A Ringneck Season to Remember

A Ringneck Season to Remember

That's what Great Plains pheasant hunters are hoping for this fall -- but is that what they'll get? Read on to see what state biologists are saying.

By Dave Melrose

Across the Great Plains, things appear to be looking up for pheasants and the wingshooters who enjoy chasing them.

As this is being written, it's not possible to predict with rock-solid accuracy that the 2004 season will be better or worse than, or just the same as, last year's. However, recent history suggests that the trend is toward ongoing improvement - even though that improvement may be only slight in some areas.

The success or failure of any hunting season in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas always hinges on a multitude of factors. Indeed, when talk turns to pheasants, it seems easy to argue that more factors affect the resource in more ways than is the case for practically any other popular game species throughout our four-state region. The bottom line, of course, is that the population of the species you're after has to be healthy. You can look to the factors that affect the population as those that will make the difference in 2004, or in any year.

Before going into a state-by-state look at where things stand, let's consider all the ways that pheasants feel an impact over the course of a given year. We'll start with September.

By now, the population in any given area has been set for the upcoming season. Birds are now using available cover and food as they prepare for the onset of winter.

If the spring and summer preceding have been average, or maybe a little mild, then bird numbers should be pretty strong and available cover plentiful. They'll have plenty of food to eat, too, because waste grain in harvested fields will be more plentiful as a result of healthy crops and a reasonably bountiful harvest.

If it's been more hot and dry than not, however, the pheasant landscape will look different. Nesting habitat will likely have been not so good, and the resulting year-crop of birds may not be quite what biologists or hunters had hoped for. Cover and food too will be of lesser quality, so the birds that are present may be stressed more than is usual heading into the hunting season and the winter.

As a result, pheasants will tend to seek the heaviest cover available during periods of harsh weather, and may thus be easier to find then. And hunters who work that cover effectively will be rewarded with bird-heavy bags.

Photo by Tom Bulloch

If winter arrives cold but not necessarily snowy or very tough, wingshooters may face frustration even in those areas with large populations. Pheasants will run when and if they can, and especially after opening weekend, the birds will be skittish; even steady, determined dogs will find it hard to pin birds down in shooting range. This is the toughest hunting situation of all.

Natural mortality always makes more of an impact on birds - on any game species, really - than hunting pressure ever can. If a really snowy, cold winter unfolds following the kind of spring and summer that leaves cover sparse, pheasants can take a pretty big hit.

After the season, after the worst of winter, hunters and biologists are left with a "breeding population" that will make or break the following season. If numbers remain up, production will be better regardless of conditions.

It's all relative. Good numbers and good nesting conditions will mean good-to-excellent reproduction; good numbers with less-than-ideal breeding conditions will still produce a decent number of young birds. But if the elements conspire to hit populations hard through the winter, no amount of serviceable cover or positive breeding conditions will be able to make up the losses in one season. Pheasant numbers will decline, and hunters may endure one season or more of less-than-favorable action in the field before things get back more toward normal.

The preceding has offered a look into the things that affect pheasants in a given season; what follows is a state-by-state look at where things stand now in the Great Plains as the 2004 season prepares to unfold. In a nutshell: The news appears to be more good than bad. From the Canadian border south to the Kansas-Oklahoma line, pheasant populations appear to be holding at decent levels, and the situation with the birds' habitat and food supplies seems to be on an even keel. Accordingly, regionwide hunting prospects look pretty promising.

This state-by-state summary is presented alphabetically.

KANSAS

Biologist Randy Rogers characterized the season enjoyed by hunters last year as a "big improvement over the previous two years'," but added, "It was kind of odd, though, because we knew that pheasant numbers were up, but hunter success was below what we expected. But still, the season was better than we've had recently."

Rogers notes that not only were ringneck numbers higher than they had been in recent years, but cover conditions were better as well; in some areas there were cover types available that birds hadn't seen in a long time.

"Kansas endured fairly dry conditions through the growing season last year," he offered, "and that led to fields of uncut milo in places all over the state. Those fields created pheasant refuges. There was enough milo there to keep the birds fed and hidden well, but not enough for the farmers to harvest. It was hard for hunters working these fields to really be effective."

The biologist also reports that the state's hot summer led to the appearance of a fair amount of weedy wheat stubble. "It's the first time we have seen this kind of habitat in some places in years," he noted. "Farmers did not spray their wheat fields for fear that they might adversely affect their crops, so we did get some modest weed growth. It's a habitat many people are not familiar with. They have been hunting (Conservation Reserve Program)-type cover for so long that they didn't realize how much pheasants use the weedy stubble. That also proved to help the birds get through the hunting season."

As a result, Rogers says, the 2004 spring breeding population was the best that the Sunflower State has had in the past four years. "We did have about a month of persistently cold weather with snow," he observed, "but I don't believe it was enough to hurt our pheasants."

The only area of the state looking a bit anemic as the new season approaches is that consisting of the two far western tiers of counties. "The breeding population out there was real marginal," Rogers explained, "so I don't expect to see things really being a whole lot better out there this season."

The western third of the Sunflower State continues to endure the effects of drought, and that doesn't bode well for pheasants as you continue to move east. Southwestern Kansas could again be a winner, however, because, thanks to that weedy wheat stubble remarked on above, numbers showed a real increase last season.

As has been the case for about a generation now, central Kansas - and particularly the north-central region - appears to be this season's place to go for pheasant action. "The central third of the state definitely is shaping up to be pretty good," Rogers noted. "Right now, with the exception of what I call 'the wheat desert' in the southern part of the region, central Kansas is generally better than any other part of the state."

NEBRASKA

In Nebraska, biologist Scott Taylor sees the same kind of problems in the west as does his Kansas counterpart, and for the same general reason.

"The drought we have had in the west is a big problem for out pheasants ... all of our wildlife, really," he explained. "Pheasants were pretty spotty out west last season, but most people saw more birds in eastern Nebraska than they had in the past several seasons."

Taylor also feels that, heading into the 2004 breeding season, many areas had solid complements of birds. Production likely will be up again, although numbers like these are always tough for biologists to pin down. "We know we had population increases last season, for example," he remarked, "but it's difficult to really quantify it. We had generally favorable weather throughout the breeding and nesting seasons. It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good overall. And our populations statewide had been fairly low over the past five years to begin with, so we know that the good production of last year boosted numbers in most areas."

According to Taylor, expanding populations found habitat appropriate for their uses, too. "The birds had good habitat available, and as their numbers increased, they were filling in where pheasants should have been anyway."

Taylor reckons the breeding population this year as about the same as that in 2003, which should mean that hunters and landowners probably will see at least a slight increase in birds again when the season opens in early November.

"The drought in western Nebraska is a big problem, of course," he added, "but I have to say that data I've seen suggests that pheasant populations throughout the entire Midwest increased. Favorable conditions seemed to bless everyone."

From a historical perspective, Nebraska's pheasant hotspots have been found in the northeast and southwest regions. Unless the precipitation situation has seen a drastic improvement by the time you're reading this, you can again expect the northeast region to offer the top prospects for 2004's pheasant chasers.

"The northeast has been consistently better over the past five seasons because of the drought out west," Taylor said. "But we still see the same patterns year in and year out, where the northeast and southwest overall are the best pheasant areas. Southeast Nebraska and the Panhandle area offer some hunting opportunities, but they are nothing like the northeast and southwest."

NORTH DAKOTA

The average hunter might reasonably assume that North Dakota, the most northerly Great Plains state, would be prone to more winter-weather-related pheasant losses than its neighbors to the south. Not so, says biologist Lowell Tripp, who notes that when those losses do occur, they happen much later than many folks would ever imagine. "We lose some pheasants every year," he stated, "and those losses usually occur in March."

Nature, Tripp explained, can be sneaky like that: "When things start turning cold in the fall our pheasants are healthy and in good shape, and they know by instinct to begin looking for the best available winter cover around. This helps them get through the coldest times and into March.

"As spring approaches, the birds' fat reserves have decreased; they're not in anywhere near the shape they were when winter arrived. The days start getting longer, and they begin to leave the winter cover in search of food. We experience losses when late-season storms move in and catch our pheasants away from the best winter cover.

"By the time we hit the first week of April, each day is a little better for our birds. By then, much of the danger from harsh winter storms has passed."

Fortunately, Tripp says, the pheasant population is doing quite well in all parts of the state. The winter of 2003-04 was no worse than average, and thus pretty benign in terms of the pheasants' well-being.

Hunters in the southeast did really well last season, he reports, and the numbers in the south-central region were up, too. "Just about anybody hunting south of I-94 did well last season," he offered.

According to Tripp, the breeding population was doing well as spring unfolded, and moisture conditions were respectable statewide. "Hunting this season will depend on how breeding turns out," he added, "and we'll need some humidity at the right time for things to be optimum."

Again this season, that portion of the state south of I-94 will offer the best prospects. Tripp notes that portions of that southern tier could be better than some hunters anticipate because of (among other factors) a lack of pressure.

"The past few years," he explained, "southwestern North Dakota has produced the best hunting when you look at harvest figures. But there also have been more hunters spending time there than in other parts of the state.

"The area got some good reviews, and as a result, everyone went there. I don't mean to diminish its potential by any means, but there are other areas south of I-94 that will offer some good hunting that folks just might not be so aware of."

Tripp points out the existence of winter cover like the birds like along the Missouri River system, particularly in the Garrison Dam area. The bottom line appears to be that hunters who choose to visit southern North Dakota have a decent chance of finding some satisfying action.

Regulations for the 2004 season were somewhat up in the air as this story was written, and hunters should check the state's Web site for the latest information.

Non-resident hunting regulations changed last year to mandate that no non-resident could hunt on lands controlled by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department during the first week of the season. Non-resident fees also increased, and that combination led to legal action on behalf of some non-resident interests. Because the case was still active, Tripp couldn't comment, but anyone planning to hunt North Dakota should check the state's Web site for details on how the 2004 season will unfold.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Biolog

ist Tony Leif offered us a pithy summation of his state's status in the pheasant world: "It is becoming more and more apparent that South Dakota is the national playground for pheasant hunters."

The eastern half of South Dakota, more specifically. This section of the state has been focused in on by hunters from every corner of the U.S. And from a look at harvest numbers, a startling fact emerges.

"South Dakota annually leads the nation in pheasant harvest," Leif noted, "and the eastern half of the state accounts for 95 percent of our annual harvest."

Amazing!

"The fact does tend to surprise people," he continued. "But the fact is that the western half of the state is subject to much more open rangeland use that is not very conducive to pheasants. Eastern South Dakota is mostly mixed agricultural usage - classic pheasant habitat. And we enjoy the right precipitation patterns on average. An average weather year here usually equals a good pheasant year."

According to Leif, it was no surprise that the 2003 season was a good one. "For all practical purposes," he said, "the season unfolded much as we anticipated. We have a very reliable set of data that we collect every year in August. We believed that everyone in the eastern half of the state would find more birds than they did in 2002. And they did. There were varying degrees of population change, of course - but the general trend was up."

As Leif explains it, 2002 was a year more plagued by drought than was 2003. As a result, pheasants had better habitat for breeding and nesting, and that paid off in better numbers. The 2004 breeding season shaped up about the same as had the previous two years', he adds. The major difference is that, again, the state is coming off a more average year in terms of weather.

"We had another mild winter and a fairly dry spring, which should make for good production, I believe," he offered.

As is the case everywhere in pheasant country, there will be spots with outstanding numbers, and others where they aren't quite so high. But across the board, the eastern half of South Dakota has to be considered the ringneck destination for hunters who want to enjoy the best this resource can offer.

Not surprisingly, hunter demographics prove this statement's validity. "We don't have all the numbers just now," Leif said, "but early indications are that we hosted more non-resident hunters in 2003 than we did in 2002. And non-residents always outnumber our resident hunters. We are approaching all-time-record numbers of non-resident hunters visiting South Dakota."

And yet, they saw more birds and produced a harvest that will lead the nation - with 95 percent of those pheasants coming from only half of the state.

Little should change in 2004. And with a little good fortune regarding the weather, South Dakota could offer wingshooters some really memorable hunts this season.

WEB SITES

Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks: www.kdwp.state.ks.us.

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission: www.ngpc.state.ne.us.

North Dakota Game and Fish Department: www.state.nd.us/gnf.

South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks: www.sdgfp.info/Index.htm.



Discover even more in our monthly magazine,

and have it delivered to your door!

Subscribe to Great Plains Game & Fish


Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.