Finding a good area to hunt on public land can be very challenging. Where I live there is a lot of public land around (mostly national forest), but the closest spots to hunt are at least an hour away. It is easy to end up going back to the same spot over and over because it is a gamble to spend your hunting day checking out someplace new. But that is what I decided to do this week.
This week I went to the Pawnee National Grasslands up in northeast Colorado. The drive from Boulder took about two hours, but I kept passing prairie dog colonies and great looking rabbit country, so I was excited to get there. Unfortunately, my experience on the grasslands was not so good.
What shows up as a huge block of public land on every map that I looked at turned out to be a complex quilt of public and private with no clear delineations of the two. I spent my first hour and a half there just trying to find a piece of land that I was pretty confident was public. Not how I wanted to start my hunting day.
I was feeling pretty good once I found a piece of land to hunt. I passed massive herd of pronghorn on my way to this spot. They aren’t in season right now, but they were close enough that I could easily have taken one. I made a mental note to look into pronghorn tags for next season.
I have never hunted on the plains before. That was a big part of why I was excited about coming to the grasslands. I had just purchased a little shooting rest and I was hoping to try it out on some long-range shots. But all of my hunting experience has been in the forest, a place that obviously has different tactics.
I started off with a good wander around the rolling shortgrass prairie. It was the middle of the day, so I didn’t expect to find much and thought my time would be better used in scouting before the critters came back out in the evening. My instincts told me that if there were rabbits around they would probably use the bottoms of the drains for cover. There was very little in the way of brush anywhere, so the only real cover was afforded by the topography. Sure enough, down in the sandy bottoms there were tons of tracks–rabbits, coyotes, two of the top species I expected to see here.
I scouted farther out. I found tons of burrows, some in the eroded cutbanks of the draws, others just out in the middle of it all. I made note of one burrow in particular: there was a patch of snow just in front of it with fresh rabbit tracks. It can be difficult to tell if a burrow is in use, but this was a sure sign. I’d definitely come back to this one later. I continued to wander and glass for prairie dog colonies, but all I found was that same herd of pronghorn.
As the day drew on and sunset neared, I returned to that occupied burrow. I found a position about fifty yards away, on a small rise, where I could see the entire cutbank as well as north up the draw. I laid out my backpack and binoculars and then set up my prone shooting position, my rifle propped on my new shooting rest. And I waited.
I spent the majority of that time second-guessing myself. Yes, I knew that there were a handful of burrows over there, and I knew that as least one recently had a rabbit hop into it. Pretty good odds that there was at least one rabbit around. But was the position I’d chosen any good? I was in a relatively flat area on a pretty small rise. Sure, I had a good view up the draw, but I couldn’t From one of those ridges I could cover a much larger area. There were tracks up there as well. I had no way of telling how old they were, but there were tracks. After an hour of this sort of thinking I gave up on my spot and climbed back toward the car.
Atop this ridge I again set up my shooting position. I again laid down and picked up my binoculars. I again waited and second-guessed. Sunset a only an hour away, maybe I should’ve stayed in that spot where I had the highest certainty of the existence of a rabbit. Sure, I could see a larger area here, but I had no idea when the last time a rabbit came through here was.
As you might guess, I again didn’t see anything. All told I split about six hours between walking and glassing these draws. I saw lots of sign and felt like I’d found a good spot. But at the end of the day I didn’t see a single critter. I spent the day following my instincts and making the best decisions I could based on my experience and knowledge, and I failed completely.
That is the biggest challenge for me with hunting. I read a lot about it, I study the landscape, but there is just so much information to process. Every species is different, every ecosystem is different, every time of year and temperature and weather is different. Most days I must face down a great deal of doubt, sometimes coming home with a bit of meat, other times no.
But I can say with certainty that no day in the field is wasted. This was not my best hunt. I didn’t even manage to lay eyes on the critters I was looking for. But I came home with tons of new knowledge. I visited a part of Colorado that I’d never seen. I discovered that the Pawnee Grasslands were not the huge swath of public land that I had thought, but I did find a large area within them that I could hunt. And I learned a bit about the habits of rabbits and coyotes in the plains.
It wasn’t the day that I’d hoped for, but it wasn’t a wasted day either. Next time I’ll come with more experience, more knowledge, and slightly better odds.