Intermountain Pheasants -- Great To Gruesome

Here's a look at the 2006 pheasant hunting season, from Montana's high plains to New Mexico's arid grasslands. (Nov 2006)

Over the long haul, wild pheasant populations in the Rocky Mountain states rise and fall depending upon quality habitat -- or the lack thereof. Given healthy habitat and lots of it, pheasant populations rebound quickly on the heels of all but the worst disasters.

To be sure, prime pheasant habitat exists on some public lands -- national wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas, waterfowl production areas and more -- across the Intermountain West. But the bulk of the best pheasant habitat is found on private lands.

Access then, is your key to enjoying consistent hunting success. In other words, no matter how many roosters there are anywhere this fall, you need to get at them to score.

Beyond owning your own spread, there are several ways in the "New West" to gain access to hunting pheasants on private land:

Pay (Not an option for me, but you may feel differently);

Knock on ranch doors and beg permission; or

Strike up a relationship with a landowner.

In 2006, ferreting out and nurturing relationships with those landowners who do allow pheasant hunting may be the most important item a hunter can bring to the table.

To protect valuable resources, hunters need to show landowners courtesy, appreciation and above all, respect. In particular, you should:

Obtain written permission as required. Not only is it the law, but one trespass violation is often all it takes to lock gates down for everyone, and for good.

Close all gates. Ranchers have enough problems with loose livestock.

Stay on established roads and off wet ones, if driving onto the property is allowed.

Pick up your empties. Pack out not only what you pack in, but also what others have left behind.

Watch your line of fire. No pheasant is worth a wounded farm animal, family pet -- or, heaven forbid, a human being. Property owners also don't appreciate shot-sprayed buildings or farm implements.

Dress appropriately. Commando garb has no place in the pheasant fields.

Go out of your way to thank your host. Hunting private lands is a privilege, not a right. Make sure the landowner knows how much you appreciate that privilege. Bearing gifts is perhaps the surest way to gain a return invitation.

But when even your best attempts to access private property for pheasant hunting go awry, there's another way to get with the bird-hunting programs found in the Rocky Mountain states.

A host of wonderfully successful -- and free -- programs for accessing private hunting lands are found in three of the region's leading pheasant-hunting states: Montana's Block Management (with 8.5 million acres), Idaho's Access Yes! (with 1.2 million acres) and Colorado's Walk-In Access (160,000 acres).

Last season, in fact, I used Montana's Block Management program where we hunted about 25 prime private rooster spots and spent not one dime for access. We simply parked the truck, signed in, loosed the dogs and raised our guns. A real bargain, as I'm sure you'll agree.

But finding a place to hunt pheasants in the Intermountain West is just the beginning of the tasks associated with pheasant hunting.

Your next step is to develop a hunt strategy -- a plan of attack, if you will. Careful planning equates to enjoyable hunts, not only on opening weekend, but even on the last day of season, as well. In other words, know your quarry.

For starters, wily cockbirds still kicking on the last day of the season are far different critters than the foolish, often young-of-the-year cocks that make for such easy gunning on the morning of opening day.

For the uninitiated, here is an outline of Roosters 101. (There is a lot more to this short course, but heeding the following should get you into the ballpark.)

Item 1: Roosters still alive following the initial onslaught aren't likely to hang around for round two. Survivors also prefer running to flying, so a good dog is almost a prerequisite. As hunting pressure increases, the survivors head for the thickest, gnarliest cover available. And they will go however far it takes to find it -- a lot farther than many of us care to walk.

Item 2: You need backup hunting ground(s). This will require additional study and scouting. For example, if you hunt the heck out of the easy stuff, then where is the closest tough cover? And, most urgently, how can you get onto it?

In other words, the land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program where you found dozens of birds cavorting on opening morning is not likely to hold squat after Day One -- unless you hold exclusive hunting rights and can rest the birds, as well as yourself, between hunts.

Item 3: Bring a good dog. You can indeed shoot roosters without a good pointer/retriever, but you'll get a lot more chances to shoot birds with a good dog at your side. Besides, good dogs are what bird hunting is all about.

Item 4: Late-season roosters are tough to corral. And success is fleeting, usually demanding a lot of legwork. With that in mind, we always try to cram in as many late-season days as possible, simply because the roosters still out there are so much fun -- cute, actually, in the foxy sense. Typically we see roosters, often in mind-boggling numbers. But shots that put actual birds in the bag tend to be few and far between. If it's meat in the freezer you're after, better head for the nearest Safeway. (This tip from veteran hunters armed to the teeth with savvy dogs -- dogs who know roosters.)

Item 5: Doggedness pays off . . . sometimes, anyway.

2006 HUNTING PROSPECTS: MONTANA

I think that on the heels of a devastating winter and killer spring, you could sum up Montana pheasant-hunting expectations prior to last season as "cautiously optimistic," thanks to a generally dry winter, a decent spring, good nesting and brood-rearing cover, and not too harsh a summer.

In a nutshell, the 2005 pheasant season played out as "Maybe not great, but okay." We found the hunting as advertised: pretty good in some spots, okay in others, not so hot in a

few. Overall, I'd give Montana's last rooster season a B+ grade.

Generally speaking, the heart of Montana's accessible ringneck hunting opportunities is found in the central, north-central and particularly, in the northeast portions -- Region 6 -- of the Treasure State.

East of the Continental Divide, isolated hot pockets for pheasant hunting occur in most of the major river basins, especially the Yellowstone and its tributaries in the southeast. You can hardly go wrong following the Hi-Line east from Great Falls/Shelby to the North Dakota border or poking around the Yellowstone, Tongue, Powder or Bighorn river bottoms.

When asked to speculate on the upcoming bird season, information specialist Andrew McKean of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks painted a much rosier picture than the "cautious optimism" expressed by MFWP personnel last year.

"Crowing counts in Region 6 are well above the long-term average. Overall, we experienced a fairly mild winter. And so far this spring, there has been fair moisture," he reported.

"Barring unforeseen disaster, nesting and brood-rearing conditions should be good. And a good carryover of adult hens should produce a good hatch. And hopefully, that will equate to good hunting."

While other parts of Montana experienced plenty of snow last winter, the general consensus on the winter weather appears to be, "It was snowy, but not the sort of blizzards and cold that devastates upland-bird populations." Pheasants appear to be in pretty good shape, according to the MFWP reports.

"Unless we get . . . a harsh, dry summer, we should be good to go come October," McKean said at press time in early August.

Personally, my hunting party spent a good deal of the early spring in various parts of Montana. We heard roosters crowing nearly everywhere, perhaps like no spring in recent memory.

Official spring crowing counts are not yet fully processed, but word on the street is "Lots of rooster music was heard this spring." A friend who lives in the north-central part of the state reports, "This spring, there are rooster chickens everywhere."

Okay, I'm excited! Bring it on!

As with elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain region, the bulk of pheasant hunting in Montana takes place on private lands. But Montana also holds many acres of primo public-land habitat found on the national wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas, waterfowl production areas and state school trust lands. And lands owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy are often overlooked possibilities. Map collections and GPS units help locate these.

Montana's pheasant-hunting season opens in mid-October and runs through Jan. 1 (check current regs for exact dates). The daily limit is three cocks, nine in possession. A non-resident upland-bird license costs $110, plus $10 Hunting Access Enhancement Fee (applied to only the first license purchase of the year).

IDAHO

"2005 might have been our best pheasant hunt in 5 to 10 years. I'm hopeful 2006 will be at least as good," reported wildlife biologist Don Kemmer of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "Assuming everything falls in place, (the season) may be even better in places. In the best habitat, we seem to have a good carryover of hens. And the weather, so far this spring, has been pretty decent. While May (crowing count) is still way too early to accurately predict (the hunting season), barring the disastrous untimely hail storm or an extremely cold, wet June, fall hunting should shape up nicely."

But Kemmer tossed out this caveat: "Some spots experienced a fairly snowy winter," he warned. "How the birds fared remains to be seen. And, of course, how the rest of summer plays out is anyone's guess."

His optimism for a good hunting season also rests on increased access to both private and public lands.

"Our Access Yes! Program has really taken off," he reported. "As of May 3, we had 630,000 private acres enrolled and another 689,000 acres of private access to public lands on the docket. Combined, this is more than double the acreage enrolled last year."

Kemmer said the best hunting will likely be found in the Clearwater (Lewiston) and the Southwest (Boise) regions. The heart of Idaho lands enrolled in the CRP is found in the Bear River country in the southeast portion of the state.

"But pheasants occur pretty much statewide," he added. "The keys are agriculture and good habitat. Assuming you can get on (the land), you should find birds."

The Idaho pheasant-hunting season opens in October and runs through December in management areas 1 and 3; Management Area 2 closes about a month earlier. Check the current regs for exact dates. Generally, the bag limit is three cocks per day, six in possession, but always check for exceptions. A non-resident license costs $81.75 season.

I should also mention the IDFG's popular pheasant-release program that's in place at nine wildlife management areas in southern Idaho: Fort Boise, Market Lake, Payette River, Mud Lake, Montour, Cartier Slough, C.J. Strike, Niagra Springs and Sterling. In addition to the above non-resident license requirements for visiting wingshooters, a permit ($21.50) is required and allows taking six ringnecks total, with no more than two birds taken per day.

Hunters may purchase multiple permits, but the two-birds-per-day bag limit still applies.

I asked a Montana neighbor who participates for a brief head's-up on the program's hunting success.

"As you might expect, hunting pressure is heaviest on release days and tends to dwindle toward non-existent by the end of the two-week interim (between releases)," he told me. "We use good dogs and usually enjoy decent hunting throughout (the season), but we work at it. In other words, there are birds out there, but you might have to hike a ways to find them."

Sounds sort of familiar, huh?

COLORADO

"Based on hunter feedback, we had a pretty good hunt last fall," reported information specialist Tyler Baskfield of the Colorado Department of Wildlife. "It appears a good carryover of adult birds, following a pretty easy winter and decent spring, should equate to decent hunting again this fall -- that is, barring the unforeseen (weather) disaster that can wipe out a whole county's hatch overnight."

Yuma County traditionally puts up the biggest harvest stats and, as you might expect, the heaviest hunting pressure. Phillips and Logan counties pick up the slack. In fact, most of Idaho's pheasant hunting takes place in the northeast portion of the state. Proximity to the large population centers is a big reason.

"For my money," Baskfield said, "I would put in a little extra travel time, head to the relatively unheralded southeast," whe

re he reported decent pheasant hunting, less competition, and where "you've got quail as a bonus, scalies especially, but bobwhites, too, wherever good habitat exists in the riparian zones."

According to Baskfield, Idaho's Walk-In Access program has been a huge success. About 160,000 acres are enrolled, he said. "Hunters willing to work a little can expect decent hunting throughout the season, not just opening weekend," he added.

East of Interstate 25, the Idaho pheasant-hunting season runs Nov. 20 to Jan. 16. West of I-25, the season closes Jan. 2. A non-resident license costs $11 for single day, and $56 for the season.

UTAH

Utah pheasant hunting was in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, even though pheasants have declined big time over the years, chasing wily roosters remains popular among wingshooters in the Beehive State, albeit most of the "chasing" takes place on opening weekend.

"Pheasant populations should improve slightly over last season. Hopefully, the increase will equate to a few more birds in the average hunter's bag," said upland game program coordinator Dean Mitchell of the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources. "Early spring rains throughout the state provided decent nesting and cover and a better hatch, especially in the central, northern and northeastern regions. Overall, though, hunting will be fair at best."

Mitchell said Utah pheasant hunters should concentrate on areas of decent habitat. Where habitat is lacking, birds will be scarce to non-existent. In Utah, "cultivated lands" and those posted "No Trespassing" require written permission to hunt.

"Perhaps the best thing hunters can do is to establish and nurture good relationships (well before hunting season opens) with landowners willing to work with our agency to improve and maintain good pheasant habitat," Mitchell said. "By the way, funds are available through the Utah DWR Habitat Fund for habitat cost-sharing projects to landowners willing to participate."

This season, the agency is also implementing a new three-year pilot program for access to private lands in northern Utah. Under the new Walk-In-Access Program, the Utah DWR pays private landowners to allow public hunting of pheasants.

For a list of participating landowners and maps, go online to http://wildlife.utah.gov/walkinaccess.

A non-resident small-game license costs $45. Generally, the season runs Nov. 1-30 -- but there are exceptions, so be sure to check the current regs.

NEVADA

Nevada's pheasants are pretty much restricted to the state's Western Region. The latest harvest figures (2004) show 357 hunters bagged 635 birds, 54 percent of them shot in Humboldt County. This represented the lowest kill since 1994, down from 2003, and about 30 percent off the 10-year average.

When staff biologists are queried about the Silver State's pheasant hunting, they're quick to change the conversation to chukars and quail. That says it all.

NEW MEXICO

New Mexico holds a four-day general pheasant-hunting season and several single-day permit-only hunts --

Which about says it all too. But I wanted to hear from the horse's mouth, so the biologist on the phone quickly put things in perspective.

"Pheasants in New Mexico? You gotta be kiddin'. Quail we got, pheasants we don't got. That answer your question?"

Right on.

ARIZONA

Despite numerous attempts to establish wild-pheasant populations in Arizona, these gaudy aliens remain a specialty game bird in the Grand Canyon State.

However, pheasant hunting is allowed with falcons on a limited-permit basis, and with bow and arrow.

With the cessation of the experimental pheasant program in 1973, hunter numbers have never exceeded 100 in any given year and the annual harvest has been less than 50 birds. And no, that "50" is not a typo.

For more information about pheasant hunting in the Rocky Mountain states, visit the wildlife agency websites for each state.

Arizona: www.gf.state.az.us

Colorado: http://wildlife.state.co.us

Idaho: http://fishandgame.idaho.gov

Montana: http://fwp.mt.gov

Nevada: http://www.ndow.org

New Mexico: http://www.wildlife.utah.gov

Utah: http://www.wildlife.utah.gov

Wyoming: http://gf.state.wy.us

Find more about Rocky Mountain fishing and hunting at: RMgameandfish.com

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