Wisconsin'™s 2009 Pheasant Forecast

Thanks to first-rate management efforts and hunter support, Wisconsin's pheasant population is enduring both the bad weather and the bad economics of recent seasons. Here's what you have to look forward to this fall! (October 2009)

WDNR officials plan to release about 47,000 birds on public land this year.

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

Pheasant hunting has a proud history of success in Wisconsin. Hunters are blessed with great wing-shooting opportunities, due largely to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' intensive management efforts. Recent bad weather and the economic downturn over the last couple of years have combined to make bird hunting in the Badger State a tough proposition. Even so, there's still a lot of great ringneck hunting to look forward to in 2009.

Put-and-take pheasant hunting has been the backbone of the state's ringneck program for many years. Thousands of chicks are raised to harvestable size and released into the fields, bottomlands and prairie grasses on public lands throughout the lower part of the state.

"We try to spread out the birds we release on public hunting grounds across the southern half of Wisconsin," said Bob Nack, the director of the State Game Farm. "The larger public grounds are the best hunting primarily because they typically have larger grass fields and wetland habitat and the birds tend to stay on these properties longer than on the smaller ones."

According to Nack, this year's bird stocking will be in the same places as last year. The WDNR is planning on releasing about 47,000 birds, down from last year's total of 55,000. Fewer chicks are being produced because of the economic recession and the cost of feed. In the past, the State Game Farm produced as many as 150,000 chicks annually. The chicks are distributed to hunting clubs and other interested groups to raise and then to release onto 70 public lands across 28 counties. The cooperative venture between the WDNR and the private sector has been very worthwhile.

The last two winters and the rainy spring and summer of 2008 have been hard on pheasants. The total number of birds statewide was down about 30 percent last fall from 2007, but where natural production was good this past spring, things will be returning to normal. Too much snow and a crust of ice over the top made foraging for food a tough assignment for wintering birds.

As if the economic downturn and harsh weather weren't enough, the loss of about 200,000 acres of CRP lands only made things worse. That's the amount of acreage that went back into crop production last year.

As far as long-term prospects go, habitat is the issue, said Scott Hull, the WDNR's Upland Wildlife Ecologist and Farm Bill Coordinator, and Conservation Reserve Program lands are center stage. When corn prices skyrocket, it's only natural for farmers to follow the money, but those prices will eventually fall again. If history is any indication, the interest in CRP will be back and, hopefully, much of the land that's been lost will be returned to the CRP program. Declining enrolment in CRP will definitely hurt the population, but local habitat projects like the USDA State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement program will help to offset some of the CRP habitat that's been lost.

Pheasant populations around the state may have suffered, but they'll rebound, said Hull. We've been in similar situations before and the birds always make a comeback. Add in the thousands of stocked birds and the shooting is good. Here's a look at where you'll find roosters in 2009.

Tamarack Creek WA

The Tamarack Creek WA in Trempealeau County receives its share of stocked ringnecks and, as a result, is one of the area's finest hunts. A lot of work goes into maintaining the property as pheasant-friendly, primarily through prescribed burnings and the resulting native prairie grasses and low-lying vegetation. The WDNR enters into sharecrop agreements with local farmers to plant crops to provide food and cover, with corn being the usual fare. It doesn't take stocked birds long to become accustomed to the regimen.

"A couple of 10-acre grassland fields are hunted with and without dogs," said wildlife biologist and property manager Kris Johansen. "Much of the property is tamarack and shrub marsh, and hunters who really want to stretch their legs can bust through that cover when things finally freeze up."

Birds will react quickly to the presence of hunters. The wild birds will disappear overnight and burrow into the marsh. The stocked birds tend to stick to the upland habitat longer.

Tamarack Creek generally receives about 100 birds every fall. The area gets hit hard with hunting pressure on the opener, but it decreases as the season goes on. The area covers 542 acres 10 miles north of Trempealeau on Highway 93 and County Highway F. Contact the WDNR at (608) 685-6222 for information.

Kickapoo Reserve

Pheasants are stocked during the week before the season opener and continue to be stocked on a weekly basis throughout the season. Birds here, as well as on other properties, are released at about one bird for every three or four acres of good habitat.

"Hunters usually have very good luck here, especially if they're here the day after we release the birds," said property manager Jason Leis. He enjoys a little of the good ringneck hunting himself.

According to Leis, most bird hunters are using dogs, but quite a few walk the trails or the open grass areas without one. Both are successful. Leis generally recommends using a dog since these birds hold pretty tight and hunters may walk right by them without the bird flushing.

Last year, about 2,100 birds were released. The pheasant hunting is primarily put-and-take, and though there is some carry-over of birds from the stockings, not a lot of them survive the winter. Fortunately, there is some natural reproduction as well.

Pheasant habitat is good and consists of a lot of open grass area. About 600 acres are leased to farmers who plant mainly soybeans, corn and alfalfa. About 150 acres of the reserve is restored prairie land.

Pheasant tags are a requirement and shooters can take both hens and roosters. The tags are free of charge and available at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center.

The state of Wisconsin and the Ho-Chunk Nation jointly own Kickapoo. It covers 8,569 acres near La Farge on Highway 131 in Vernon County and is open to public hunting.

Call the West-Central Region at (715) 284-1423 or the reserve office at (608) 625-2966 for infor

mation.

South Beaver Creek WA

Roosters are stocked here every year and a lot of upland bird hunters go home happy. It's a popular spot because of its close proximity to LaCrosse, its nice parking lots and the good numbers of birds.

According to wildlife biologist Michele Windsor, about 220 birds are released through the season. About 40 birds will be released in the week before the opener and then another 40 on a weekly basis through the fifth week. Most of the hunting pressure is on day one and throughout the first week. Wing-shooters should be willing to make a return trip later on during the week.

Hunters will find 1,000 acres of sharecropped corn and bean fields, upland native grasses, marsh and river bottom oaks, all of which hold birds at one time or another. Some of it is heavily forested, and birds will be in any grassy and brushy areas and along wooded sections in the edge structure.

Pheasant hunters can easily find themselves in the company of archers, rabbit hunters, waterfowlers and fishermen using South Beaver Creek. Some hunters will bowhunt Zone T in the morning and then switch to pheasants later in the day.

The South Beaver Creek WA is on County Highway D and on secondary roads Erickson and Busse from County Highway D in Jackson County. Contact the West-Central Region at (715) 284-1403 or the WDNR Service Center at (715) 284-1400.

Sheboygan Marsh WA

"I'm afraid that the harsh winter may have had a big effect on the wild pheasant population in my area," said private lands biologist Missy Sparrow. "We went into the fall season last year with fewer birds due to the cold, wet spring in 2008. That impacted the newly hatched chicks. Due to that spring and the harsh winter conditions, we'll probably see fewer birds."

But time will tell. There will be birds released, though the numbers won't be large.

Many hunters seldom hunt a self-reproducing pheasant population. There aren't any physical differences between the two, but the put-and-take birds were raised by people and have not developed the keen survival instincts that keep the wild birds alive. Stocked birds have higher mortality rates than wild birds because of predation, vehicle accidents, harsh weather and hunters. The wild birds either learned the ways of the world quickly, or didn't live to tell about it.

Hunters can choose from about 14,000 acres of great habitat. The county owns 7,414 acres and the state owns 752 acres.

To reach Sheboygan Marsh, take Highway J north from Elkhart Lake or from Glenbeulah, then go west on Highway C in Sheyboygan County.

For information, contact the Southeast Region at (920) 892-8756 or the WDNR Service Center at (920) 892-8756.

Jefferson Marsh WA

Much of the acreage on Jefferson Marsh stays dry year 'round and is excellent for pheasant hunting. Enough of it stays dry from year to year to be valuable for nesting and brood rearing.

According to wildlife biologist Charles Kilian, the property is fairly wet overall, and the WDNR planted about 700 acres of wet prairie plant species in these areas.

The tough winter conditions over the last couple of years have hit the area hard, but the restoration efforts have made good habitat for the bird population to recover in.

Most hunters use a dog and hunt either singly or in small groups. It seems that this is the best way to approach the marsh habitat.

In 2005, the land was an agricultural spot but has been turned into productive restored wetlands. Birds love the cattails and other high, grassy plants and can move effortlessly through them with surprisingly little noise.

Hunting wetlands is a bit different than staying high and dry on the grass. Birds can hear hunters coming from a long way off and will run right around them. This type of terrain is one of the most challenging pheasant hunts around.

Jefferson Marsh is on U.S. Highway 18 about a mile east of Jefferson in Jefferson County. The area has several parking lots, including those found on Highway Y. For information, contact the South-Central Region at (608) 275-3230 or (920) 648-3054.

Yellowstone WA

Finding the best pheasant hunting in the South-Central Region is a tough call because there are so many good options, according to wildlife supervisor Doug Fendry.

"All of our wildlife areas are stocked with pheasants from the Poynette game farm, starting at the beginning of the pheasant season up until early December," said Fendry. "The number of birds released here and on all of our properties in the region is based on the amount of huntable cover and, to some extent, the hunting pressure. That results in pretty good bird hunting on all of our public areas."

The addition of insects to the fall diet found in the crop fields and grassy areas is another draw that should be considered. Hens are putting on weight not only for the lean winter months but also for the rigors of nesting in the spring. The early morning and late evenings can be dynamite in open fields when the birds are gorging themselves. Look for grasshoppers to appear; the pheasants won't be far away.

Understanding these late-fall food sources is important. Pheasants relate to the food sources, and hunters are wise to do the same. Roosters travel a long way to visit fields and will usually return to the heavy cover when they're done feeding.

Yellowstone covers 4,000 acres of cropland and upland grass fields. It can be reached on County Road F between Darling and Blanchardville in LaFayette County. For more information, contact the South-Central Region at (608) 275-3230.

Horicon Marsh WA

The Horicon Marsh is a huge cattail marsh that is better known for its exciting waterfowl possibilities. Many hunters don't know about the pheasants that roam through the marsh. This is another of Bob Nack's thumbs-up public properties, and it's easy to see why.

If you're looking for the oldest and wisest birds, be willing to go where no human has ever gone before. If it's wet, put on a pair of hip boots or waders and pick out the most inaccessible, nastiest part of the area and head on in. The birds may or may not be in there, but one thing's for certain: There won't be any other hunters. Some of these areas can be reached on foot when it's dry, but there are sections where humans seldom go. The average hunter isn't willing to work hard enough to reach them. When the hunting pressure is on, the birds will find cover wherever they can.

Wing-shooters without dogs are going to have to force a flush. Making the birds think that going airborne is the only way out of their predicament is the goal. Getting a bird in the air is the only way to score in this type of cover.

Highways 26, 28 and 49 skirt the outside edges of the Horicon Marsh in Dodge County. The field office is on the southern end and can be reached via Highway 28 and then by following Palmatory Street to the dead end.

For more information, contact the South-Central Region at (608) 275-3230 or the WDNR Service Center at (920) 387-7860.

Brooklyn WA

Brooklyn is the perfect place to go afield for stocked birds. There's every kind of habitat a rooster could want here. Restored prairie and farm fields top the list, along with available marshes and meadows. All told, wing-shooters have 3,540 acres from which to pick.

Pheasants aren't particularly fussy about where they live as long as there's plenty of cover and food available. Oddly enough, ringnecks will opt for cover over food if they have to choose. Hunting pressure or severe weather can force the birds to hunker down in heavy cover for days without eating. The best areas always have a combination of food, effective overhead cover and lots of variation in the fields — high grass, woodland edges, fencerows, drainages and draws. The key is to pick the best available habitat in the wildlife area and concentrate your efforts there.

The Brooklyn WA is sandwiched in between the villages of Belleville, Brooklyn and Oregon on the Dale and Green county line. Access is from Highway D about two miles east of Belleville. Brooklyn is 15 miles outside of Madison.

For more information, contact the South-Central Region at (608) 275-3230, the Monroe Field Office at (608) 325-4844 or the Friends of Brooklyn WA at (608) 835-5144.

For further information about the pheasant hunting opportunities in Wisconsin, contact the State Game Farm at (608) 635-8120 or Pheasants Forever at (920) 927-3579.

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