Hay There. A sharptailed grouse rests on a hay bale. Knowing the status of grasses and other cover on huntable lands ahead of opening day in this very dry season will help provide an idea of where to go and what areas won’t be as productive come fall. Simonson Photo.

By Nick Simonson

Early last fall, as I rolled up over the hill with my buddy behind me closing out the two-truck caravan in our grouse hunt, I was a bit dismayed to see the stretch of public-access grass from yellow sign to yellow sign completely hayed.

While it wasn’t a big blow to our day, as we each had a couple sharpies in our bags, it did come as a bit of a surprise, and we walked a small swale which had been spared the baler but put up no more birds as the onset of early afternoon heat ended our late September walk. While it had always served as sort of a backup spot, a little bit of scouting earlier on would have crossed it off the list when the season started and shifted the hunt in perhaps a more productive direction. The experience reminded me of the importance of preseason reconnaissance no matter what a person is hunting for.

With the extended heat the region has seen, this fall’s hunting seasons will likely require more scouting than many autumns before. It is also likely that many stands of grass across the region, especially those enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which have been impacted by the yellow, orange and red blotches that have colored this summer on the drought monitor map, will be harvested for livestock in short order if they haven’t already been under USDA rules pertaining to emergency haying and grazing. That makes the coming month the ideal time to check out what habitat remains, and how limited stands of grass change the productivity or walkable areas of a certain parcel of land.

The process is as simple as taking a late summer country cruise to those favorite hunting areas. Whether it’s a quick review of preferred public parcels or checking in with a landowner about the status private acres hunted in years past, getting the lay of the land and making a plan for fall now and updating it as seasons approach will help prevent any surprises come opening day. Simply make a note on an atlas, a GPS or smartphone app of current habitat conditions so you know where to return to and what spots are likely to be unproductive this season.

While scouting, identify alternative habitat areas on various hunting parcels. Are there deeper ravines or cattail sloughs which can’t be cut and will likely provide places for birds to go? Is there a good stand of trees or pockets of brush which might hold game amidst a hayed field? If so, mark those down as good fallback possibilities in the area as your quarry may concentrate more into what habitat remains after haying. For waterfowlers, it’s likely just as important to get the status on potholes and sloughs at this time of year and whether favorite spots have dried up, or a change in approaching hunts on them is required due to lower shorelines.

Finally, food sources should be considered in scouting efforts as well. While small grains like canola and wheat appear to be doing somewhat well in this dry season, they remain limited on the landscape. With mourning dove opener just a month away, identifying those small grain stands now, even if they get harvested soon, will provide a good starting point in hunting these early season birds when they fly in each morning and evening for the seeds that don’t make it into the hopper. Additionally, crops like corn and soybeans, which are more drought sensitive, may not be doing as well this summer.

Checking on their status will identify if their fields will be attractive to upland birds, or if they may be in bad shape and unable to be harvested. The height of corn and its quality can also impact deer season, if it doesn’t provide the cover or food it might normally produce.

Keep these factors in mind and get an understanding of how drought conditions may impact hunting spots this fall. From the habitat birds and deer use for loafing and escape cover, to those sloughs and potholes which ducks and geese depend on, things are changing quickly (and could turn on a dime as we’ve seen with sudden wet autumns before).

Make note of those shifts in habitat and where and how food sources are shaping up now to make the most of your hunting later and avoid any surprises over the next rise…in our outdoors.