Cleaning Up on Indiana Pheasants
October 04, 2010
Now's the time to enjoy some of the hottest wingshooting of the season on select public-land fish and wildlife areas. Here's where you should try!
Remember, the two-bird limit allows for the harvest of pheasants of either sex. Photo by Roger A. Hill
By Mike Schoonveld
Are you one of the thousands of Indiana hunters who buy a Game Bird Habitat Stamp each year, lick it and stick it on the back of your hunting license? Why do you do that? Sure, it's the law, but the law doesn't say everyone has to buy a hunting license and stick a "bird" stamp on the back. The law only dictates that people who want to hunt game birds (as opposed to migratory birds) in Indiana go through the annual lick-and-stick ritual.
That means turkey, quail and grouse hunters are required to purchase the stamp to hunt in Indiana, but my guess is most of the little stickers are sold to hunters who hope to be able to harvest a pheasant or two sometime during the fall hunting season. Thanks to the expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program and other conservation measures, either allowed or required of landowners taking part in the USDA's farm programs, the pheasant population is expanding across the northern half of the state.
Habitat in Indiana's prime pheasant range - the prairie counties centered around the Benton, Newton, White, and Jasper counties area - shows that where there's good cover, Indiana pheasant densities can rival pheasant numbers anywhere in the country. In recent years, more reports of the better pheasant numbers occurring in non-traditional areas are cropping up each year.
Mitch Bright, a bird hunter from Hobart, remarked, "I find pheasants in lots of places never mentioned as part of Indiana's pheasant range. One of the best hunts I had last year was on a farm 'gone wild' north of Ft. Wayne in DeKalb County - all the way across the state from Benton County. My hunting companion and I moved seven roosters in a two-hour hunt."
But even with the increase in pheasant numbers on private lands, the demand for America's favorite game bird is so great it far exceeds the supply of wild birds. That's one of the reasons that the Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) has invested in public hunting lands to be managed for optimum wildlife and game populations.
Unfortunately, even these well-managed areas can't produce enough wild pheasants to meet the demand for the spectacular game bird and so the DFW's put-and-take pheasant program was initiated. Though the program has undergone rudimentary changes over the years, the basic plan remains intact.
The DFW contracts game farm operators to rear more than 20,000 ring-necked pheasants for the put-and-take program each year. Six DFW properties (Atterbury, Glendale, Willow Slough, Pigeon River, Winamac and Tri-County fish and wildlife areas, along with Huntington Reservoir) host put-and-take hunts each year.
The season starts the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving and continues daily until all 20,000-plus birds have been released. Most years the put-and-take season ends on the weekend after Thanksgiving.
One aspect that hasn't changed is that the daily hunts on each participating property are filled on a first-come, first-served basis with strict quotas of hunters being allowed each day. Though the actual hunting doesn't start until 8 or 9 a.m. each day, hunters wanting to ensure they have a spot under the first-come system will arrive as early as 4 a.m. or earlier to stand in line in the cold and await the time when they can check in, pay their fee and head for the fields.
Obviously, the program works. On most days, every property fills its quota of hunters, and by the end of the week, all the birds have been turned out. There are many people who might take advantage of the put-and-take opportunities were it run in a more civilized manner. There's no reason in today's world of cell phones, faxes, Internet and credit cards that a reservation system that would be more agreeable to more hunters couldn't be concocted.
There is still an option for those hunters who disdain the put-and-take program and the pre-dawn grief that accompanies it. It's called the "clean-up" hunt on the put-and-take properties.
THE CLEAN-UP HUNTS The clean-up season, if you will, is a period when, at no charge, hunters are allowed to hunt for the "leftover" pheasants in the same fields where the put-and-take hunts were conducted. During the prior hunts, two pheasants were released for each hunter who paid the $15 fee, but there are no guarantees for success. Some hunters are able to find and down their "limit" of two pheasants (either sex, since both hens and roosters are released), but others get none or perhaps only one pheasant.
The exact percentage of birds released to birds harvested varies from year to year and from property to property. In general, only about 65 to 75 percent of the pheasants "put" are "taken" during the week of the paid hunt. Statistically, that means there's an abundance of pheasants left running around on these FWAs at the end of the hunt. Pigeon River FWA usually turns out about 2,400 pheasants. If 75 percent are taken, that means there may be 600 additional pheasants available for clean-up hunters.
The actual number is less since predators start working on the released birds immediately. Some are shot but not recovered - and not reported. There are over-bagging incidents each year and some birds may escape the property onto private lands. Still, even with these factors, there are leftover birds available.
Studies of pen-reared introductions have proven time and again that survival of pen-reared pheasants released into the wild is almost zero. In fact, most of the time it is zero. Hunters might as well harvest the put-and-take pheasants because their fate, otherwise, is going to be death by starvation, predation, dehydration or exposure.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING The "normal" way most guys play the clean-up season game is to keep in contact with the property manager where they want to hunt to learn just when the clean-up hunt is going to start. That's a great place to begin for everyone, but don't call early in the day and don't expect to get a definitive answer much more than 24 hours in advance.
The goal of the DFW is for every property to end their put-and-take season and start their clean-up hunt on the same day. That's not always possible, but to facilitate this, at times pheasants slated for one property are shuffled to another so that both properties can add a day to their put-and-take season instead of one running out of birds to release and starting the clean-up hunts while a nearby facility holds another day of put-and-take shooting.
The tallying work can't be done until all the release
trucks are back from the field; those numbers have to be called in to a central location and the decision about the next day's hunt is then made. If you call a property early in the day, the best answer you'll get is a guess as to what is going to be the program for the next day. Wait until late morning or early afternoon and the planning and decisions will be made. You'll get the straight scoop and can either plan for a put-and-take hunt or know when the clean-up hunt will be under way.
Once most hunters learn when the clean-up hunt is slated to start, they set their alarm clocks early, load their hunting truck in the dark and drive to the property for a dawn start. That's no problem from the property's standpoint. The check stations are open long before dawn to accommodate duck and deer hunters, but this is also the way that the put-and-take and clean-up styles of pheasant hunting have gained reputations for being as much of assaults as they are hunts.
Hunters at FWAs are always required to park in designated parking areas and most people don't equate a satisfying pheasant hunt with searching for a parking spot like you might do at Wal-Mart. There's something about listening to other people's car doors opening and shutting, shotgun actions being worked and a bevy of unruly or just rambunctious bird dogs scurrying about your feet that doesn't usually set a good tone for the day.
While it's true there are only so many pheasants left over from the put-and-take season and a few of the "early birds" do get an easy shot or two, what is the real reason to be afield? If all you want is a bird for the table, just stop by the supermarket. There are plenty of chickens, turkeys, Cornish hens or other poultry for sale. If you want a memorable hunt, one with a chance to be both productive and satisfying, then shun the "normal" way of doing things.
Instead of getting up in the middle of the night, sleep in. Instead of slamming down a doughnut as you pierce through the darkness to get to the FWA check station and stand in the line to be processed, have a decent breakfast at home or even a lunch at a "sit-down" restaurant on your travel to the hunting grounds.
The secret is most of the early-bird hunters are gone by midmorning. They've either found their two pheasants and left; or more likely, they became disgusted with the "people" hassles that come from hunting a limited amount of space with an over-abundance of hunters. Either reason works in the latecomer's favor.
Wouldn't you rather show up at a check station, walk right up to the counter and be able to ask a few questions of the attendant without feeling hurried by the customer behind you? Wouldn't you rather get to the hunter parking area and find it empty or nearly so? Wouldn't you rather follow your own strategy and route to hunt through the fields without being intercepted repeatedly by others following their own plan? I would, and that's just what can happen almost any afternoon of the clean-up season. Any afternoon you're likely to find better hunting, but not most mornings. The early-bird axiom doesn't fit here.
DOG POWER I won't go so far as to say not hunting over a good bird dog is wasting your time, but I will wager the gunners who have a good dog or two as hunting companions are going to bring home more game on a daily basis. I'll also wager the few dogless hunters who score on a consistent basis are hunting as much with their brainpower as with their foot-power.
When hunting a public area for wild birds, whether put-and-take or during the clean-up season, I would opt for a well-mannered, well-trained, but mediocre, hunting dog than one with the finest nose and the most dogged determination and drive that won't instantly come to heel, sit, stay and obey the basic commands. Spending time afield with a dog that remains under control is a pleasure. If it occasionally finds a pheasant, that's even better, and realistically, sniffing out a bird is one of the easiest chores demanded of a sporting dog.
Everyone doesn't own a bird dog and many people are in the situation that they just can't. Here's where brainpower can take over. Scan the terrain and habitat and plan a route with all the strategy involved in a commando raid. Pen-reared pheasants, like their wild ancestors, are runners. After a couple of days of being hunted - and all the birds in the clean-up areas have been hunted - taking flight is a surviving pheasant's escape strategy of last resort.
Instead of flushing, they use one of their other survival instincts to avoid being shot. One strategy is camouflage. They'll duck under a clump of grass or sidle into a patch of weeds and simply freeze. Hen pheasants in their natural brown, tan and dark colors are impossible to spot and it's amazing, given how many gaudy colors are sported by a rooster, just how hard they are to find once they duck and hide.
If hiding doesn't do it, their next strategy is to run. Anyone who has ever bitten into the drumstick of a pheasant knows about the tendons in their strong legs. Those stringy fibers and the dark muscles attached spell speed and stamina.
The goal of a hunter is to find a pheasant and make it fly. Therefore, a dogless hunter needs to concentrate on ways to thwart the birds' propensity to hide or run. Just meandering aimlessly in the middle of 40 acres of weeds and grass isn't going to do it. The odds of stepping near enough to a hiding pheasant to make it fly are slim. And if it wants to run away from you, there's nothing stopping it.
Dogless guys need to look for the "little" spots where pheasants might be hiding and where they would have to expose themselves if they decide to run. Hunt for these little "islands" of cover and you'll soon learn to spot them easily. Once you get to one, dive on in. If there is a pheasant in there, it's hiding and just walking around the edge isn't going to convince it to show itself. If you crash into its hideout, it's forced to flee. With the running option removed, that means it's going to flush and that's why you are out there.
Don't expect every island patch to have a pheasant, but some of them will. Find one or two in an afternoon walk, even if that means hunting 50 or more of them, and you'll be doing better than most hunters.
THE TOP GUNS Some people head for FWA clean-up fields with the mistaken idea that since their quarry was pen-reared instead of growing up in the wild, they aren't as tough and are easier marks. Don't think that for a minute.
Sure you can bring down a clean-up pheasant (or even a wild one) with a 20-gauge shotgun or even a well-placed shot with a .410. Just because it can be done doesn't mean that's the best way to do it. Clean-up pheasants aren't weaklings.
The pheasant farmers strive to produce birds every bit as strong and hardy as wild pheasants. In fact, the birds the Indiana DFW purchases for the put-and-take program are contracted with a rigid set of specifications about size, feather quality and flight capability.
Big, strong birds demand a hunter use enough firepower to bring one down cleanly and efficiently. Mo
st experts agree a 12-gauge shotgun poking out a high-velocity load consisting of 1 1/4 ounces of No. 5 or 6 shot is an ideal pheasant load. Go with bigger shot and even a perfectly centered shot may not produce enough pellet hits on the pheasant to kill it instantly. If you select shot sizes smaller than No. 6, the penetration of the lighter shot through the heavy feathers becomes a factor. The bird might be wounded, but not brought down.
Modern shot shells pattern tighter than the old, softer shot loads that many of our fathers were brought up shooting. Old books and magazine articles touted full or modified choke constrictions for pheasant hunters. With modern ammunition, there's really no need to carry a gun with any tighter choke than modified and if you surveyed the best pheasant hunters, you'd discover many of them rely on guns with improved cylinder chokes or choke tubes.
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