I only became aware of Colorado’s State Wildlife Areas a couple weeks ago. I’ve lived in this state for close to five years, but I have done all my hunting on State Parks and National Forests. Both of these are primarily up in the mountains, so I hadn’t really found good hunting areas on the plains. But it turns out we have them in spades.
In Colorado there are both State Wildlife Areas and State Trust Lands available to public access. Some of these properties require reservations, but the majority seem to be open to hunters most of the time. The state has put together an interactive map that helps you find state lands near you available for hunting, with a bit of information on what opportunities exist in each and any specifics you might need to know about access.
Out on the plains these SWAs make up the majority of the public land available to hunting. This year I have a small game license and no duck stamp, so I headed out to cruise a few of these properties for rabbits and squirrels. I started with Brower SWA, just outside Greeley. According to the state’s website, Brower SWA is 102 acres and affords opportunities to hunt Dove, Rabbit, Squirrel, and Waterfowl.
On my way to my car I saw the first cottontail of the day. It sat at the edge of the driveway serenely nibbling, secure in its urban environment. This must be a good omen, I thought. I have been frustrated in my last few attempts at rabbits, so I took this omen to heart. Already I had seen a rabbit. It was still very dark, I was an hour from my hunting spot and more than that until legal hunting hours, but today there would be rabbits.
The parking lot was nearly full of trucks when I got there, something I had not expected for a weekday. I wiped the sleep from my eyes, grabbed my .22, and started off into the woods. About five steps out of the parking lot I flushed a cottontail. It was 45 minutes to sunrise, quite dark, and still illegal to shoot. Beyond that, I was on a new piece of land that contained a whole bunch of other hunters, and I had no idea where the land went or where they might be hiding. Better wait until I have my bearings before I start shooting anything.
I kept walking as twilight slowly brightened. I walked through the riparian forest. The ground had a smattering of snow–patches here and there, all of them covered in rabbit tracks. I checked my watch–still tem minutes to legal hunting. My pause unnerved a nearby rabbit and it tore off along the forest floor and into a dense thicket. Well, I thought, two rabbits already. Maybe I ought to sit tight until it is legal to shoot, and then I’ll rustle up a couple more.
Those were the last rabbits I saw that day.
I still-hunted my way around the entire property, getting my bearings, and didn’t see any other critters. The waterfowlers didn’t seem to be having much better luck. I heard a few shots, but they must have been taken entirely on hope, as the geese were much too far away, and continued their flight without concern.
Around nine I walked back to my car and left. I cruised around the countryside and checked out a couple other nearby SWAs. This whole area is new to me, and I picked up some great intel about which ones I might come back to and why. The website theoretically lists the hunting opportunities available at each SWA, but nothing equals actually ground-truthing and putting eyes on a piece of land. I am no expert, but I can make a pretty good guess about where I will and will not find rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, etc.
When I returned to Brower in the early afternoon there was only one truck left in the parking lot. The morning crowd had cleared out and left nearly the whole place to me, the one person out there not trying to shoot geese.
I walked the path slowly, pausing every three or four steps to look around and listen for any movement. About halfway to the back of the property there was a flurry of movement ahead of me–two big fox squirrels chasing each other around right on the fence line.
I walked quickly and quietly toward them, moving smoothly and stepping lightly and silently on the worn dirt path. They broke off in different directions, one of them running out east onto private land, the other climbing into a small tree on the riverbank. He stopped in a crook near the base of the tree, but I didn’t have a shot, so I crept closer. He noticed me and put the bole between us. It was, however, not wide enough to fully obscure his body, so I moved quietly around, hoping to surprise him as I came around and either get a quick shot or force him to run somewhere where he couldn’t hide so well.
We kept at this for a while–I would creep to where I could see him and he would scramble around and again put the tree trunk between us. He didn’t seem to think that he could make a run for it, so I was beginning to feel pretty sure of myself. There was a little flicker of movement down the trail. I turned to look. A nice, fat fox squirrel sat staring at me from a stump just down the trail. This one I had a shot on. I turned to him and steadied my rifle, but I couldn’t shoot. There was only one truck in the lot, and I had spotted those guys hanging out well behind me and down by the water, but this stump was still right along a path and it had too much brush behind it for me to be able to see if anyone was down there. It just didn’t feel like a good shot. He made use of my hesitation and disappeared around the bend. I turned to find my original quarry, but he too had gone. There’s a lesson there–don’t take your eyes off a good thing for something flashy. I’d been greedy and assumed the first would stay put while I shot the second. Instead they bamboozled me and both took off to freedom.
I spent the rest of the day working the back half of the property, keeping a distance from the other hunters to keep from disturbing their hunt. That same piece of path was where I found them every time. If I left for ten minutes or so, they’d come back out. The first one I spotted jumping through the branches of a huge tree just inside the property boundary. He stopped when he spotted me, and I crept closer without taking my eyes off him. I settled him in the middle of my crosshairs and squeezed the trigger.
He fell immediately, and I assumed it was a good shot. He slid down into a crook about twelve feet off the ground. As I came around the tree I could see a splatter of blood on the leaves–all good signs. But as I approached he let out a loud bark and took off back up the tree, his right arm hanging limply. I tried to get a second shot off, but he was too quick. He disappeared.
It is a terrible feeling maiming an animal like that. If my shot had been a little truer he’s be in my game bag and I could say my thanks for the meat. Instead I sat below the tree and waited for half an hour hoping that he’d pop out again and let me finish the job. But this wasn’t one of those times.
There were a few hours left in the day and I kept hunting with the same strategy, though a certain pall was cast on things now. That same tree produced another fox squirrel about an hour later, and this time I got it.
The sunset over the river was beautiful, and I was able to fully appreciate it with a little bit of meat in my game bag. There are lessons to be learned from each day out. This day I was reminded about patience and care. It can be hard to differentiate the line between care and luck–I wasn’t rash with my shooting and I put the shot within an inch or so of where it needed to be, but obviously I could have done better. Some days are sure to go like that, no one is perfect, but it is important to let these memories guide us.