Where to Hunt in the Northwoods

Oct 8, 2018

We all need a hint or a pointer now and then.

In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist shares some insight as he discusses the annual influx of requests for good places to hunt.

Every fall, I get numerous phone calls from people across Wisconsin and the eastern US asking about places to hunt. Usually the hunter is planning a trip north, on short notice, and they want to know where to hunt their prey of choice, often grouse, deer, turkey, or waterfowl. These folks are not usually interested in generalities; they are hoping I will be fairly specific. In this article I am going to give you the same tools I give them. Brace yourself for disappointment – I don’t know everything, and I am not an expert hunter. There are no secret spots described here.

Waterfowl hunting started up in September. Duck hunters would call and ask for a good spot to hunt up here. I am an avid duck hunter, and I can tell you that is a loaded question. When I first moved to Rhinelander, I asked now-retired biologist Ron Eckstein the same question. He said “everybody knows where the ducks are, and everybody hunts there.” Many frustrating duck seasons later, I can tell you he was right. I recall one particularly challenging duck hunt a couple of years ago when I went with a couple of buddies to a top-secret spot. It was located more than three miles back in behind a locked gate. It was a lot of work to get there. When the sun came up, we saw empty shotgun shells – someone else had been hunting there. The ducks were gone.

We are not in a duck hotspot. Some ducks are raised here, and we get a crack at them early. There is usually another push of waterfowl before ice forms, and if you are prepared and scout hard, you may get a crack at them. The local warden had the best advice for Northwoods duck hunting: try to find lakes with public access that have identified wild rice beds. After that, you have to scout. Sorry, there is no shortcut. The inside cover of the waterfowl regulations says it best: “Fall water conditions, weather patterns, and time spent scouting are most important to your hunting success. The best waterfowl hunters are those that spend time scouting locations before and during the season. From prior survey data, hunters who did not scout prior to hunting harvested an average of 4.8 ducks per season, those who scouted once harvested 7.1 ducks, those who scouted twice harvested 8.1 ducks, and those who scouted three or more trips harvested 14.7 ducks.”

Grouse hunting spots are another common request. We have some great grouse spots around, but you will have to find them for yourself. I can help you narrow it down a bit though. I recommend locating lands open to public hunting that have aspen stands 5-15 years old. You can get this information by talking to a county forester, DNR forester, and in some cases by searching for hunting maps on the web. Consider the weather; heat, cold, degree of leaf drop, and available food all affect how birds act. Hunting with dogs is different from hunting without dogs; road hunting is different from walking. There are too many variables for me to narrow down for each individual hunter. When I go out hunting, I take my dog, I head to public land, and look for aspen stands that have trees as thick as my forearm. I look for a walking trail or bermed road, park the truck, and follow the dog.

Hunting is not a sport of instant gratification; you probably won’t find it satisfying unless you are out for the entire experience. Take a look at satellite photos of the area, free online topographic maps, or download one of several free smartphone apps that can help narrow it down. Head out early and log some miles checking out new territory. Drink coffee from a thermos, share a sandwich with your dog, bring a friend new to hunting and search for spots together. If you want to know how to get someone interested in hunting, the answer isn’t necessarily only giving them guaranteed success downing game. Scouting can be a thrill – learning to read the habitat, wildlife sign, and the weather extends the experience and makes success not only more likely but all the more enjoyable.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.