Photo by Shane Simpson
A flock of prairie gobblers congregate in a south-central Nebraska cattle pasture.
Follow the Cornhusker Feather Trail
Nebraska holds endless options for filling turkey tags.
by Josh Dahlke
From the Missouri River to Pine Ridge, Nebraska is for the birds. Half the battle of bagging one is deciding where you want to go and how you want to get it done.
Deciding on your Nebraska turkey trek
First, decide if you’re seeking a do-it-yourself adventure or a more relaxed endeavor with an outfitter.
There’s plenty of public land to consider for a DIY gobbler pursuit in Nebraska, but it’s possible to hunt private land without spending a dime. If you’re willing to be polite, knock on doors and shake off streaks of rejection, it’s only a matter of time until you’re given the keys to a turkey gold mine.
Many Nebraska ranchers and farmers view turkeys as a nuisance. If not properly managed, the birds have been known to consume crop seeds, destroy hay bales and more. Friendly conversation with locals at a café or tavern can often go a long way. Once you establish a relationship, play your cards right and you might end up with a lifetime of awesome land access.
Turkey hunting with an outfitter has its benefits, too. If you’re on a limited schedule and don’t have much time for scouting, a reliable guide should be able to put you on birds. Search the Internet for “Nebraska turkey hunting outfitters” or scan through a reputable directory like www.outfittersrating.com. NWTF members also can take advantage of NWTFOutdoors.com, a free booking service that provides members the best options based on their individual needs and hunting styles.
Here are key areas to target if you’re hoping to tag a longbeard in Nebraska, along with insider tips.
In the northwestern corner of Nebraska’s panhandle is a 100-mile-long stretch of breathtaking terrain known as Pine Ridge. The hills are dotted with ponderosa pines and reach elevations up to 5,000 feet. Pinched between the rugged slopes are picturesque valleys and abundant wildlife. This is where the resurgence of wild turkeys began in Nebraska, with the successful introduction of the Merriam’s subspecies.
There are several public parcels at your disposal, including wildlife management areas, national forest lands and state parks.
Consider Fort Robinson State Park. This 21,500-acre piece is rich not only with turkeys but also with intriguing American history. The fort was used by the military dating back to the late 1800s, starting as a camp adjacent to one of the country’s first Native American reservations. It’s where Crazy Horse was killed, where some of the first Buffalo Soldiers were stationed and where German prisoners of war here held. Fort Robinson was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
Today, Fort Robinson is operated primarily by Nebraska Game and Parks, and it’s a perfect place to set up shop for a Pine Ridge turkey hunt. Stay in one of the cabins for about $120 per night. The cabins sleep six to eight hunters and come equipped with a bathroom and fully furnished kitchen. If you’re only traveling with one hunting buddy, rent a lodge room attached to the main park building for about $50 per night. It’s a basic option with two beds and a bathroom and doesn’t offer a kitchen or cold-food storage. Bring a cooler full of snacks and sandwiches or plan to travel 3 miles into Crawford to eat.
If you’re on a budget, the fort offers campsites for about $12 per night.
Buy your turkey hunting permits at Fort Robinson’s main office or online before the hunt. A Nebraska turkey hunter can purchase up to three spring turkey permits (residents: $23 each; nonresidents: $90 each). Any resident hunter age 16 or older and all nonresidents must also purchase a habitat stamp ($20). You’re allowed to harvest one male or female bearded turkey per permit with a bow (including crossbows) or shotgun. You can purchase all three tags at once, and you’re allowed to kill all three birds on the same day. Be sure to carefully read current regulations, as hunting laws often change.
To hunt in the park, you’ll also need a special free permit that can be picked up at the main office. You’ll be provided with a map and assigned to one of three hunting areas. Any turkey hunter can get this over-the-counter permit: It’s mainly a way to keep track of hunters in the park. Don’t forget your Nebraska State Park entry permit, which is sold at the Fort’s main office or online.
There are several hunting outfitters in the vicinity of Pine Ridge, but if you’re looking for a low-cost hunt with high populations of birds in the Ponderosas and on rolling pasture land, contact Tony Johnson at One Lazy J Ranch and Outfitter. Book your hunt well in advance.
If your plans take you to Pine Ridge, you should know that a wildfire struck the area in 2012. Fort Robinson wasn’t part of the fire, but more than 60,000 acres of Pine Ridge were engulfed in flames. While the landscape will be altered for years to come, this shouldn’t deter you from going after gobblers.
“Wild turkeys are already using some of the areas that were burned. I personally know of a few birds that were taken this spring in burned areas,” said NWTF Conservation Field Supervisor Jared McJunkin. “Live ponderosa pines, cottonwoods in unburned riparian areas, and even burned tree skeletons are serving as roosting habitat for wild turkeys. Couple the available roosting habitat with the rebounding understory vegetation and these areas can still provide what turkeys need at certain times of the year.”
Photo by Dough Herman
The rolling Sandhills region of north-central Nebraska is packed full of public and private land hunting potential.
“The turkey hunting in Nebraska is phenomenal right now,” said Doug Herman, competition turkey caller and devoted turkey hunter. “I remember the days when it was tough — the days when you were successful if you heard one gobble.”
The Sandhills of north-central Nebraska are Herman’s main stomping grounds and are dominated by rolling grasslands. The infertile sandy soil makes crop farming almost impossible. Instead, you’ll find expansive ranches complete with modern-day cowboys and grazing beef on the hoof. It’s also managed to support a stable population of Merriam’s and hybrid wild turkeys.
“The turkeys hang out in two main types of habitat,” Herman said. “You’ve got groves consisting mainly of cedar and cottonwood trees planted by ranchers as windbreaks to protect cattle and prevent erosion. And then there are canyons with ponderosa pine side-hills and hardwood bottoms.”
Public lands abound in the vast Sandhills. Herman has hunted many of them.
“Almost all public ground consists of national forests, wildlife management areas and state recreation areas,” Herman said. “In Brown County, right along Long Pine Creek, you’ll find Long Pine State Wildlife Management Area and State Recreation Area (214 acres). This is a great place to camp or hook up an RV. Ten or 15 miles straight north is Pine Glen State Wildlife Management Area (960 acres). South of Valentine, you can hunt the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest (115,703 acres). In my experience, the national forests get hunted harder than the state wildlife management areas.”
Turkey hunters from across the country travel to his Cottonwood Hunting Lodge in Wood Lake. Herman and his partner Mark Mundorf offer top-notch turkey hunts on more than 90,000 private acres. They offer three-day, fully-guided Merriam’s turkey hunts in Cherry County. Accommodations include modern lodging with local transportation and home-cooked meals.
“If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money to come hunt with me, it’d better be the experience of a lifetime,” Herman said with a dead-serious tone in his voice. “It’s about quality and not quantity. I’m not interested in killing a bunch of animals. I’m interested in putting big, silly grins on people’s faces.”
Shane Simpson doesn’t get much sleep in the springtime. On top of his deep-rooted dedication to the competition turkey calling circuit, Simpson is just as adamant about putting the hurt on spring gobblers. Each spring, he documents his adventures on camera and shares his videos at CallingAllTurkeys.com.
South-central Nebraska is among the many locations where Simpson goes in pursuit of boss toms. This prairie plains region consists of large agricultural operations and interspersed finger valleys with cottonwood creek bottoms. The birds are typically concentrated along narrow, wooded corridors, making it relatively easy to find flocks. But you’re still not shooting fish in a barrel.
“To me, they’re not as callable as Eastern birds. Your best bet is to pattern the birds on their daily travel routes and get in front of them,” Simpson said. “You’re always in the game when you’re hunting the open country of Nebraska. You can almost always see the birds, but the trick is finding a way to move on them without getting busted.”
Simpson has found success at the 8,494-acre Medicine Creek State Recreation Area and Wildlife Management Area in Cambridge.
For a guided turkey hunt, Simpson puts his stock in Heritage Outfitters, based out of Curtis. With more than 15,000 acres of privately managed property to play with, owner and outfitter Brady Thomas doesn’t typically have trouble putting hunters on birds. Thomas offers three-day hunts, but you’ll need to shack up in Curtis at one of their four lodging options.
Photo by Josh Dahlke
Winnebago Indian Reservation in northeastern Nebraska holds solid numbers of strutters. Secure a turkey tag in the spring lottery, and you’re in for a special experience.
Birds thrive throughout riparian waterways, and the Missouri River — the longest in North America — undoubtedly supports a significant percentage of the country’s wild turkey population. The river meanders from Montana to Missouri, snaking southward in its final stretch as it forges the border between Iowa and Nebraska. In the northeastern corner of the Cornhusker State, along the banks of the Missouri, you’ll find Winnebago Indian Reservation. Composed mainly of mature hardwood ridges and fertile farmland, Winnebago holds hybrid gobblers galore.
The majority of hunters seem to shy away from the prospects of pursuing turkeys on Indian ground. While it requires some time and effort to become familiar with the quirks of hunting in sovereign territory, my Winnebago experience was worthwhile.
The biggest potential roadblock you might encounter when trying to plan a Winnebago turkey hunt is learning the licensing procedure. Because this isn’t a state-run hunt, the Winnebago Tribe determines the rules. So, here’s the deal, based on information for the 2013 spring turkey season.
It’s technically a lottery hunt, and you must submit an application to enter the drawing. I say “technically” because I’ve heard from numerous sources that it’s possible to acquire permits over the counter, but that’s not the “official” operation. The Winnebago permit applications become available sometime around January. Once available, you’ll find the application listed on the Winnebago Wildlife and Parks website.
There are two seasons. The first season usually runs from late March to mid-April, making this one of the earliest seasons to hunt turkeys in the country. Then there’s a one-week break before the second season starts in late April, ending in mid-May. You are required to fill out the application on paper and mail it to the Winnebago Wildlife and Parks office with a $25 money order — no cash or checks are allowed.
In 2013, the applications were due by Feb. 15, and the drawing was held Feb. 18. Results were posted on the Winnebago Wildlife and Parks website soon after the drawing.
If you successfully draw a Winnebago turkey permit, send in another money order for $175 (permit fee) along with $20 for a required habitat stamp. Your permit allows you to harvest two bearded turkeys. You must pick up the permit in person at the Winnebago Wildlife and Parks office. It is also the location where you’re required to register your birds the same day of harvest. The officer on duty will weigh the bird, note its sex and provide you with a transportation band for the leg. Unless you plan to consume the bird while you’re on the reservation, keep in mind state game transportation laws apply once you’re outside of Winnebago’s boundaries.
Winnebago issues about 140 permits for spring turkey season. The reservation covers around 120,000 acres, a great deal of which can be hunted, creating minimal hunting pressure.
Habitat to the east of town consists primarily of mature hardwood ridges. There’s also a mix of leased agricultural fields, concentrated mainly on the bottoms. Birds tend to roost on top of the ridges and travel throughout the woods and fields throughout the day. In addition to a variety of turkey calls, be sure to pack binoculars for long-range glassing and spot-and-stalk opportunities.
West of town, you’ll find expansive agricultural fields. Omaha Creek is lined with cottonwoods and hardwoods. There also are several small hardwood finger ridges and shallow ravines in this area. Much of this land is leased by non-Indian farmers and is off limits to hunting. But remember, it never hurts to knock on a door or two and ask for additional access if you can’t find birds on the reservation blocks.
The nearest lodging off the reservation is in Sioux City, Iowa. I recommend the America’s Best Value Inn. It’s affordable, and the accommodations of a basic room are suitable for two hunters — three if you don’t mind pitching a cot. Ask for the “turkey hunter’s discount rate,” and you should be able to get a room for only $40 to $50 per night. The rooms have cable TV and a mini fridg. Be sure to pack an extra cooler or two for storing birds.
Josh Dahlke is an avid turkey hunter, active NWTF member and the online editor for North American Hunter, the official publication of the North American Hunting Club. To follow his “Mixed Bag” blog, visit www.HuntingClub.com/JoshDahlke. The North American Hunting Club supports the NWTF by helping to raise awareness of its conservation mission. To get a free trial membership to the North American Hunting Club, go to www.HuntingClub.com/Join.