Pheasant Hunting In The Prairie State

Illinois' pheasant chief expects rooster numbers to be about the same in 2005 as they were last year, and that's a good thing. But the long-term future doesn't look too bright for the birds.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Although Illinois' upland game hunters may dream of cackling roosters busting cover on a crisp November morning, pheasants are seldom part of the American Dream -- which is a house on five country acres.

My extremely small slice of the country pie is an exception, with two of the five acres in switchgrass, an acre in a food plot, an acre of woods landscaped to create a whitetail funnel and a yard that is too big to mow with a push mower.

Back in 1991 when my wife and I purchased this property in northern Winnebago County near the Illinois/Wisconsin border, there was still a lot of CRP acreage in this north-central Illinois county and the surrounding area. As CRP enrollment ended, the sound of cackling pheasants just sort of faded away. We still hear them now and then, and even see a rooster once in awhile. I keep a .270 by the patio door with a clip nearby and ready to go -- just in case. But I would never shoot any of the few ringnecks that do hang around. The .270 is for coyotes. We have a bunch of coyotes in the neighborhood, with two or three of them meeting the big adios on my property every year.

It seems like every time you shoot one coyote, two or three of his cousins show up for the funeral and never leave. Herein lies a hidden incubus in the American dream. Small tracts of switchgrass attract pheasants, but parcels of cover like my two separate acres of switchgrass and filter strips in grain fields are great ambush sites for Wile E. Coyote and his posse.

"The best pheasant habitat we have in Illinois is undisturbed grass cover in CRP fields and filter strips," said Department of Natural Resources pheasant chief John Cole.

Cole is absolutely correct. The kicker is that coyotes and other predators are every bit as efficient at hunting upland game as you and Ol' Shep. And natural predators are not bound by harvest guidelines like the two rooster-only daily bags or hunting during daylight hours.

Although the coyote's diet is primarily small rodents, they occasionally sneak up on a pheasant that is having a bad day. If this bird is a tight-sitting hen, the future of pheasant procreation next spring takes an even more serious hit.

Coyotes and other natural predators are a radical factor that wildlife managers don't like to talk about. Projecting pheasant numbers from survey data like call counts in the spring and nest surveys are a less than perfect science at best.

From this data, Cole estimates a fall ringneck harvest of about 181,976 statewide, which is down significantly from the 1999-2003 average of 285,020. But it could be worse. The reason for an anticipated increase in the pheasant harvest this year comes from a combination of call counts, nesting surveys and weather patterns between season's end last fall and early summer.

"Winter temperatures were fairly mild and most precipitation fell as rain," Cole recalled. "There were no extended periods of deep snow or heavy accumulation of ice last winter."

An ice storm can devastate the ringneck population in just a few days. Illinois has several major climatic zones. Downstate winter precipitation often falls as freezing rain rather than snow, laminating food with an impenetrable crystal shell and clogging the bird's beaks. In southern Illinois, temperatures usually warm to above the freezing mark in a day or two. But subfreezing temps can hold on long enough to be fatal to birds in central Illinois, which has always been the epicenter of pheasant production in our state.

Get south of Vandalia and pheasants are and always have been a rarity. The soil type and general habitat is more conducive downstate to growing quail rather than pheasants.

Downstate counties are where most of the estimated quail harvest of 204,236 birds will come from this fall, with projections down from the 1999-2003 average of 285,200, according to Cole. The latter numbers in both the pheasant and quail estimates are easier to calculate because bird counters have more information like hunter success surveys to employ while making their projections.

All of the information is plugged into established formulas that have been in place since before coyotes became a major menace in this state. But why is the estimated harvest this fall at 181,976 instead of rounding the number off to the nearest hundred or even thousand?

After the DNR released fall harvest estimates last summer, one of my neighbors saw a coyote crossing the road with a hen pheasant in its mouth. This predator kill doesn't decrease the fall harvest estimate by one bird because it was a hen. But odds are about half of the eight to 14 young chicks this hen was tending to were roosters, with the other half carrying the potential for a geometric increase in the bird population for the 2006 season. None of these chicks will survive, even though there were adequate forbs to attract insects for the chicks to feed on when momma became a coyote entrée.

Ask anybody -- anybody -- in the DNR how many coyotes there are in Illinois and they can't tell you. The professional wildlife managers can't give you a number like 181,976 or even come within a couple thousand. They simply don't know.

Calculating CRP acreage is considerably easier. We have about 200,000 acres of CRP participation in Illinois, according to Cole. About 80,000 acres of that is in filter strips rather than in vast tracts of undisturbed grass like found in neighboring states and the Great Plains.

Back in 1973 I harvested 73 wild ringnecks in Illinois. The daily bag limit was three birds that year -- the only year in my lifetime the bag was three instead of two. Back in the early 1970s, Illinois hunters usually killed over 500,000 birds in a typical pheasant season. One year the harvest was over 1 million. Let me tell you what has happened since this pheasant heyday, Sonny.

Back in the day, the Illinois landscape was mostly a matrix of family farms with a lot of edges and fencerows providing pheasant habitat. Then corporate farms arrived on the scene. Fencerows were ripped out to plant virtually every tillable acre thanks to factors like U.S. government policy, grain deals with the Soviet Union and a host of other factors. Then we got three real tough winters from 1979-'81. With little overwinter habitat to seek refuge in, pheasant numbers nosedived.

If it weren't for Pheasants Forever, your kids would be seeing the ringneck next to the pa

ssenger pigeon under the "extinct" sign on a class trip to Springfield. The government's CRP helped, too, but it was essentially a flip-flop -- instead of planting every available acre, the government figured it would make more sense to pay farmers not to plant crops.

This is a great deal for the farmer in places like North Dakota where land values are cheap. That's a major reason why that Great Plains state has over 3.3 million acres of set-aside pheasant habitat. Our neighbor to the west, Iowa, has about half this much ground in CRP, about 1.9 million acres!

"Spiraling land values in Illinois is the primary reason you don't see more CRP participation," Cole said.

In places like north-central Illinois' Winnebago County where I live -- which the DNR cites as prime pheasant habitat -- the American Dream of the house and five acres driven by suburban sprawl is further decimating habitat. Rural five-acre parcels are rare in Winnebago County. Five acres directly adjacent to my "farmette" just sold for over $10,000 per acre. Some good farm ground two counties west in more rural Carroll County -- where natural pheasant habitat isn't quite as good -- typically goes for almost $3,000 per acre.

When you pay that much money for cropland, government subsidy for set-aside won't generate enough money to pay the bank. At $2.50 per bushel for corn, I don't see how farmers can make a living off of crops, either. On private ground with land prices at $3,000 per acre it usually makes more sense to plant corn -- even at $2.50 per bushel -- than to leave it in CRP.

"This is why there are no large tracts of public areas with good numbers of wild pheasants anymore," Cole said. "Sadly, the same conditions are also prevalent on private lands. Honestly, we're facing a gloomy trend in regard to Illinois' wild pheasant population, with no bright forecast on the horizon."

Further compounding the upland game situation for current and future pheasant hunters is the possibility of adequate funds being earmarked for pheasant habitat in years to come.

With fewer than 50,000 hunters paying the $28.75 resident license fee plus $5.50 for a habitat stamp, having a primary goal of trying to shoot 181,976 pheasants this fall -- an average of just over three birds per hunter all season -- an increasing number of pheasant hunters are joining private hunt clubs to shoot pen-reared "superchickens."

This trend makes a great deal of sense and is the logical progression of pheasant hunting here in the Prairie State. If you bag your fair share of the anticipated harvest this fall, the license fee alone costs approximately $11 per bird -- and you may not get to these wild roosters before the coyotes do. On a private hunting club, the birds are typically placed in the field a few minutes before the hunters load their guns. You've paid maybe $15 bucks a bird, but you know the birds are out there.

This kind of "club" hunting doesn't generate any monies for future acquisition of pheasant habitat for public use. With fewer species-specific pheasant hunters, the slice of budgetary pie pheasant manager John Cole has to work with is little more than crust, with a progression toward mere crumbs in the not too distant future.

I feel considerable remorse that my generation was the last to experience good pheasant hunting for wild birds in Illinois. As a kid growing up in the late 1950s and early '60s I can remember reading how pheasant hunting would be little more than a memory by the year 2000. This prediction was still hard to imagine as a young man in the early 1970s. But now it's clear those outdoor writers who inspired me to follow in their footsteps were true visionaries. And Sonny, I feel it is my obligation to tell you the truth in how to find the best pheasant hunting this year and in years to come.

Success on pheasants will require an investment of time and money on your part. You need to develop a relationship with the few people who still till the land, bartering labor and probably some cash for the chance to chase the few wild birds that remain in Illinois. If you aren't a blood relative to a farmer, the best way to make contact is through a group like Pheasants Forever.

Those who have stewardship over the land have to make a living. If you make it possible for them to achieve this basic goal by subsidizing the farmer's income through both labor in planting habitat like food plots and switchgrass -- and money to purchase the seed, fertilizer and equipment to put this land into pheasant production -- you may realize at least a shadow of the thrilling upland hunting that I've been privileged to experience in Illinois.

Pheasants Forever does this kind of habitat work in both word and deed. It is the essence of their mission statement. PF provided both the switchgrass seed and the planter for the couple acres on my land dedicated to the birds. Their mantra "habitat is the key" is right on target. If you don't provide habitat, there won't be birds, and you won't have a place to hunt.

You would be welcome to hunt pheasants on my place if there were more birds -- and you asked permission. As things stand now, this little bit of habitat is like Fort Apache, and coyotes are circling the stockade. But a neighbor just across the fence is putting in two large tracts of switchgrass with the help of Pheasants Forever and yours truly. This work should yield some birds in three years, with five to eight years peak production for pheasant production in CRP fields that are maintained for wildlife.

Another course you might follow is to join a private hunting club. These entities are typically either large tracts of land owned by an individual or corporation where a membership and per-bird fee is charged, or a "sportsman's club" that pools both money and labor resources to lease land from a farmer. Both of these entities are a fact of life in Illinois. When they exist next to private lands next to a farm that receives no hunting, it's easy to see why farmers aren't overly keen to grant permission to those who simply come down the lane looking for a place to hunt.

Our litigious society also tends to make farmers believe they might get sued if there is a hunting accident. Sportsman's clubs have seen the wisdom in giving the farmer a "hold harmless" agreement as part of the labor/money lease. This is something you may want to consider when knocking on doors while looking for a place to hunt.

The time to find hunting ground is on a rainy spring day when farmers can't get out in the fields -- not now in the fall when they're working 26 hours in a 24-hour day trying to bring in a crop.

About 95 percent of Illinois is privately owned. The scenarios you just read about offer your best chance for ringnecks this fall and for years to come in our state.

There is another alternative that isn't as desirable. And it also requires both time and money: Traveling to where there are still wild pheasants. As mentioned earlier, both Iowa and North Dakota have vast tracts of switchgrass. Both states also have vast tracts of public land in addition to outstanding opportunities on private l

ands where you may be able to gain access by simply asking -- and assuring the landowner you aren't going to sue in the event of an accident. Nebraska, Kansas and South Dakota also have both public and private hunting opportunities that you can't even begin to imagine if your only pheasant hunting has been right here in Illinois. I travel to Nebraska every year because extended family out there makes it easy to gain access to prime private lands like we used to see here in the Land of Lincoln. I also buy a non-resident Iowa license, stashing a little more money for motels and restaurants because the best hunting is just beyond daytrip range.

Iowa does a good job of managing their natural resources. Pheasant hunters there still have a fair amount of clout. And with almost 2 million acres of CRP ground, there are more acres and more pheasants than there are hunters.

DeLorme Map Company's series of state map books provide a great means to negotiate back roads both in other states and here in Illinois. The DeLorme maps show public hunting areas as well. These atlases are sold at sporting goods stores who know a valuable resource when they see it. Or you can reach DeLorme at 1-207-846-7000 or www.delorme.com.

Another valuable tool is acquiring a plat-book map of the county you would like to hunt. Plat books show the name of the landowner, which is a great first step in gaining access to private lands.

Companion magazines to Illinois Game & Fish (also see

www.IllinoisGameandFish.com) for other states also provide key information for those who would like to venture out of state. These state-specific magazines are available on newsstands or at

www.GameandFishmag.com.

Back when I was a kid -- which was a long time ago -- a "Web site" was either something a spider did in the corner of the bedroom or the skin between a mallard's toes. Much has changed since then. I can remember taking a shotgun to school and then on the school bus afterward to hunt pheasants on Jimmy Gallentine's farm in seventh grade. No problem.

The times have changed, as will our pheasant hunting future.

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