When wing shooters get together and talk about the best pheasant hunting across the country, the state of Indiana hardly ever surfaces in conversation. Instead, places like South Dakota and Kansas receive the bulk of the accolades. Even our western neighbor, the Prairie State, gets a little spotlight from time to time. Indiana may not lead the pack, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still find some great pheasant hunting opportunities here in the Hoosier State. We may just have to look a little harder.
Pheasants were first stocked in the states in the 1850s and in Indiana in about 1900. The birds flourished here for a time and were very plentiful in Indiana, especially throughout the northern third of the state. When bird numbers peaked some 40 years ago, there were approximately four million acres of farmland idled in land retirement programs that provided prime habitat for pheasants to nest and survive.
Today we see unprecedented habitat loss through urban expansion, changes in farm practices, and newer regulations for set-aside land. There is now less than 300,000 acres in Indiana idled through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The total loss of once-great pheasant habitat now exceeds 90 percent of what it was two decades ago. Habitat loss is usually to blame for most all wildlife declines and the reduction of prime pheasant habitat has led to declines in the bird population that will most likely never be reversed.
Looking at some of the survey information, it’s easy to see a trend in pheasant population numbers. The Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife (IDFW) uses a survey method of making stops along an annual survey route and listening for pheasants crowing. The number of birds heard is recorded and then tabulated and compared to past years to determine population trends.
The last crow count survey available was from the spring of 2008 when observers heard an average of .95 roosters per stop. Although this figure was slightly up from the .89 roosters per stop in 2006, it showed a modest decline of 22 percent over the 10-year average. Disappointingly, comparing the 2008 crow count to the long-term average of 3.02 roosters per stop shows a dramatic decline of 69 percent over the last 30-plus years.
The IDFW, along with the USDA, Pheasants Forever, and others, are doing what they can to increase habitat and provide as much hunting opportunity as possible. Regrettably, Hoosiers will never be able to enjoy the pheasant hunting euphoria of the 1960s and 1970s, but we can still have some great times afield and make positive improvements to the habitat when possible.
One of the management strategies of the IDFW is the Pheasant Habitat Development Program. This program identifies six priority areas in the state the IDFW believes are best suited for habitat enhancement. Six professional wildlife biologists are assigned to the project to help eligible landowners develop a habitat management plan for their property. The program then covers up to 90 percent of the cost of the recommended management practices and landowners also qualify for a one-time signing incentive for enrolling their land in the program.
As mentioned, there are still properties enrolled in the CRP. Additionally, another program of the USDA Farm Service Agency is the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP). The CCRP provides three programs that can directly benefit pheasants by providing cover and nesting habitat. They are filter strips, upland wildlife buffers, and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE). They are also referred to as CP-21, CP-33, and CP-38, respectively.
The IDFW also administers a couple of other programs that benefit pheasants by enhancing habitat. They are the Wildlife Habitat Cost-Share Program and the Game Bird Habitat Development Program. In addition to these habitat programs, the IDFW also provides hunting opportunity through means of releasing pen-raised birds. In total, there’s quite a bit of hunting opportunity available for those who take advantage of all that’s offered.
It’s too late to get in on one the IDFW programs, but it’s definitely not too early to learn about it and plan for next year. Several draw hunts for pheasants are held each year on Game Bird Habitat Areas owned by the DNR and other leased lands. This is the 25th year for pheasant draw hunts.
Hunters must apply online, usually between the first of July and the first of October, and then be drawn to participate. More than 220 spots are typically available scattered over ten specific hunt dates. There is also one hunt reserved for youths under the age of 18.
Applicants can select the date they prefer, but the property hunted is assigned through the drawing. Successful applicants may bring up to two hunting partners. Last year, 387 hunters participated in draw hunts and bagged 286 pheasants. This amounted to a success rate of .74 pheasants per hunter.
Wild birds on private ground are obviously the most desired, but are also the scarcest. There are still good numbers of birds scattered throughout the state, but with private land access so difficult these days, only a small percentage of Hoosiers get the opportunity to chase the remnants of our once-bountiful wild pheasant population. For those that do get to hunt wild birds, the best success comes in the upper third of the state.
There are several public lands open during statewide season that have populations of wild pheasants, but hunting them is no easy chore. Actually, to put it more appropriately: Having success hunting them is like winning the lottery — the odds are pretty slim.
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