You may not be living right next to fine upland game habitat, yet you probably won’t have to drive too far to enjoy some of our state’s finest ring-necked pheasant hunting. One of my earliest pheasant hunting memories was the rude awakening I received when a cock bird flushed right under my feet. That bird had nerves of steel to stick to that tuft of grass until I was right on top of it. It blasted out of the clump of grass while I nearly had an on-the-spot heart attack! When I recovered, I’d learned a big lesson about pheasant hunting tactics and quickly fell in love with the sport.
Ringnecks are unpredictable and mysterious creatures to the uninitiated among us. Even veteran wingshooters can expect plenty of surprises. One day most pheasants will flush too far out for a good shot, but only a few days later you might have to step on one to get it to fly. The habitat, hunting pressure, presence of a dog and probably a whole host of unknown or overlooked factors determine just how that bird will react on any given day. Toss in the difference between wild ringnecks and pen-reared, put-and-take birds and you can never quite be sure what you’ll be up against.
Indiana’s wild pheasant population has been holding steady over the last several years, but presents less-than-predictable hunting overall. Indiana’s Division of Fish and Wildlife’s (DFW) put-and-take pheasant hunting has been one answer. For a small fee, bird hunters can have a taste of private reserve hunting on public lands. Put-and-take properties are hunted for no more than 10 days during the season, and hunters are part of a limited draw to keep the number of sportsmen in the fields down. The goal is to provide a quality hunt that rivals those found anywhere else in the country.
Millions of acres have been lost in Hoosier pheasant habitat and the Farm Bill has been one solution. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) offers landowners the opportunity to protect land resources while providing good wildlife habitat in the form of cropland, grasslands, wetlands and idle fields.
Pheasant Priority Areas are another DFW focus with habitat in mind. In this case, wildlife biologists assist landowners with expertise and funding to develop quality ring-necked pheasant habitat. Warm- and cool-season grasses, legumes, shrubs, grains and food plots are combined with beneficial practices like fencerow rehabilitation, strip disking, controlled burning and edge feathering.
During wild bird hunts, only roosters can be taken, but put-and-take hunters can take either sex birds.
The first step to a successful upland bird hunt in Hoosierland is to be where the pheasants are. Here’s where you’ll find some of the best “urban” pheasant hunting this fall.
WILLOW SLOUGH FISH & WILDLIFE AREA (FWA)
Upland bird hunters from the Gary and Lafayette areas are used to lots of concrete and steel. What many hunters don’t know is that some of the state’s best shooting this fall will be at Willow Slough FWA, a surprisingly short drive from home if you live in the above-mentioned areas.
The wild birds are a tough hunt at Willow Slough during the first part of the season and many hunters sit back and wait for the put-and-take birds to be released, according to wildlife biologist Dave Spitznagle. The area depends more on released birds for consistent hunting since the numbers of wild ringnecks have been declining for quite a while. Last year was a repeat of other years with rain and not a lot of natural reproduction, said Spitznagle.
Hunters can buy a hunt for a fee and can get as many birds as they’re willing to pay for. Reservations start early and hunts can be bought from the Saturday before Thanksgiving and throughout the following week. Hunts sold out at Willow Slough right after they became available on the DFW’s Web site last year.
All total, 2,820 birds were released in the district and about 75 percent were harvested or otherwise recovered.
The habitat at Willow Slough is varied and productive. The 1,500 acres of ponds, marshes and J.C. Murphey Lake are good spots to poke around in, but the shooting is in the hundreds of crop fields and prairie lands. Big and little bluestem and switchgrass provide excellent habitat and are a great place to give your dog a workout. All total, the area has enough elbowroom to allow a couple of hundred hunters at a time.
More good hunting can be found on the region’s scattered game bird habitat areas. According to wildlife biologist Bob Porch in Rensselaer, the game bird area special hunts are by far the best pheasant hunting in the region. These areas are managed specifically for ring-necked pheasants, and the hunts are by random pre-season drawing.
They’re small properties and make tremendous backup spots if Willow Slough is too busy. It’s tough to get drawn, but the hunting is good. The successful applicants average one cock bird per hunter.
Willow Slough can be accessed by secondary roads west of U.S. Route 41 in Newton County. The area covers a total of 9,956 acres near Morocco. Check-in is mandatory.
For additional information, call District 1 at (219) 285-2704 or the Willow Slough office at (219) 285-2704.
The Winamac property is rare in that it offers both a well-established wild bird population and excellent put-and-take hunting. Its proximity to South Bend makes it a prime wingshooting destination and many hunters make a day of it here.
The difference between wild birds and production birds doesn’t take long to figure out. The birds raised in close quarters to humans seem to lose much of their survival skills within the first generation, and though it’s certainly not like shooting fish in a barrel, pen-raised birds are less likely to effectively utilize cover or show good escape tactics. Their wild counterparts have lasted into adulthood because they’ve learned to do both effectively. A bird born and raised on the area is an escape artist with an uncanny ability to outwit even the smartest shooters.
There are a couple of things to remember if you’re using a dog. The reason your dog is so effective is its nose. Temperature and humidity make all the difference in the world in a dog’s performance, and though you can’t control the weather, keep in mind that dogs do their best work as the weather gets colder. When the frost is on the ground, dogs smell roosters much farther away and don’t have to be right on top of them. When the winds and higher temperatures begin dehydrating the dog’s nose and scent glands, even a good dog’s sense of smell is much less efficient.
Winamac offers good pheasant habitat and is moderately challenging to hunt. The pheasants will slip right around hunters without rustling a leaf of grass. More challenging yet are birds moving around in the brushy spots bordering the woods or the marsh plants in the wetlands.
Put-and-take hunters register on a first-come, first-served basis. The first 110 hunters are accepted. Watch for the no-hunting and refuge zones. The DFW will release two birds for each hunter every day. The bag limit is two pheasants of either sex. The number of hunters on each section of the area is closely controlled and monitored.
Winamac is five miles north of the town of Winamac and covers 4,750 acres.
According to wildlife biologist Linda Byer, nearby Kingsbury FWA also harbors a fair share of wild pheasants, but it gets hunted heavily, and the number of wild birds seems to be diminishing. Kankakee FWA has a limited amount of ground that stays above water and has a small population of wild birds.
The several wetland conservation areas in Byer’s management area have small concentrations of wild birds that can make for a tough but rewarding hunt. The 140-acre Round Lake Wetland Conservation Area is just a few miles north of Winamac in Starke County and might be a good spot to keep as plan B if Winamac is being heavily hunted. The Tri-County FWA has pheasant releases, but early registration is required.
For more information, contact the Winamac office at (574) 946-4422 or District 2 at (574) 896-3572.
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