Sixty Years Of Pheasants

Sixty Years Of Pheasants

In his many seasons of working Nebraska's pheasant fields, veteran hunter Lee Rupp may not have seen everything -- but he's come close. (November 2007)

Veteran pheasant hunter Lee Rupp (left) and hunting companion Steve Ferris showing off their take of longtails. Rupp's been hunting ringnecks since he was 9.
Photo courtesy of Lee Rupp.

"In 1999 I did an interview with Jon Farrar for a magazine article. In his story it was mentioned that I had shot 123 pheasants the season before.

"The first crack of the bat that next year after the article came out, I went to ask permission to hunt at this old farmer's house near home. 'Looks like you got plenty of hunting places already,' the guy told me, as a copy of the magazine sat on the table behind him.

"I thought: 'Damn Farrar!'"

Thus began my conversation with Lee Rupp, former Nebraska Game and Parks fisheries biologist, Nebraska state senator, and longtime resident of Monroe County. Oh, yes -- and he's been a pheasant hunter for the last 60 years.

As is demonstrated above, Rupp knows how to tell a story, so you might take him for the kind of fellow who'll spin pheasant yarns for as long as you care to sit and listen. He's not. Owing to his background in biology and common-sense approach to hunting, his talk leans more to instruction than to mere entertainment.

"In 1972 I started keeping a journal," he said, "and have kept one ever since. And it just doesn't count numbers -- it lets me know a bit more about how things have changed through the years. And have they changed!"

Rupp began to thumb through his entries. "Week before Christmas in 1983, coldest in 113 years. Minus 24, minus 18, minus 22 . . . . I killed 17 roosters that year. The next year, I killed 11, which has been my lowest in 35 years. It was three years before they came back to respectable numbers. I hate hearing, 'Oh, we had a cold, wet spring this year and a poor hatch.' We haven't had a cold, wet spring in 10 years or a hard winter in 20. Plus, that pheasant is a tough bird.

"When people are looking at pheasant numbers, I think they look for a knee-jerk reaction to the current pheasant population dilemma. There are no silver-bullet answers. There are, however, several factors. What pheasants do need is brooding grass. And they don't have it."

The grasses that ringnecks need to survive are being eliminated by much "cleaner" farming methods. And it shouldn't be forgotten that the welfare of pheasant populations has a financial dimension. "$4 corn is going to cause farmers to plant -- myself included -- fencerow to fencerow," Rupp noted.

Other factors too exert an influence on pheasant populations. "There's a night shift of possums, skunks, and coons, plus groundhogs and foxes, both of which we didn't use to have when I was growing up," Rupp said. "Eggs are a perfect food for possums and skunks. But people ask, 'What about the increasing turkey population?' Those turkey hens are big enough to ward off predators on the nest and then they eventually nest in trees. It's different when everything a bird does is on the ground.

"Plus, I was talking to a farmer this spring. He says, 'Is it unusual to see 25 or 30 hawks all at one time?' Now, I don't want people to go and think I'm saying to shoot a hawk or owl when you see it. But all these predators are a factor."

Yet when you look at Rupp's journal, there's not a hint of a decline of pheasant success. The yearly totals of 57, 61, 76, 79, and 81 cover Rupp's last five hunting seasons. And like most people who are successful at their craft, Rupp, 69, has a long list of dos and don'ts he abides by.

"First off, avoid that opening week like the plague. If you go toward Lincoln or Omaha, you're going to be beating your head against the wall. People should get away from crowds if they can, and if all possible, have someone point you in the right direction; someone that knows the land in an area. Even the way I know pheasants, it's really a crapshoot if I go to the middle of nowhere if I don't know the area."

Rupp sometimes spends more time looking for landowners instead of hunting, but it's become a necessary practice for him, one that is more manageable as the pheasant season carries on.

"It's best after the holidays," he said. "Everyone is usually done by then. And in January, not a lot of people will renew their license and you'll find access is going to be a whole lot easier."

Weather also plays a factor to limit hunting at that time of year, but that's when Rupp surges. "Give me a day when it is 10 above zero, a 15 mph wind, and about 2 inches of snow on the ground. If it isn't nasty and uncomfortable, you're probably not killing many pheasants."

Rupp also suggests middle-of-the-day hunting. "Pheasants have their daily cycle like other animals. I'm actually convinced they take a siesta and are a little bit less on their guard. The Nebraska wind also helps," he said. "And if you have a choice on whether or not to bring a dog or your gun on your next pheasant trip, leave the gun at home."

Finding birds without a dog, especially past the first weekend, just isn't going to happen too often. Rupp has also made it a point to have one experienced dog working with a younger dog each time he goes, a sort of monkey-see, monkey-do approach.

"At the same time, I always associate something positive with me throughout the season and later on such as food, then, come time to hunt, the dogs want to please me in the field." But Rupp also warns about dog selection. "Nothing happens without a well-bred dog. Find a breeder that sells you a good dog, and go back to that breeder until his good dogs stop coming. You'd be better off buying a cheap shotgun from a farm sale and buying the best dog you could afford."

At this point in our talk, Rupp pulled out his journal and began pointing. "If you think they haven't changed through the years," he said, "look at this: 25 hunts, 25 limits. That was 1989. In 1990 -- 27 hunts, 27 limits. Two consecutive years I limited 52 hunts in a row. You couldn't go out and limit 52 times in a row if you used napalm."

There are still things, he says, that a person can do to be successful. "Take advantage of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission or a game official. Ask questions. Have confidence in your public areas later in the season. We have some big ones out here. The Wilkins FWPA (530 acres) and Prairie Wolf SWMA (775 acres) are both good public areas. And there are adequate hunting spots near Petersburg as well -- if you r

eally want to work."

If you really want to work. From 1972 through 2006, Lee Rupp killed 2,022 pheasants. Despite a lot of changes to his pheasant hunting, he still manages to find birds each and every year. He's still knocking on doors and, once he's on the land, trying his best to outthink what he calls "the king of all game birds."

"Think of pheasant habitat in terms of their own microhabitat," he said. "Oftentimes there will be an entirely other picture you're not seeing. After hunting several hours one day in minus 20 temperature with a hard northwest wind, I flushed a number of pheasants in a matter of seconds. 'Why were those birds there?' I asked. What I didn't realize until I looked closer was that the birds were on a slight terrace and were using it as a windbreak.

"You don't have to beat your brains out, but you do have to be analytical. Fish don't come to good ice-fishermen. Good ice-fishermen go to the fish. It's the same thing with pheasant hunting: If you pound yourself for two or three hours and do nothing, do something different. It's just a matter of being bullheaded. There have been a lot of hunts I haven't popped a cap in three hours. Then all of a sudden you kill three, and off you go."

That's how Rupp hunts for and thinks about pheasants. He sees the writing on the wall when it comes to his favorite game birds, and doesn't always like it. But he still knows that he can find birds every year if he works at it. As can those around him.

"Talking to the pheasant slayer, are we?" asked one of the locals as Rupp and I ended our talk.

"If we could just take his gun away or fill it with blanks," another joked, "the pheasant population would increase dramatically."

The group of old friends laughed, as did Rupp, who sat down at their table as I left, probably about to begin another conversation about his favorite game bird -- and whether or not it might be OK for him to do a little hunting on their land this winter.

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