Hunting & Heritage  |  11/09/2021

Open Fields, Open Waters, Open Hearts

Story and photos by Marissa Jensen
An old gas station lies in wait near a four-way-stop; two subtle markers of a town seemingly forgotten. Rolling to a stop, the silence is interrupted by the rhythmic click of a turn signal and shuddering of excited pointers. I pause in consideration of quaint towns such as this, and how a life rediscovered led me here.

Every fall, two tracks and limestone pave the way toward dreams and hopes and belonging. Drawn to distant and quiet landscapes, I long ago struggled to find my place. But everything changed the moment I decided to lay my trust in a bird dog and follow wherever she led.

Nebraska. My home state. A land filled with long seasons and opportunities. Beginning in September, my heart belongs to the sandhills, but the long fingers of late fall and early winter are constantly probing my mind. A Nebraska quail hunter knows that dreams come alive in October, when memories become etched within visible breaths and audible steps on cold and dark winter mornings. Grasslands and oak savannahs sing, weaving stories of staunch points, frozen toes and a covey of bobs holding so tight, a single breath launches an explosion.

Across the state, I bounce around Open Fields and Waters sites—Nebraska’s voluntary walk-in access program—traversing land others are willing to share. During my visits, I try and picture the individuals and families who allow me to walk this revered place. I show gratitude by striving to leave the land better than I found them.

Every walk discovered on our public access lands transforms into a page torn from a Magic Eye, as each hunter identifies their own unique treasures if they focus long enough. The book I use for such a discovery is a frequently marked-up, dog-eared and dirt-smeared Nebraska Public Access Atlas. A diary of blood, sweat, and tears, it documents everything I take with me from the uplands, but more appropriately, what it takes from me.

Tucked intimately in my vest, this journal accompanies my OnX maps, which I take full advantage of on every hunt. Everything I could hope to learn from this land before visiting, lies within these tools. Not only that, but they serve as reminders, memories, of what has come and what has yet to be.

Year after year, I continue to experience firsts on public access sites.

My first quail was taken in the southeast, where the landowner likely had a front row seat to my fumbling efforts. This particular hunt was a last-minute, late-season push to stretch my legs with the dog. We marched five miles through the snow without any flicker of hope. Nearing the end, I was greeted by a staunch point and a brush pile, expecting nothing but miracles to materialize.

Even before the quail, came the first grouse. A beautiful male greater-prairie chicken taken on a warm day where my expectations laid as flat as the dog’s tongue. Multiple trips had been made prior, in an attempt to perfect our hunt. It’s likely because of this that it came together in a such a way that you’re grateful to just be able to fill the vest. A hot day, a bumped bird, and a rough flush… it was ugly, but nevertheless, it happened. Another memory stamped into the dirt of a public walk-in site.

I took this dream of shared lands to the sandhills of our state. Combining a love for camping and hunting for the first time, this outing was shared with friends, dogs, and a serenade of cattle from afar. Here public access sites can be enjoyed adjacent to public lands, where one can meander for as long as the heart desires.

It’s a rarity, to be still and listen to the land around you and hear nothing but nature, but I’ve found such serenity tucked in the corners out here, over the years, and it’s thanks to those giving landowners.

In Central Nebraska there lies hidden gems on the outskirts of wildlife management areas. Land being utilized to the fullest, I walk property lines to experience our state’s Corners for Wildlife program. If things are done just right, you can find a covey of quail tucked inside the cover, caught between their coming and goings for the day. Often, these corners remain hidden gems and are barely touched, allowing me to walk in silence and explore my mind as much as the land.

What would hunting look like in this state, without opportunities to hunt these shared lands? With Nebraska 97 percent privately owned, I imagine falls and winters would have a different and bleaker cadence and rhythm.

Since its inception in 2009, Nebraska’s Open Fields and Waters program has grown to include over 750 landowners enrolling more than 372,000 acres statewide, available to you and me and anyone else who carries this dream.

Do the landowners of these revered locations hunt or fish? Do they know how I’ve harvested my first prairie grouse and bobwhite quail due to the habitat they’ve made possible on their land? Can they know the incredible impact their choices have made on my life, and many others?

Some do, the ones I’ve been able to thank. Others, I hope they can and will. Each year I watch these places grow in numbers, size, and diversity, and I’m excited for what we can all accomplish together, next.

It takes a village; of farmers, ranchers, landowners, biologists, hunters, anglers, and more to make the dream of public access lands a reality. It’s a dream, however, that we can’t afford to take for granted. Remember to take the time to pick up your shells, and thank the landowner, if you have the chance. Visit hole-in-the-wall diners, in those seemingly forgotten towns. It’s likely the best meal you’ve had all year. And most importantly, share the love of these programs and places with others, so they can continue to grow.

Now, as I pull away from the four-way-stop, I head to a location that is circled and starred on my trusty Public Access Atlas. These days, I know the way like the back of my hand, and as I near the destination, I’m greeted with a small-town wave from a farmer working his field. A warmth comes over me. Public access lands are a reminder that we are all in this together. I’ve always been a steadfast believer that one person can truly make a difference, in fact, that’s how we initiate change. However, when individuals come together for a similar cause, we become unstoppable, and that’s when the real magic begins.

OFW is a partnership program between Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Pheasants Forever, Inc. and many other conservation partners that make this program happen. Learn more about the Open Fields and Waters program here.  

Marissa Jensen is Education and Outreach Program Manager for PF and QF, and a regular contributor and columnist for Quail Forever Journal.