Prairie State Pheasant Forecast

Prairie State Pheasant Forecast

Sure, chasing roosters in Illinois isn't as easy as it once was, but hey, they're still out there! We'll point you in the right direction. (Nov 2006)

Many old farm buildings in our northern counties are pheasant magnets.
Photo by Ted Peck.

Pheasant season opens Nov. 4 this year in Illinois, and Department of Natural Resources chief pheasant biologist John Cole is "cautiously optimistic" about our hunting prospects between now and season's end.

"Pheasants are very adaptable birds," Cole said. "Although adult birds are vulnerable to weather events like a winter ice storm, exceptionally wet springs or other conditions that can impact brood success, if the birds have a matrix of habitat, they will survive and prosper."

The Pheasants Forever mantra "habitat is the key" is right on target for upland game.

Back in the early 1970s, pheasants were a byproduct of agriculture, thriving on small family farms where fields were divided by sometimes overgrown fencerows, waterways coursed through small dips in tillable ground, and deeper ditches provided a fortress of canebreak and foxtail grass for birds to escape into.

We had a three-rooster limit back in 1973, with Illinois hunters harvesting a million ringnecks that year. With the help of an eager but hard-mouthed yellow Lab named Jill, I contributed 73 wild Illinois roosters to this tally.

Jill met an untimely death in '75 and was replaced by Rufus, a black Lab with a soft mouth who had the misguided notion that her life's work was wrestling with skunks. Rufus retrieved 50-plus birds every autumn until a change in government policy put virtually every acre into crop production and three successive brutal winters dealt the ringneck population a blow from which it never fully recovered.

I can remember hunting ringnecks in December 1980 behind my home in rural Winnebago County wearing hip boots because the snow was so deep. There was snow as far as you could see in all directions, with one usually productive fenceline little more than a bump in this white carpet. Pheasants were burrowed under the snow here. Rufus plunged her head through the drifts up to her shoulders and caught me a limit of pheasants with no need to pull the trigger.

I was a young man then, like many other hunters believing those three tough winters and a lack of habitat would be little more than speed bumps, with a return to those days of milk and honey just around the corner.

We were wrong. If it weren't for Pheasants Forever and changes in government policy in the form of substantial Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) legislation, Illinois' wild ringnecks would have been nothing more than taxidermy next to stuffed passenger pigeons at the Illinois Natural History Museum.

With many farmers jumping on the 10-year CRP bandwagon, habitat returned, and so did the pheasants. When this decade-long program ended, thousands of acres of habitat were put back into crop production. Pheasant numbers dropped like a rock.

We are now several years into yet another change in government agricultural policy where taking acreage out of crop production is financially appealing to farmers once again, so bird numbers are on the rebound. Call counts went up 19 percent this spring from last year, according to DNR reports.

"In any given hunting season, 75 to 80 percent of the harvest is roosters that were hatched the previous spring," Cole said. "The whole key to predicting how a season will be comes in late August when all brood surveys are in and the numbers are processed."

According to Cole, our best areas for busting a cap on a longtail haven't changed that much from last year.

"Based on annual average harvest from 1997-2002, our top pheasant counties are Ford, Iroquois, McLean, Carroll and Whiteside," Cole said. "It should come as no surprise that these counties are all right up there when it comes to enrollment in current CRP programs."

Unfortunately, the playing field is not as level as the ground in Champaign County when it comes to government subsidies for taking cropland out of production. A generation ago, the epicenter of Prairie State ringneck production was in the tabletop-flat country of central Illinois. If prevailing economic conditions made it feasible to create 20-acre blocks of set-aside acreage in Champaign County, the prime cropland of central Illinois would regain the state pheasant crown within three years.

The hilly country of Carroll County in northwestern Illinois where I grew up was considered "marginal" back in the good old days of pheasant hunting in the Prairie State. The rugged topography of northwest Illinois is tailor-made for contour farming practices and government subsidized "filter strips" of CRP ground. A 20-acre block of switchgrass is the upland game equivalent of a high-rise apartment complex for humans. Filter strips are like single-family dwellings, taking up considerably more acreage per number of residents.

If it weren't for the American dream of a house on five country acres, McHenry, Will and Winnebago counties would be far ahead of Carroll County in regard to prime hunting areas. Suburbanization in north-central and northeastern Illinois has taken literally thousands of acres out of crop production, eliminating pheasant hunting opportunities in the process.

Remember that personal footnote of harvesting 73 birds back in 1973? Many of these were shot just south of Durand in Winnebago County. There are still pheasants skulking along the bottoms of Otter Creek, but with houses on either side as far as you can see, hunting there is out of the question. Hanna Banana, the yellow Lab that has been my hunting companion for the past five seasons, goes "bananas" when she sees these birds along the creek as we drive by observing the posted 30-mph limit.

Hanna retrieved 54 birds last year for me and others, and most of them came from vast blocks of more than 20 acres of habitat like switchgrass on public lands. I'm sure that most species-specific pheasant hunters who don't have passions for deer and waterfowl hunting -- and an obsessive desire to chase fall walleyes -- shot many more roosters.

If you want to hunt public lands where there is an opportunity to pop 50 birds this fall, it's going to cost you. The substantial capital outlay comes for purchase of gasoline at about $3 per gallon, and other travel costs like lodging and meals. Purchase of a non-resident small-game hunting license in states bordering Illinois will set you back about $75 per state, which is just a drop in the bucket when juxtaposed against the grand scheme of thing

s.

Don't blame John Cole and the other dedicated professionals in the Illinois DNR for a pheasant forecast that pales to years gone by. According to DNR statistics for the 2004-2005 season, 55,075 hunters killed 200,059 pheasants in the most recent year for which all statistics are available. This DNR data indicates a 10 percent increase over the 2003-2004 season, which is a 26 percent increase over the five-year average!

The Illinois pheasant forecast for the season we are about to begin looks even brighter than 2005 at this juncture. Good news. Just like your kid taking second in the high hurdles at a track meet.

I still have a red ribbon from my high school track days. That's pretty impressive for a guy at age 55 who can still keep up with a Lab on a hot scent. Never mind that there were only two of us running that race back in 1965. I would have beat the kid from Lanark had I known you still had to run a few yards after clearing that last hurdle.

The point is, the "red ribbon" year that pheasant hunters are likely to experience in the months ahead will fall short of 1995, the last year when Prairie State pheasant hunters put over 300,000 roosters in the game bag. Why was '95 such a good year? Because government policies resulted in substantial tracts of land enrolled in CRP programs in Illinois. Pheasant numbers are driven by habitat. Available habitat is driven by economics. Economic conditions are dictated by the federal government.

So how could Hanna Banana bring me 54 pheasants from primarily hunts on public lands last year, with every reason to expect similar results in the season ahead? Back to economics. The cost of farmland in northern Iowa and North Dakota is much less than in prime agricultural areas of Illinois. In these states, it makes better economic sense for farmers to let the government pay them not to keep land in crop production.

You can't blame an Iowa farmer for sticking his back 40 into CRP. Some say "Iowa" is an acronym for "I Owe the World an Apology." Don't blame the northern Iowa farmers. They will probably allow you to hunt for free if you tire of hunting public lands. There is even more public land, more CRP participation and more pheasants in North Dakota because land prices are even cheaper.

It should come as no surprise that many wildlife-oriented Illinois DNR employees like to go hunting on their days off. Several of these DNR employees are close personal friends of mine who love to hunt pheasants. Although they work diligently within the system to provide the best hunting opportunities here in Illinois, leisure time is spent in neighboring states where both economic conditions and public attitudes are more conducive to good hunting opportunities.

I shot just six ringnecks in Illinois last year. Every one of them came from my brother-in-law's farm over in Jo Daviess County. There are several roosters living behind my rural home in Winnebago County where more than half of my five country acres is switchgrass. Although my acreage and my neighbor's is zoned for agricultural use, we share an unwritten agreement not to hunt these birds, hoping that our stewardship efforts will eventually result in a huntable population of pheasants over the next few years. The future looks bright in this regard because the local habitat is in blocks rather than linear "filter strips" in which pheasants are more prone to predation by a free radical component called coyotes.

DNR managers will tell you they don't have an honest clue regarding coyote impact on the pheasant population, beyond admitting upland game is a frequent and welcome dietary change from rodents for the coyotes. If you can gain permission to hunt on private land, a commitment to seriously hunt coyotes once winter arrives can help your relationship with the farmer. In Illinois, fully 95 percent of the land is in private hands. You must gain permission before hunting.

According to a subjective hunch by DNR pheasant Chief John Cole, most of the 55,000 pheasant hunters in Illinois fall into essentially three categories. There are hunters who farm or have a family connection with a farmer, hunters who pay farmers for the privilege of hunting either with cash, labor or both, and hunters who pay a per-bird cost and membership fee to a private club, where numbers of pen-reared birds are not factored into state harvest totals.

By this point in the calendar year, you should have a pretty good idea regarding the category of pheasant hunter you fit into. Now is not a good time to go knocking on farmers' doors seeking permission to hunt, because farmers have crops to harvest. Unless it is a rainy day when time is spent working on machinery so they can get back in the field, farmers generally don't have time for salesmen, hunters or even coffee.

If you have a place to hunt over the next couple of months, you can expect to find slightly better hunting opportunities than you did last year, with a substantial qualifier relating back to that farmer working on machinery on a rainy day.

Just how well you do afield this fall is based on a number of factors. According to DNR statistics compiled for the 2004-05 season, hunters went afield 299,696 days that year, with the 55,075 hunters killing a total of 200,059 birds. Statistics indicate this level of participation shows a 10 percent increase in hunter activity from the 2003 season, and a 2 percent increase in harvest rate from 2004.

Although it took the average Illinois hunter more than one trip to put a bird in the game bag, my six roosters came on just four trips because of Hanna's hunting savvy and the fact that Farmer Dave's combine didn't break down before the corn was harvested.

The state of the grain harvest as we work through November will have a considerable impact on next year's pheasant forecast. Besides being blessed with greater than average success last season, one-third of my wild Illinois ringnecks -- two birds -- were older than 1-year-old, which is substantially different than the statewide trend of 75 to 80 percent of the harvest being juvenile birds.

There are several ways you can get an idea of a bird's age. Pheasants with tail feathers longer than 22 inches and spurs that are sharp rather than dull nubs are probably veterans. The "beak test" is an even better indicator of pheasant age. Hold your freshly killed rooster by the bottom beak. If the beak breaks, the pheasant is almost certainly one from this year's brood.

Here is another tip to keep close to the vest as you get ready to don that required blaze orange cap and head out for another season: Massengill douche is by far the best odor antidote for a dog that has had a close encounter with a skunk. Conventional wisdom says tomato juice is a good neutralizing agent. I tried tomato juice on Rufus several times before discovering douche. After gallons of tomato juice, Rufus just smelled like a 70-pound skunky Bloody Mary.

Thus far, Hanna Banana has shown considerably more discretion regarding grappling with white-striped mammals. She doesn't understand why we don't shoot the roosters that live behind the house or why so much money goes to Pheasants Forever rather than kibble

s.

The future of pheasant hunting in Illinois is truly in your hands. If you support Pheasants Forever and you get politically active and demand that elected officials place greater emphasis on stewardship of natural resources for the birds, prospects for upland game hunting in Illinois will be better than the "slightly better than last year, but worse than a decade ago" picture we're looking at between now and season's end in January.

The future is now!

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