Ring-Necked Pheasant Hunting, Hoosier-Style

Ring-Necked Pheasant Hunting, Hoosier-Style

We have it all right here in Indiana when it comes to ringnecks, from put-and-take hunts, wild birds to cleanup shoots and more. (November 2008)

Guess what is America's favorite game bird. No, it's not the mourning dove, though doves top the harvest list each year. Still, they don't engender the passion among hunters to make them No. 1. Bobwhite quail are certainly popular, but legions of quail hunters don't gear up and head out for bobs come opening day. Grouse are the favorites of some, but they're not widely available. Other gunners might pick wild turkeys or other lesser species, such as Hungarian partridge or sharptails. But none of these game birds can compare with the popularity of the ring-necked pheasant.

Now that you are thinking about ringnecks, where would you go if you had an itch to bag a few pheasants? Iowa is good. Nebraska is probably better. South Dakota has topped the list for harvest numbers the past few years, but don't overlook Kansas, parts of Minnesota or North Dakota.

Notice, our own state of Indiana wasn't one of the places that popped out as a "pheasant destination." Pheasants seem to be picky about where they will live and even pickier about where they won't. That means there are "have" states, and "have-not" states, and unfortunately, Indiana is in the latter category.

There's another side to this story, however, and it's the story that though Indiana is a "have-not" pheasant state, Hoosier hunters heading afield in many locations across Hoosierland still manage to bag a bounty of pheasants.

There are even wild ringnecks to be found, for sure. Not in the abundance of the Dakotas or Kansas, but isolated spots can produce well. In addition to these, however, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) holds both paid and free hunts for stocked pheasants on select fish and wildlife area (FWAs) properties in each region of the state. Last, but not least, dozens of entrepreneurs provide pheasant hunting opportunities on private shooting preserves around Indiana.

WILD THINGS

Ring-necked pheasants are not native to North America; rather they are immigrants from Asia. The first transplants to arrive in the Pacific Northwest were stocked on farms in the Willamette Valley where they prospered. Soon, individuals, groups and state conservation agencies imported more or reared pheasants in game farms or captured wild pheasants in one area and released them in others. I doubt there are many counties in the entire country that haven't had some sort of pheasant stocking program conducted in it at some point in history.

Most places the birds didn't prosper. In some areas, they disappeared nearly as fast as the crates could be opened. In other areas, they appeared to take root but slowly faded away. There were obvious habitat problems in some locations; poachers got the blame in others, as did predators. By comparing the areas where the birds prospered well with the areas pheasant stockings fizzled, game biologists eventually discovered one major factor that would predict the outcome of a pheasant-stocking program.

Regardless of what the area looks like now, regions that were once covered with forest won't support wild pheasants. It can be flat as Kansas with nary a tree in sight. It can be planted to prairie grass or other mixes of vegetation, which should furnish first-rate habitat. But it won't grow pheasants on a sustained basis if the land was historically covered with trees.

Areas that were natural prairies (which existed in a few counties in northwest Indiana) and in isolated areas across much of the other northern counties will support pheasants. Areas that were once natural wetlands, now drained for agriculture, will support pheasants. Northern Indiana has a rich history of draining vast wetlands.

In these areas, where habitat exists, pheasants do quite well. The important part of the preceding sentence, however, is "where habitat exists," which is in only a darned few areas. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) of the USDA, which spawned habitat restoration over millions of acres west of the Mississippi River, has had only a tiny influence in Indiana. The land is too valuable. The USDA can't afford to "rent" it for CRP or WRP from the landowners and the landowners can't afford to idle many acres if they wish to keep their farms profitable.

The reality is, though habitat and wild pheasants do exist and plenty of wild ringnecks are harvested in Indiana, they aren't available to everyone. If you know someone who will allow you to hunt, be nice to him or her. The rest of us need to consider other options.

PUBLIC LAND

Though Indiana has many fish and wildlife management areas where public hunting is allowed, only a few of these FWA properties exist where wild pheasants will thrive. Willow Slough and LaSalle FWAs, both in Newton County, have portions of their property that were once covered with wetlands. Kingsbury FWA in LaPorte County and Pigeon River FWA located mostly in LaGrange County has wetland soils, as well as pheasants.

None of these properties are pheasant meccas, however. Success is very low, even if you are a great shot and have a champion bird dog. Even if you walk long miles and know every pheasant strategy in the book, odds are poor that you will bag a wild ring-neck pheasant on an FWA.

LONG ODDS LONGER

Years ago, the DNR started purchasing and leasing substantial tracts of land in Newton, Benton, Jasper and White counties (the region of Indiana which was true prairie, historically). Habitat was developed on these areas and wild pheasants responded. These acres, purchased or leased primarily using money from the Game Bird Habitat Stamp required of each pheasant hunter, quickly became pheasant meccas.

Once the pheasant populations on these lands were well established, hunters were allowed in on a limited basis. A pre-season drawing determines who gets to go, but it's still long odds for the hunter. Last year, over 5,200 applications were received for approximately 250 hunts.

With the price of commodities driving up land rental costs, the leased acres in this program were eating up the majority of the budget. When hunting license fees were raised a few years ago, the bird stamp fee was left at $6.75. Do the math. A 40-acre tract costs about $150 per acre to lease for a year or a total rent of $6,000.

That's not including management and maintenance fees. Add those in and you'll understand that 1,000 people have to purchase a bird stamp each year to fund one of these properties. In reality, fewer than 50 people each year enjoy the opportunity to hunt one of these areas. It's a good deal for the 50 hunters who get to hunt, a poor deal for the other 950 individuals.

Because of this, most of the leased areas were dropped in 2008. The money saved will still go toward the pheasant program, but the money will be spent to purchase land, not rent it. The initial cost will be much greater, but once the DNR buys those acres, it's forever. The downside is the number of applicants for these hunts will be stable or increase, but the number of available hunts will decrease.

DNR PAY HUNTS

The DNR has long realized the supply of pheasants and pheasant hunting areas can't be met and will never be met in Indiana. To better satisfy the demand, they turn a portion of six FWAs and one Division of Parks and Reservoirs property into "preserve style" areas for nine days in November each year.

The way the pay hunts, often called put-and-take hunts, work is simple. The DNR purchases pheasants from private game farms, stocks them daily in hunting areas at the rate of two pheasants per hunter and allows a specific number of hunters into the area to harvest the stocked birds. The cost is $15 per hunter, enough to recoup the purchase price of the pheasants and the limit is two pheasants per day. Both hens and cock birds are legal, as both hens and roosters are released.

Years ago, the DNR pay hunts earned a bad reputation for convenience, safety and quality. There was no mechanism in place to limit the number of people who would show up. The result was overcrowded hunting areas contributing to unsafe conditions and poor quality hunts. Hunters would often be forced to arrive in the wee hours of the morning in order to claim the best spots and to be processed in time for the opening gun. The program lasted only as long as pheasants were available. Some years the game went for less than a week, other years, well over that.

It's all changed, thanks to the power of the Internet. The DNR starts by contracting for a specific number of pheasants. Each participating property is then allocated a finite portion of these birds and the property manager then apportions that number of birds on a daily basis to certain hunting areas or fields.

That's all posted on the Internet, and beginning on Sept. 1 of each year, the hunts are available to be purchased in advance on a first-come basis from the DNR's Web site. It works wonderfully! Hunting areas are no longer packed with hunters. The quality of the hunts is much improved, and there's no reason to arrive on a property hours in advance to wait in long lines. The Web site to purchase a DNR pay hunt is www.dnr.in.gov.

DNR FREE HUNT

The pay to hunt season on DNR properties is always the Saturday before Thanksgiving to the Sunday after Thanksgiving. (In 2008, that's Nov. 22 to 30.) After that, it's the cleanup hunt.

Though pen-reared birds aren't the wily customers wild ringnecks can be, they aren't exactly pushovers, either. They will still run ahead of a dog, they will still flush wild at times, and they are strong fliers. Some of them are just lucky. The long and short of it is, the paying customers coming for the put-and-take hunts don't all bag limits. More birds end up in the "put" column than in the "take" column.

How many? Usually success runs about 75 percent. A pair of hunters bagging three pheasants is about par. If a property releases 2,000 pheasants during Thanksgiving week, at least on paper, when the season is over, there are still 500 pheasants running loose. The actual number will be something less due to lost birds, predation, escapes off the property or other causes, but there will be some number still available.

Two things are well known. Pen-reared birds won't survive through the winter. Most of the properties holding the hunts and the land under these properties aren't conducive to growing pheasants. The chance of residual birds surviving and becoming the foundation of a wild population is zero. So, they might as well be hunted and hunted hard, going to some hunter's home for a family dinner rather than becoming coyote or hawk fodder.

Hunts are held at Glendale, Willow Slough, Atterbury, Winamac, Tri-County and Pigeon River FWAs, as well as Roush Lake Reservoir. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, all a hunter has to do is show up at one of the participating properties, show his or her hunting license and bird stamp, and get a permit card for the day and head to the field.

Hens and rooster pheasants are still legal game (along with any quail, rabbits or squirrels encountered), and the limit remains at two pheasants per hunter. There's no fee involved. The hunters have already paid for the pheasants the previous week.

Since there are a finite number of birds available, the first several days of the cleanup season offer better hunting than later in the year. (The cleanup hunt's end coincides with the close of wild pheasant season.)

During the cleanup hunt, the fringe areas often produce better than the stocked fields. Though the pheasants are released mostly into grassy fields and fencerow areas, that's where most of the hunting takes place and most of the harvest. The survivors are birds that escaped into wetlands or woodlands, harder to hunt and often overlooked by hunters. Though not the typical habitat used by wild pheasants, areas such as these become prime hunting areas during the cleanup season.

Another strategy is to hunt the "second shift." Most hunters head for the property by the dawn's early light. Often, by late morning they've either harvested their pheasants or have worn out themselves and their dogs' stamina and head for home. This means a hunter showing up to hunt the afternoon hours will likely find him or herself mostly or completely alone. Nice!

PRESERVE HUNTING

Don't ever think a shooting preserve owner has set up the business to get rich. They don't any more than fishing guides, big-game outfitters or other businesspeople in outdoor pursuits get rich. What they do get from their chosen careers is the chance to be outdoors doing what they like to do and helping others enjoy the outdoors, as well. For many, breaking even is as good as making a profit.

That being said, what's a day of pheasant hunting in good cover over well-trained bird dogs worth to you? Add in ample limits (more than Indiana's normal two per person) and a season that runs from September to March. Now what would you pay? Throw in the fact your birds will be cleaned and packaged for you at the end of the hunt. Maybe add in a home-cooked meal or one prepared by a professional chef. You may even be able to overnight it in a rustic but ultra-modern lodge and have another hunt in the morning. What would you pay?

All this and more is available at one of the dozens of private shooting preserves located across Indiana. (Go online to www.blackswingandclay. com for a comprehensive listing.) All of these hunts don't offer all the amenities, but if you shop around, you'll find one offering exactly what you require.

There's no set-pricing schedule. Some preserves offer "set" hunts. For a specific price, each hunter will get the opportunity to bag a specific number of pheasants. Extra birds can be "bought" for an additional fee. Some hunts include a bird dog and

handler; some offer discounts if you bring your own dog; some charge extra for the services of a dog and handler.

Regardless of the plan offered, match the price against what it would cost in time and money to take a multi-day trip to South Dakota to harvest the number of pheasants you can bag in one outing on a preserve and you'll be money ahead staying here in Indiana.

Maybe I was wrong earlier in this article when I said Indiana was a "have-not" state when it comes to pheasants. Hoosier pheasant hunting fans may not have unlimited access to the wide-open spaces and bountiful wild stocks available to Westerners, but they do have plenty of options. Regardless if the bird flushing ahead of your gun is a wild bird, one hunted on a preserve or stocked on a DNR property, bagging that gaudy ringneck is a challenge and a thrill. It's a thrill that keeps me going back for more each new season. What about you?

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