Going For A Limit

These veteran pheasant hunters know where and how to put Nebraska longtails on the ground, no matter what time of the season -- and they're willing to share that info with you now. (November 2008).

The author (left) and nephew Tom Harden meet at the truck to admire a fine ringneck and share a laugh over their hunt so far in Platte County. Pheasant season is a great time for friends and family in Nebraska.
Photo by Gene Hornbeck.

Scores of youngsters worked their way through Nebraska pheasant cover on the weekend of Oct. 18-19, thousands joined the army seeking ringnecks on Oct. 25, the statewide opener, and most if not all of them should have a few feathers in their hats by the first of November -- at least, so say those monitoring the Cornhusker State's most popular upland game bird season.

The young gunners, 15 or younger, get a two-day shot at the roosters before those among us who are older join them for a season set to run until Jan. 31, 2009. The bag limit for the youth on their two days in the field is set at two cocks daily, with a possession limit of four. Once us oldsters join the hunt, the limits go up to three daily and 12 in possession.

Last year was a reasonably good year for pheasants in Nebraska. A few random bag checks made by state wildlife technicians over the opening weekend showed that shotgunners averaged slightly more than one rooster per hunter-day. That bag was a bit lower than it was in the 2006-07 season.

Going into the season this fall, the outlook for bird numbers appeared to be much the same as last year's. This spring's edition of the annual statewide count by rural mail carriers showed that bird numbers were down slightly everywhere except for the southwest, which showed a slight increase. District wildlife managers believe that the reduction of acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program during the past spring and summer will make an impact on both bird numbers and on good huntable cover.

According to Bob Meduna, District 6 wildlife manager at Kearney, the spring count in his area indicated that bird numbers were up in the northern and southwestern parts of the district and down in the southeast section.

"There isn't a lot of difference in the hunting success throughout the district," he reported, "but I would say that York, Fillmore, Clay, Gosper and Phelps counties were the best last year. I would say nesting habitat and success was good in some areas and poor in others; it's hard to generalize, due to the weather and the cover. The winter weather may have had some affect on the pheasants in December and January, but, the birds are pretty hardy, so the weather probably didn't have a major impact."

Meduna hunted the roosters about 20 to 25 times last year. "I hunt over a Brittany," he said, "and use a 12-gauge Remington 870. I use the improved-cylinder tube early in the season and then the modified later. I load up with 7'‚1/2 shot early and 6s later on."

The biologist's best outing in the pheasant fields came on a nice day, temperatures in the 50s, not much wind. "I flushed six or eight roosters," he recalled, "and as many hens, and killed my three-bird limit in about 30 minutes.

"I think the time of day dictates the type of cover one should hunt. I hit the roosting cover first thing in the morning for perhaps an hour. Then I work the feeding areas in midmorning and midafternoon. The birds spend the midday hours loafing in much the same cover that they feed and/or roost in, but, if available, they do use brush patches, shelterbelts and weedy fencerows.

"Idle acres such as the CRP and waterfowl production areas -- which host heavy cover such as big and little bluestem, bulrush and cattails -- offer good midday places to hunt. If the weather is cold, windy and snowy I'll hunt the heavy cover all day."

Tom Welstead, wildlife supervisor for the Nebraska Game Commission's District 3, in Norfolk, has been anxious for the season to get under way since mid-May.

"I picked up a Lab pup in May and am praying that she will perform like a champion this season," he said. "I think the outlook here in northeastern Nebraska this fall will be fair. Nesting habitat was reduced due to a reduction in the CRP acres and other lands being converted to cropland. High corn and soybean prices have prompted many farmers in this area to farm as much land as possible, and that can very well reduce bird numbers this fall.

"I hunted some last year, but not as much as usual, due to the fact that my dog became old faster than I anticipated. I hunted pheasants about 10 times -- about half the time on public lands and the other half on private acres.

"My best hunting day was about two and a half weeks into the season," Welstead continued. "Four of us took 10 birds, and should have had our limits. Had a couple, (maybe three) roosters flush over a point and fly away without touching a feather. We probably saw about 140 pheasants that day -- maybe 50 roosters. The weather was sunny, and the temp maybe a little warm for the dog. We hunted idle ground, which was mostly annual weeds, most of the day except for the late afternoon, when we hunted wheatgrass-alfalfa plantings until sunset.

"I expect less land to hold pheasants this fall. I think the overview on the season is that many hunters are discouraged by negative reports and don't hunt as much as they did in the past. For the persistent pheasant hunter there will be places to find a rooster or two -- even late in the season."

The southwestern corner likely had the best pheasant hunting in the state last year, according to Richard Nelson, District 4 wildlife supervisor at North Platte. "Comparing our pheasant hunting to the rest of the state, I would say we had the best last year," he said. "Our hunting was better in 2007 than in 2006. I would say Hayes, Perkins and Hitchcock counties were the best."

Richard Nelson has long been known among his colleagues as a man of lots of words -- all of them believable! This writer and many of Nelson's peers have spent up to 40 years testing, teasing and debating his wildlife management expertise. I'm of the belief that, owing to the fact that he hunts and fishes as well as manages the wildlife resources in his district, his knowledge of the hunting and the resource is worth sending to the printer. He offered a few of his tips; you might want to take them to heart.

District wildlife managers believe that the reduction of acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program during the past spring and summer will make an impact on both bird numbers and on good huntable cover.

"I like to hunt on windy days, because the birds can't hear you coming," he said. "On cold, windy days I hunt the heavy cover. Last year I killed eight to 10 roosters in Nebraska. But you have to remember I grew up and still have friends and family in South Dakota -- so I shoot a few roosters up there as well."

In response to further inquiry on the subject of hunting pheasants, the biologist had these answers: "Yes, I hunt with a dog -- if you can call a wirehair a dog! Mine is fairly good on pheasants, but only fair on quail. If a hunter has a good dog, can walk, and can hit a rooster when it flushes, he will have success this fall."

Pheasant hunting in Nebraska's Panhandle is somewhat limited, with productive hunting found in Sheridan and part of Box Butte County, says District 1 wildlife supervisor Todd Nordeen, of Alliance.

"My evaluation of last year's pheasant season is that it was fair to poor," he said. "This year our spring rural-mail-carrier count showed bird numbers down some from 2007 and down from the five- and 10-year average.

"We also had some late snow and cold weather this spring, and that may have had an effect on nesting and production. I didn't hunt much last year. I do hunt with a German shorthair, use a 12-gauge bored improved-cylinder, and use 7'‚1/2 shot."

CRP acres were responsible for Nordeen's best hunting. "If I think back, my best hunting was probably in 2000 here in the Panhandle," he said. "That year I remember flushing hundreds of birds out of the CRP cover and filling the bag limit early. I was stationed in Southeastern Nebraska (Tecumseh) during the 1990s and found a lot of birds in the CRP acres there. I remember one trip in the mid-'90s when I filled the three-bird daily limit in less than 10 minutes.

"I think the outlook for this fall in my district will be poor to fair unless late rains help a bit by producing more cover. As usual, pheasant numbers and cover are dictated by the weather and the farm programs."

North-central Nebraska has some good, although limited, pheasant hunting, and last year hunting success was about average, reported Ben Rutten, District 2 wildlife supervisor at Bassett.

"My best hunting should be in Greely, Wheeler and Holt counties," he said. "We did have some good early rains and our nesting cover was good in most areas, thus, I think we should have a reasonably good season on the roosters.

The CRP acres in the district provide some good hunting, but the quality of the cover on those acres has been reduced by drought. The maturing of a good number of contracts with the federal government has also spurred substantial loss of those acres.

Rutten doesn't profess to be an ardent pheasant hunter, but he hunts when things are right. "I only went pheasant hunting once last season," he said, "and that was in January when we had some snow cover. I hunted some CRP land and flushed maybe 30 to 35 birds -- killed two roosters and missed three. I hunt over a Chesapeake, use a 12-gauge 870 and prefer to use No.'‚5 shot.

"My take on the season this fall is that it should be as good as last year," Rutten said. "I think the birds came through the winter pretty well. I heard a lot of roosters crowing when I ran some dove survey routes in early summer."

Hunters who spend time chasing pheasants in Rutten's district know that a lot of the cover is Sandhills grassland -- not prime pheasant cover, but harboring prairie grouse and prairie chickens in addition to whatever sharptails are there. Thus, it's perfectly possible to come up with a mixed bag of grouse and pheasants when afield on grassland adjacent to irrigated cropland.

With luck, you might also flush a covey of gray or Hungarian partridge; the bag limit on Huns is three daily, 12 in possession. The bobwhite quail is also found in huntable numbers in the eastern half of Rutten's district, so it's possible to come up with a four-bird mixed bag.

The grouse season west of Highway 81 closes on Dec. 31, but Hun season is open until the end of January statewide. The opportunity for a mixed bag of pheasants and grouse is possible almost statewide.

Special regulations apply for grouse east of Highway 81, in particular the requirement to obtain a special permit for the area from the NGPC. As is specified on that special permit, the east grouse zone also limits the daily and season bag to three birds. Chances for Huns are best in the northeastern quarter of the state; however, they've been spotted in almost every county.

Grouse hunting is No.'‚1 for Gary Washburn of Broken Bow, but he does devote a bit of his hunting time to the roosters. "In recent years I spent more time chasing grouse with my two pointers than I did on pheasants," he said. "I hunted the ringnecks two or three times last year and had a pretty good hunt on the uplands around Harlan County Reservoir.

"I hunt the chickens and sharptails at Halsey National Forest, where the chicken population is getting stronger every year. I also drive up to the National Grasslands south of Pierre, S.D., for some chicken hunting -- not quite as much cactus and sandbur there to plague the dogs, and they have plenty of room to run."

Matt Lyne of Broken Bow is on the other side of the bird-hunting coin. A dedicated pheasant hunter, he's long been associated with the Broken Bow One Box Pheasant Hunt, an invitational popular for years.

"Generally speaking, our pheasant hunting was not very good in the area," he said. "I guided a group of hunters in the One Box, and we ended up the day with four roosters and 13 quail. Some of the teams did limit out hunting on private land where the owner more or less saved the birds for hunters in the One Box Hunt."

Down in the southeastern corner of the state is Pat Molini, the district wildlife supervisor headquartered at Lincoln. "I think our best counties in the southeast for pheasants last year were Saunders and Butler," he said. "I didn't see any major changes in production this spring; it looked like we had fair nesting conditions for the birds."

Hunters shouldn't pass up the pheasant cover around the Salt Valley Lakes such as Pawnee, Branched Oak, Yankee Hill, Conestoga and Bluestem. Opening weekend can be pretty good, but the pressure moves and removes a good number of roosters from the areas. Wait a couple of weeks and begin running your bird-finders through the cover again.

The wildlife management areas in Lancaster, Seward and Otoe counties are worth a few hunts, and don't pass up the larger ones such as Pawnee, Table Rock and Taylor's Branch in Pawnee County

Brooks Carmichael is a dedicated fan of upland bird hunting. The 64-year-old outdoorsman, who lives on acreage outside of Virginia, reported that his pheasant-hunting success last year was down a bit from what he achieved during the 2006-07 season.

"Nesting habitat

is excellent where I live," he said. "However spring rains appear to be a major factor in limiting birds in this area, " Carmichael said. " I love to hunt quail, and the hunting is reasonably good here in Pawnee and Johnson counties where I hunt. Hunters shouldn't pass up the pheasant cover around the Salt Valley Lakes such as Pawnee, Branched Oak, Yankee Hill, Conestoga and Bluestem.

"Unfortunately, quail numbers have been low for quite a few years due to the loss of habitat such as plum thickets, hedgerows, weedy fencerows and a loss of quite a few milo fields. I usually hunt two or three times a week and it's not unusual for me to limit out on pheasants.

"Pheasant numbers are pretty good if you know where to hunt. I would estimate that I never move fewer than 30 pheasants a day. One day last fall I saw an estimated 150-plus birds -- flushed at least 40 out of one thicket."

According to the veteran hunter, the prairie chicken population is doing well. "I didn't shoot any chickens last year, but I could have easily filled my three-bird season limit. I just really enjoy working my dogs on them. It isn't unusual for the dogs to have a lot of finds in most any effort. Putting up a dozen or more birds is common."

Carmichael hunts over shorthairs, uses a 28-gauge for quail, pheasants and prairie chickens, and shoots No. 7'‚1/2s or 6s.'‚'‚'‚

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