New Jersey Pheasant (And Quail) Winter Hunts: 5 Prime Picks

New Jersey Pheasant (And Quail) Winter Hunts: 5 Prime Picks

No matter where you live in the Garden State, there's fabulous upland game hunting available for ring-necked pheasants and bobwhite quail.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Bob Brunisholz

It wasn't all that long ago when officials of New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) were scratching their collective noggins trying to figure out ways to keep the state's pheasant and bird stocking program afloat. It had been more than a decade since the state increased license fees. In the interim, prices of everything had skyrocketed - the cost of fuel and insurance for stocking trucks, maintenance and feed for birds at Rockport pheasant farm.

Undeniably, the division was cash strapped. To make matters even worse, there was also a "freeze" on hiring new personnel. And the freeze on new hires not only included any additions to staff, but also prevented division administrators from replacing any employees who departed for other job opportunities. In other words, if Rockport Game Farm employed, for instance, seven people who worked the pheasant pens, and two left, no one could be hired to take the place of the two who quit.

For all intents and purposes, the future of the Garden State's upland bird stocking program was looking rather glum, to say the least.

But sportsmen were quick to rally to the cause, and with rare exceptions, most sportsmen and women, primarily through the auspices of New Jersey's nearly 4,000-strong Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, supported a proposed increase in license fees, as well as upping the ante for the purchase of a pheasant/quail stamp.

The increases were a contentious issue in the state legislature for more than a year and as time dragged on, the division was forced to reduce the number of pheasant stockings (that's the number of stockings as opposed to the number of birds which, to the division's credit, never changed throughout the financial crisis), as well as "farm out" its quail-rearing program to private contractors.

Nonetheless, the long-overdue increases were finally implemented in 2000 when the traditional hunting license fee was increased from $22 to $27.50 and a pheasant/quail stamp increased from $22 to a whopping $40.

That may sound like a "bit much," but keep in mind, division officials had been under the financial gun for nearly two decades and they had to play a game that required a lot of catching up.

But did it work? Is New Jersey now back in the driver's seat concerning the pheasant/quail stocking programs? Joe Penkala, supervising biologist at Rockport Game Farm where all state ringnecks are reared, thinks so.

"We're still stocking the same wildlife management areas (WMAs) as we had in the past, and there are as many pheasants released today as there were a decade ago, perhaps more. Barring any natural disaster, the division releases a minimum of 55,000 ringnecks and approximately 11,000 quail annually. The quail, however, are now reared by private contractors, whereas the division rears all of the pheasants released on WMAs," Penkala said.

But what about today's hunting pressure? One of the gripes most commonly voiced by upland hunters concerns crowded conditions on public hunting grounds during pheasant/quail season. In that regard, Penkala offered the proverbial good news, bad news scenario.

The bad news, according to Penkala, is the number of upland hunters decreased substantially since the price of a pheasant/quail stamp jumped to $40. The good news is the number of upland hunters decreased since the price of a pheasant/quail stamp jumped to $40.

Huh? How can the bad news be the good news? Here's the way Penkala explained it.

"Obviously, the division would like to see more upland hunters afield enjoying New Jersey's bird season. In addition, the reason for the increase in the price of a pheasant/quail stamp was to put the division on a more secure financial footing, and that includes the cost of running the Rockport Game Farm. With the reduction in stamp sales, it's just about a break-even proposition," Penkala said. "But the good news is with the decrease in the number of pheasant/quail stamps comes a lot more space on public hunting grounds for avid upland gunners."

In my personal experience, as well as speaking with other upland gunners, the "best" place to hunt often equates to how close to home a particular WMA may happen to be. Nonetheless, there are some exceptional upland grounds in New Jersey's system of WMAs, and here we will start with the largest.

STAFFORD FORGE WMA

Located in the twin townships of Eagleswood and Little Egg Harbor, just west of the Garden State Parkway, Stafford Forge these days consists of an amazing 17,212 acres, though this magnificent tract had a comparatively meager beginning.

Stafford Forge WMA was originally 2,788 acres, all of which were purchased in 1965 through Green Acres funding and subsequently turned over to the DFW. Rest assured, division officials didn't sit around admiring the tract. Instead, through aggressive land purchases funded in part by hunting and fishing license fees, as well as through Green Acres funds, Stafford Forge grew to its present size of more than 17,000 acres, much of which is prime upland game bird country.

Stafford Forge has something for just about every outdoor endeavor, including waterfowling. But its pheasant cover is superb, composed of anything from swamplands up through and including certain areas managed almost entirely for upland game. Here you'll find land that has hedgerows, fields and plenty of cover crops. Stafford Forge even has (and I hesitate to say this because it is a bone of contention) a modest number of naturally reproducing quail.

Stafford Forge is easily accessed by taking the Tuckerton exit from the Garden State Parkway onto state Route 539. This WMA has ample parking. The WMA, like all others, receives stockings of birds prior to opening day on Saturday, Nov. 13, and thereafter is stocked approximately twice weekly - weather conditions permitting - through the first week in January.

EDWARD G. BEVAN WMA

Formally known as Millville WMA, the Edward Bevan WMA is one of the most popular and largest of the state's upland public hunting grounds. The entire area comprises more than 12,000 acres, all of which, incidentally, were purchased with fees generated from hunting and fishing license sales (with the exception of a small parcel consisting of 336 acres, which was purchased through Green Acres funding).

Located in Cumberland County, the Edward G. Bevan, or Millville WMA, as it is ref

erred to in the Wildlife Digest, has just about anything and everything an upland hunter would desire, including cover crops planted in cooperation with local farmers. The Bevan WMA is a bird hunter's delight and includes (my upland gunning cronies are going to place my name on the "most wanted" list for telling readers this) an occasional grouse in some of the more heavily wooded sections of this WMA.

In addition, Bevan is not one of the two WMAs routinely stocked with quail for hunting during the regular upland season. Only Peaslee WMA in Cumberland County and Greenwood Forest WMA in Ocean County are stocked with quail during the in-season period; but Bevan is one of the selected WMAs where division employees release quail, starting in early September, for hunters wishing to train their bird dogs. Consequently, bumping up a covey of quail is not unlikely at Bevan.

Bevan WMA is located in Monroe Township and is easily accessed from Ackley Road in Millville (county Route 718), as well as Newport/ Center Grove Road (county Route 629). This WMA receives stockings of ringnecks for the opening day of upland season and thereafter, approximately once every two or three days through the first week in January. Whether you reside in South Jersey or must make the trip from Central or North Jersey, the Edward G. Bevan WMA is well worth the trip.

ASSUNPINK WMA

Arguably an avid upland gunner could have designed Assunpink. This 5,664-acre WMA consists of fields, hedgerows, planted crops, some marshy areas and, in general, contains all the earmarks of fabulous pheasant country.

Certainly, and like Bevan, Assunpink isn't exactly in my back yard as are a few of the northern WMAs. Nonetheless, I try to make at least two or more trips to Assunpink yearly during the upland season simply because, when you dismount from the ol' hunting jalopy and take a look around, this WMA has "pheasant reside here" stamped all over it.

Assunpink is also one of those WMAs that do not receive any in-season releases of quail, but like other WMAs, division workers do release quail here during September for the purpose of training gun dogs. Subsequently, the chances of bumping up a covey or two are not impossible.

Located in Monmouth and Mercer counties, Assunpink WMA is easily accessed by county routes 524, 571 and 539, and each of these routes can be accessed from Interstate 195.

Here's an item or two you won't find in the Garden State's guide to WMAs. It's called New Jersey's Wild Places and Open Spaces.

I hunt WMAs like Assunpink, primarily because it is classic ringneck cover and, barring some errant shots, I usually put a brace of ringnecks in my game pocket, But more than that, that old curmudgeonly thief, age, has been slowly stealing my stealth, and I now prefer easier going.

Assunpink fills that need with most - and I emphasize, most - pheasant cover located on reasonably flat ground. For certain, it's not like hunting on a pool table, and there is some tough going at some of marshy and brushy spots. Still, it's a heck of a lot better than hunting some of the northern WMAs like Whittingham, where one has a distinct advantage if one leg is much shorter than the other. I fear my mountain climbing days are mostly gone, and for me Assunpink more than fills the bill.

Assunpink receives releases of birds ready for hunting on opening day and that stocking is usually supplemented by additional in-season releases of ringnecks approximately every other day, depending upon calendar dates and weather conditions.

BLACK RIVER WMA

Be quiet! Don't tell a soul about this, but last fall I flushed more than one grouse on the same day at Black River WMA. How many is more than one? I'm not saying, but the Black River WMA has to rate right up there with some of the finest pheasant cover in the Northeast, bar none. Occasionally, along the numerous wooded edges of the WMA's equally abundant fields, you can put up a fantail. It isn't often, but it does happen.

The Black River WMA is located in the township of Chester in Morris County, primarily along what the locals refer to as the Dover/Chester Road, just northwest of what the same natives still call county Route 24, though in reality it is county Route 513.

Though this WMA isn't nearly as large as some like Stafford Forge or Millville, it still offers 3,071 diversified acres, primarily fields. This is yet another WMA that is managed for upland or small game. The management consists primarily of cooperative farming, and many of the fields are planted with cover crops, such as corn or soybeans. Thus, it is a ringneck mecca.

Making things even merrier, there is no shortage of hedgerows at Black River, and if you have more than a season or two under your hunting belt, you know how pheasants, especially the stocked variety, love to head into hedgerows when the hunting pressure is high.

The Black River WMA will receive releases of ringnecks for opening day and additional stockings are usually slated for every other day, or about three times per week, depending upon weather conditions and calendar dates.

PEQUEST WMA

Though the Pequest WMA may be the smallest of the top five picks, what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in quality pheasant cover. The Pequest WMA is composed of 3,601 acres of fields, hedgerows and wooded areas in which the probability of finding a grouse or two rates between fair and good, but the pheasant cover is, by far, some of the best in the state.

With its rolling hills and bucolic background, the Pequest WMA offers edge-loving ringnecks protective as well as "loafing" cover. Here the birds seem more than content to remain on the ground rather than flying off to some farmer's field where the pickings are better. Here you'll find lots of field edges, shrubs and even some thick, heavy brambles where roosters take cover from upland hunters and their dogs, often to no avail.

An additional, albeit positive, element to the Pequest WMA is the fact that, for whatever reason, crowding does not seem to be as problematic as it is on our state's other popular WMAs. That's not to say you won't find a gaggle of gunners during opening day or the first week or two of upland season at the Pequest, but once you experience bird hunting on this WMA, I think you'll agree that the crowds are not quite as big.

The Pequest WMA is located in the town of Oxford in Warren County, and is easily accessed by either state Route 31 or from U.S. Route 46, which leads directly to the division's hatchery as well as the hunting grounds.

The Pequest will have birds for opening day and receives stockings approximately every two or three days through the first week of January.

Remember, unlike some other states, New Jersey does not have a selection or lottery system that limits the number of hunters afield during the upland season. Merely choose the WMA where you think you'll fare best f

or a brace of ringnecks, park the ol' hunting jalopy, release pup, load your scattergun (after you're afield, that is), and you're on the way. Good shooting to you this season in our Garden State!



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