Hunting Nebraska’s Panhandle with the High Plains Chapter of Pheasants Forever
High Plains Chapter President Brad Lines and I could be ‘brothers.’ That’s what hunting does; it turns strangers into friends when they hit the hunting trail together for several days. The challenges and adventures of the field bring people together.
I had never met Lines before traveling to Sidney, Nebraska last November to learn about the chapter’s conservation efforts and do some pheasant hunting in this drought-stricken area. But hunters speak a common language; they share common instincts and passions. The love of the wild outdoors, the chase and our gun dogs often makes for a quick and strong connection. Lines and I still exchange emails about our outdoor pursuits, conservation and lives.
There are elements of danger in hunting, challenges that bring people together. Venturing far afoot in remote country in cold weather in pursuit of the shooting sports can mean trouble if you’re not careful – and even if you are. Of course, most hunters are aware that hunting can be dangerous, in fact, that’s one reason why many of us seek it out. There is a great sense of accomplishment having measured up to the mental and physical challenges of hunting.
Of Sidney’s 6,000 residents, roughly 2,000 work at Cabela’s. Its youthful workforce is reflected in the chapter’s leadership and members. This is no small fact considering one of the biggest challenges facing the future of conservation and hunting is the aging of its participants. Colton Thomas, who volunteers for the chapter’s youth mentor hunt, and Dan Schumacher, banquet chair, are both in their 20s. Thanks guys for stepping up.
The chapter uses Cabela’s support, and that of many other partners, to combat the area’s main challenge to pheasants – exposure to the high plain’s legendary cold, dry, long, windy winters, said 15-year Habitat Chair Galen Wittrock at a get-acquainted dinner. His position with the chapter is a natural fit: he’s assistant manager of the area Natural Resources District (NRD), which often puts him in contact with landowners who may be interested in partnering with the chapter on habitat projects.
“We all live the outdoor life. Cabela’s encourages real world enthusiasts, including doing conservation work in the community,” said chapter Treasurer Will Helm. “And when it comes to taking a day or two to do the chapter’s banquet, it’s no big deal.” (The chapter’s 2013 and 2014 banquets drew over 600 folks. Two years running the chapter has had its largest netting habitat banquets, the largest in the Nebraska Panhandle – Awesome!)
Landowner and chapter member Carter Kokjer is a good example of a Cabela’s man keeping the legend of the hunt alive. He has done a lot of habitat work on his 1,400-acre wheat farm where, in fact, he was our ‘outfitter’ for a day. Kokjer has 250 acres in CRP at $35/acre. He could get $35/acre cash rent for that 250, but then where would the pheasants come from for him and his buddies to chase? As Wind in his Hair said in Dances With Wolves, “good trade.” These are important acres for all wildlife given 97 percent of the state’s land is private.
To help, Colby Kerber, PF’s regional wildlife biologist for western Nebraska, suggested Kokjer enroll in the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Crop Stubble Management (CSM) Wildlife & Water Conservation Program, a partnership with PF and the local Natural Resource Districts which pays $10/acre; with an additional $3/acre available from NRD and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission if landowners allow walk-in public hunting access. In exchange, landowners agree to cut their wheat stubble no shorter than 14 inches and leave it undisturbed from harvest through April. Pheasants will nest in wheat stubble over 14 inches because they feel safe from avian predators. And if that stubble isn’t sprayed during fallow, weeds grow to provide chicks the insects they need. Some 25,000 acres were enrolled in CSM last year, but only about 16,000 were actually enrolled due to the severe drought.
Reap what you sow
There was some easy walking snow on the ground when Kokjer, Lines, Kerber, Burke Radcliffe and I headed out to hunt Kokjer’s place the next morning. It was a perfect morning for chasing roosters – mild temps (10-degrees), no wind and sunny. Right off, some birds flushed from Kokjer’s winter shelterbelts, which consist of six rows of nice weedy cedars next to the warm season grass CRP with clover and alfalfa in between the belt rows for brood cover. That got our attention……..and the dogs’ too. So, we were off to the races, watching the horizon for more color on the wing.
Kokjer said the CRP was actually helped by the 2012-13 drought because it allowed more sunflowers and other forbs to encroach. The chapter helps keep CRP going on the national level by contributing $10,000/year the last two years to PF’s Legislative Action Fund.
“It’s so important to get behind the Farm Bill. We’re very passionate about it,” Lines said. Kerber noted that once CRP becomes more widespread in Nebraska, PF will be ready with a veritable convoy of 60 no-till grassland drills, which were purchased using Nebraska Environmental Trust funds, to do the planting.
We pushed that shelterbelt west and saw a dozen mostly roosters flush long. The snow was covered with tracks. Lines and I winged one bird, but didn’t find it. Not long after, Lines dropped a nice bird with one shot, his smooth-coat wirehair Ava making the retrieve. Next, a group shot brought another bird, Ava closing the deal again.
The dogs soon got hot again with Lines’ other smooth-coat Jade and Kokjer’s golden Molly getting into the action. We chased it a half mile before it broke, Radcliffe doing the honors with a single shot. These Cornhuskers can shoot.
Read the full story in the 2014 Pheasant Hunting Preview issue of the PF Journal. Join or Renew your Pheasants Forever membership today and you’ll receive all five issues of the PF Journal annually.
Story & photos by Mark Herwig, editor of Pheasants Forever’s Journal of Upland Conservation
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