Indiana's Late-Season Ringnecks

Indiana's Late-Season Ringnecks

Cool temperatures and savvy birds can make late-season pheasant hunting a challenging but not impossible task.

When wing shooters get together and talk about the best pheasant hunting across the country, the state of Indiana hardly ever surfaces in conversation. Instead, places like South Dakota and Kansas receive the bulk of the accolades. Even our western neighbor, the Prairie State, gets a little spotlight from time to time. Indiana may not lead the pack, but that doesn't mean we can't still find some great pheasant hunting opportunities here in the Hoosier State. We may just have to look a little harder.

Pheasants were first stocked in the states in the 1850s and in Indiana in about 1900. The birds flourished here for a time and were very plentiful in Indiana, especially throughout the northern third of the state. When bird numbers peaked some 40 years ago, there were approximately four million acres of farmland idled in land retirement programs that provided prime habitat for pheasants to nest and survive.

Today we see unprecedented habitat loss through urban expansion, changes in farm practices, and newer regulations for set-aside land. There is now less than 300,000 acres in Indiana idled through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The total loss of once-great pheasant habitat now exceeds 90 percent of what it was two decades ago. Habitat loss is usually to blame for most all wildlife declines and the reduction of prime pheasant habitat has led to declines in the bird population that will most likely never be reversed.

Looking at some of the survey information, it's easy to see a trend in pheasant population numbers. The Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife (IDFW) uses a survey method of making stops along an annual survey route and listening for pheasants crowing. The number of birds heard is recorded and then tabulated and compared to past years to determine population trends.

The last crow count survey available was from the spring of 2008 when observers heard an average of .95 roosters per stop. Although this figure was slightly up from the .89 roosters per stop in 2006, it showed a modest decline of 22 percent over the 10-year average. Disappointingly, comparing the 2008 crow count to the long-term average of 3.02 roosters per stop shows a dramatic decline of 69 percent over the last 30-plus years.

The IDFW, along with the USDA, Pheasants Forever, and others, are doing what they can to increase habitat and provide as much hunting opportunity as possible. Regrettably, Hoosiers will never be able to enjoy the pheasant hunting euphoria of the 1960s and 1970s, but we can still have some great times afield and make positive improvements to the habitat when possible.

One of the management strategies of the IDFW is the Pheasant Habitat Development Program. This program identifies six priority areas in the state the IDFW believes are best suited for habitat enhancement. Six professional wildlife biologists are assigned to the project to help eligible landowners develop a habitat management plan for their property. The program then covers up to 90 percent of the cost of the recommended management practices and landowners also qualify for a one-time signing incentive for enrolling their land in the program.

As mentioned, there are still properties enrolled in the CRP. Additionally, another program of the USDA Farm Service Agency is the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP). The CCRP provides three programs that can directly benefit pheasants by providing cover and nesting habitat. They are filter strips, upland wildlife buffers, and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE). They are also referred to as CP-21, CP-33, and CP-38, respectively.

The IDFW also administers a couple of other programs that benefit pheasants by enhancing habitat. They are the Wildlife Habitat Cost-Share Program and the Game Bird Habitat Development Program. In addition to these habitat programs, the IDFW also provides hunting opportunity through means of releasing pen-raised birds. In total, there's quite a bit of hunting opportunity available for those who take advantage of all that's offered.

A willingness to explore more difficult terrain can help you locate overlooked birds. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

It's too late to get in on one the IDFW programs, but it's definitely not too early to learn about it and plan for next year. Several draw hunts for pheasants are held each year on Game Bird Habitat Areas owned by the DNR and other leased lands. This is the 25th year for pheasant draw hunts.

Hunters must apply online, usually between the first of July and the first of October, and then be drawn to participate. More than 220 spots are typically available scattered over ten specific hunt dates. There is also one hunt reserved for youths under the age of 18.

Applicants can select the date they prefer, but the property hunted is assigned through the drawing. Successful applicants may bring up to two hunting partners. Last year, 387 hunters participated in draw hunts and bagged 286 pheasants. This amounted to a success rate of .74 pheasants per hunter.

Wild birds on private ground are obviously the most desired, but are also the scarcest. There are still good numbers of birds scattered throughout the state, but with private land access so difficult these days, only a small percentage of Hoosiers get the opportunity to chase the remnants of our once-bountiful wild pheasant population. For those that do get to hunt wild birds, the best success comes in the upper third of the state.

There are several public lands open during statewide season that have populations of wild pheasants, but hunting them is no easy chore. Actually, to put it more appropriately: Having success hunting them is like winning the lottery -- the odds are pretty slim.

To give it a try, hunters may want to target some of the public lands located in or near the best of the traditional pheasant range. Looking at a map and locating the portions of the state the IDFW has designated priority areas will narrow the search. A few places to consider include Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA) in LaGrange and Steuben counties, Kingsbury FWA in LaPorte County, or LaSalle FWA in Newton County. Willow Slough FWA, also in Newton County, consistently ranks near the top as a favorite with area pheasant hunters.

With patience and strategy, a hunter can keep his retriever busy late into the year. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Public lands receive a lot of hunting pressure, and success in pheasant hunting is minimal. Bird numbers are not abundant to begin with and hunting pressure quickly causes birds to vacate the properties for safer surroundings. Hunters early in the season have a little success, but by now it's pretty tough to find wild birds on public land.

Many of the food sources have been depleted by now and vegetation used for cover has been battered over the past couple months due to weather and wind. Lots of tall grass once used for concealment is now broken down or even covered over by snow. The birds that remain will have moved near secondary food sources. They will be stuck tight to available cover and slow to flush. To locate birds here in the late season, hunters will have to do more than just saunter through some fields hoping for action. A great dog and lots of resolve are necessities.

Indiana also holds numerous put-and-take hunts throughout the course of the season. These hunts are one of the best opportunities available for Hoosiers, even though the hunt isn't for wild birds. The IDFW releases several thousand pen-reared pheasants each year and those hunters who take advantage of the program typically have pretty good luck.

There are seven properties available for put-and-take hunting. They include the previously mentioned Willow Slough FWA and Pigeon River FWA. The remaining properties are Atterbury FWA in Johnson County, Glendale FWA in Daviess County, Tri-County FWA in Kosciusko and Noble counties, Winamac FWA in Pulaski County, and the J. Edward Roush Reservoir (also known as Huntington Lake) property in Huntington and Wells counties.

For these put-and-take opportunities, hunters may reserve hunt dates online beginning September 1 and continue until the latter part of November or until hunts are sold out. The hunts take place during the week of Thanksgiving, usually starting the Saturday before Thanksgiving and running for about nine days. Unlike the draw hunts, applicants may select the date, property and location on the property to hunt. The cost for these hunts is 15 dollars per person and the bag limit is two birds of either sex. A hunter filling a limit on a put-and-take hunt may not take any more pheasants that day.

Some people frown on put-and-take hunting because the birds are not wild and are deliberately put out for hunting. While it would be great if there were a plethora of wild birds available, the hard truth is it's just not going to happen. The good old days are gone. Now we are faced with trying to provide as many hunting opportunities for as many people as possible.

There are differences in hunting released birds versus wild birds. The most obvious is how wary the birds are of humans and how readily they flush. That said, released birds can be every bit as challenging as wild birds, especially after a little hunting pressure is applied. Whether raised in the wild or in captivity, no bird embraces pressure from dogs, humans and shotgun blasts.

Put-and-take birds become quite skittish after the first couple days of hunting. They will seek out heavier cover and some will even vacate the property onto which they were released. Subsequently, this often results in opportunity for landowners and those who have permission to hunt on adjacent properties. Just as with wild pheasants, hunting these pressured put-and-take birds can require a good dog and diligent pursuit.

Another good thing about the put-and-take hunts is the opportunity left after the hunts conclude. Hunters can't possibly bag every single bird released and success for these hunts generally runs about 75 percent. With several thousand birds initially released for the put-and-take dates, a few thousand are always left over once the hunts are completed. These birds are then made available for what are known as cleanup hunts.

After the put-and-take ends, hunters may then show up at the property and hunt for free. All they must do is possess a hunting license and a bird stamp and then obtain a permit card for the property. Hunting then follows the regulations for put-and-take hunting with a bag limit of two birds per day of either sex.

This hunting period often more closely mirrors wild bird hunting. The pheasants have been hunted hard for more than a week and have seen more than they bargained for in the way dogs, people and pressure. Most of the birds have been pushed from the fields and easy access areas. It's time now to get down and dirty for a successful hunt.

Look for areas with thick, heavy cover, especially those areas not easily accessible from a road or parking area. People will hunt the closest, easiest areas the hardest. Savvy hunters will seek out tougher areas located adjacent to, but not in these high-pressure areas. That's where the birds will go, too. Look around in person and even consult area maps. Identify the access routes other hunters have been using and then consider where the birds would need to go to find refuge. Again, a topnotch canine that isn't afraid of burrowing into the thick stuff will definitely be man's best friend here.

The bulk of the cleanup hunts is during the first week or two after the put-and-take hunts. Some areas remain open until the end of statewide pheasant season. Pheasant hunting season was extended last season on Atterbury FWA and Glendale FWA until January 15, but always check current regulations before going afield.

Last but not least, hunters can also opt for a commercial bird hunting preserve. The process is not really any different than hunting the put-and-take areas provided by the IDFW. It's obviously more pricey, but the hunts are often more successful and exciting, the bag limits are usually determined by wallet thickness, and the season dates are much more flexible.

Another great advantage to preserve hunting is the actual habitat. These properties are usually maintained entirely for bird hunting, unlike public hunting lands, which must be managed for multiple uses. Commercial preserves plant specific types of cover and keep it mowed to provide the greatest opportunity for hunting. Furthermore, many of these operations will have guides and even provide dogs, thus giving many hunters who don't own their own dog an opportunity to hunt behind a fantastic flusher.

A quick search on the Internet will yield a wide array of results for bird hunting preserves here in Indiana. Prices and amenities vary from one operation to another. Some are fairly basic and inexpensive. Hunters can arrive at a set time for a day hunt, take a certain allotment of birds, and go home. On the other end of the scale, some offer plush overnight accommodations, fine dining, and will clean and prep the harvested birds for transport home. Some even have other facilities such as trap and clay ranges or more.

Come to think of it, preserve hunting may be one of the best options for late-season pheasant hunting.

KEEPING LEGAL

Hunters must possess a hunting license and bird habitat stamp

for pheasant hunting. Some properties require other permits and special regulations may apply in certain areas. Always consult the most recent hunting regulations before heading out and don't forget to check in with the area office before venturing onto any public hunting property.

During statewide season, hunters may only take male (cock) pheasants. The bag limit is two per day and hunters must leave the head and head plumage attached while transporting the bird. More information on all available pheasant opportunities in Indiana is available by visiting www.indianaoutdoor.in.gov or calling (317) 232-4200.

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