Sandhills. All of them offer quality hunting for prairie grouse and, depending on the area, pheasants, waterfowl and bobwhite quail.
In addition, although technically not located within the Sandhills, the 94,000-acre Oglala National Grasslands and the 52,000-acre western section of the Nebraska National Forest, both in the far northwestern part of the state, offer even more federal lands for the itinerant hunter.
There are also a number of small state-owned wildlife areas where hunting is allowed. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission website lists all open areas.
What to hunt
This is big, open and largely treeless country, and the majority of the upland hunting is for prairie grouse. However, there are huntable numbers of bobwhite quail in the Halsey area, and pheasants will be found along riparian corridors and near ag fields. The Sandhills region is also rich in surface water bubbling up from the Ogallala Aquifer, and waterfowl hunting can be fantastic.
But out in the sandhills, the sharptail and greater prairie chicken are king, and you best be prepared to walk for them. This is physical hunting, with a lot of elevation change over the course of a day. Make sure your boots fit well, and bring plenty of water for you and your dogs.
Also pay attention to where you park. It is easy to get turned around in those hills, and the use of GPS or a compass is highly recommended. Roads range from adequate to travel-at-your-own-risk, so it’s best to keep your gas tank full, your spare tire inflated and some recovery tools in your truck. Maps of the areas are available, as is information about road conditions.
Splendid isolation, glorious scenery and tough-but-rewarding bird hunting all on land you and I own. The Nebraska Sandhills are a long way from everywhere but worth getting to from anywhere.