OSHKOSH, Neb. — Ben Herr hunted on private property in western Nebraska for years.
The Lincoln hunter was drawn to the beauty of the Sandhills, the wide-open spaces, the big sky and the chase of mule deer.
“I enjoy the stalk and the long-range shots,” Herr said. “Hunting mule deer tests your skills.”
Then the property changed hands, and he lost permission to hunt on the expansive ranch.
Herr started searching for new hunting grounds without a steep rental price, and he found a little known public access area with more than 45,000 acres of land, one of the largest public access areas in the state.
After hunting one season at the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, he's returned each year since 1986.
“I gave it a shot and have never looked back,” Herr said.
This year, he brought along son-in-law Art Floyd and friend Jerad Sicka. Floyd has been hunting on the refuge for 13 years. Together, they walk miles each day through seemingly endless fields of thick cover in the lowlands and yucca- and cactus-covered sand hills.
The refuge is remote, located about 30 miles south of Alliance and 28 miles north of Oshkosh, and accessible only by one-lane roads in both directions.
At times the roads are impassible due to weather. At other times the roads are clogged with tumbleweeds or cattle in the open range areas, making travel slow.
“I tell people it's God's country, because most of the time there is nobody out here but me and God,” said Marlin French, a wildlife biologist who has lived and worked at the refuge since 1994.
There is no camping, no fires or alcohol allowed at the refuge. It's usually open from sunrise to sunset, but during deer season the hunters are allowed to enter two hours before sunrise and stay two hours after sunset.
Throughout the refuge, a series of double-track trails lead visitors to hunting and fishing areas around shallow lakes formed by clean, clear water supplied by the Ogallala Aquifer and to the edge of the Sandhills. Some of the trails are only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles. All of them are rough rides that slow vehicles to a crawl in most sections.
But for hunters who are looking for a place to chase elusive mule deer, the refuge is a gem without a steep price tag attached.
“The days of knocking on a landowner's door and getting permission to hunt their land is over,” said Denise Callihan, owner of the SnS Café, Oshkosh Inn and Oshkosh Liquor store.
Landowners charge as much as $5,000 for exclusive hunting rights on western Nebraska ranches. Many hunters are unable or unwilling to pay to hunt, especially in years when the mule deer numbers are low.
Mule deer numbers are down as much as 30 percent this year, according to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Some of it is due to meningeal brainworm, a parasite that is fatal to mule deer, and chronic wasting disease.
Brainworm has yet to be discovered on the refuge, French said. And for almost every deer checked at the refuge headquarters, a staff member removes the lymph nodes from the deer to send them to the state for CWD testing. Only trophies that will be mounted are exempt.
In an effort to restore mule deer numbers, the commission has set up several conservation areas, including the refuge, where it is prohibited to harvest mule deer doe.
But at the refuge, if mule deer are scarce, all hunters have to do is turn around, facing the many lush lake valleys instead of the harsh Sandhills, and a hunt for white-tailed deer is on. Perched high above the valleys on the grass covered dunes, it is easy to see whitetails moving through the cattails and around rare, thin stands of trees.
Many bucks from the refuge are on the Nebraska record books — both whitetails and mule deer.
Herr has taken a 190-class whitetail and a 170-class mule deer in his years of hunting the refuge.
“I have four record deer on the books,” Herr said.
On rare occasions, a whitetail will mate with a mule deer, French said. Floyd harvested a buck that French suspected was a hybrid. Split brow tines and the usual split of the G-2 tines were the first hint of the hybridization.
The hints of a hybrid were there, but only a DNA test will reveal if the buck is a true hybrid, French said.
While hunting the refuge, the constant sound of pheasants cackling reveals one of the state's best kept secrets: superb upland game bird habitat. Ring-neck pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens take advantage of the pristine habitat.
As the weather turns colder, waterfowl pour into the refuge offering hunters a chance to harvest ducks and geese. And a few of the lakes have good populations of game fish, including walleye.
The refuge only allows hunting after conducting a 15-year hunting compatibility study. The public is asked for their comments before hunting privileges are renewed. The refuge was founded in 1933, and the first harvest of a deer on the refuge was in 1965. Hunters fees have paid for many of the refuge programs, French said.
Due to the remote area, the challenging travel conditions and the hard work it takes to hunt the refuge, visitors are few in comparison to most public access areas. French estimates there are only 5,000 visitors a year. Most of those visitors come for the fishing. Many more come for bird watching — 275 of the estimated 400 species of birds sighted in the state have been seen at the refuge, French said.
“The number of hunters is cyclical,” Herr said. “When word of a giant spreads, the number of hunters goes up. But when they find out how hard it is to hunt the refuge, the number of hunters goes down.”
ATVs are not allowed off the trail system, so if you harvest a buck three miles from the nearest trail, you have to drag it three miles back to the truck.
Herr harvested a big-bodied whitetail buck, Sicka harvested a mature mule deer buck and Floyd harvested a possible hybrid.
“I love it, but my knees still ache,” Herr said.