Photo by Ron Sinfelt
You may not believe this, but pheasant populations have gained ground in Indiana. Hunters are experiencing numerous flushes, great fall pageantry, and most importantly, full bag limits of pheasants. Does this sound too good to be true? Well, unbelievably, where there is abundant habitat that supports pheasants, they can be found in large numbers, thereby offering a wealth of hunting opportunities. The Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife’s (DFW) Game Bird Habitat Areas are great examples of how habitat influences pheasant numbers.
Because of the habitat found on these areas, wild pheasant populations have prospered tremendously. Located in several counties in the upper one-third of the state, these islands of pheasant prosperity provide pheasant hunters with the primary ingredient in pheasant hunting, and that is pheasants.
Dave Spitznagle is the property manager at Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA). Willow Slough has wild birds on its property, and Spitznagle knows that habitat is essential to keeping them there.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot of habitat, because if they’re given a toe hold, or slight chance, they will make it,” Spitznagle said. To help the pheasants throughout the year, there are several pheasant-habitat “ingredients” that must be considered.
“There are several things we address when it comes to providing the correct habitat. There is nesting cover, good brood cover. This ensures that more chicks survive. Also, we have fall and winter cover to provide adequate food. Another important element of habitat is escape cover,” Spitznagle said.
In the so-called glory days of a bygone era, before modern farming techniques reduced the amount of habitat that supports pheasants, wild ringneck population levels (along with bobwhite quail population levels) were large and stable. Unfortunately, nowadays pheasant and quail numbers have diminished significantly to all-time lows.
The distinguishing factor that most influences how many pheasants are going to be present is the availability of good habitat. Harsh winters can take their toll, but overall habitat is the key variable that most influences wild bird population levels.
“It’s sort of like the movie Field of Dreams,” said longtime Indiana-pheasant hunter Jim Whitted of Valparaiso. “If you build it, they will come.” And “build it” is exactly what Indiana’s DFW has done on the Game Bird Habitat Areas.
The Game Bird Habitat Areas are used to facilitate the coveted Reserved Pheasant Hunts in Indiana. If you’re lucky enough to get drawn for one of these hunts, you will experience firsthand the magic of good pheasant habitat. This writer was lucky enough to get drawn for one of these hunts a few years back, and I can tell you the birds are there! At the end of our first drive, we pushed up at least a dozen birds. I have never seen so many wild birds get up at one time.
Everyone in our hunting party limited out with two (wild) birds on this superb public property. There were three of us in the hunting party, so that comes to six pheasants in one hunting effort for the group. Not bad for public land, wouldn’t you agree?
If you have never heard of the Reserve Pheasant Hunts before, they are hunts offered through the DFW by random drawing on Game Bird Habitat Areas, which are located in the northern one-third of our state. Prospective hunters desiring to get in on this action must correctly fill out an application card, and mail it in time to meet the deadline for the drawing. If you are picked for the hunt, you will be notified of your success by mail. Applications for the drawing can be found in the Indiana Hunting & Trapping Guide.
It can be said the wild pheasants found in Indiana today are remnant wild pheasants. The birds we hunted on the Reserve Pheasant Hunt were ancestors of a species that once prospered on a grander scale in Indiana. Of course, wild pheasants still do prosper where there’s good habitat, and it’s not limited to just Department of Natural Resources (DNR) property. There are many landowners who have put property into the Crop Reserve Program (CRP), and this has provided a boost to pheasant habitat in Indiana and other states as well.
A question that often comes up, though, is: Are there enough remnant wild pheasants and quail left in Indiana to withstand hunting pressure? The answer to that question is yes, but it is a “yes” with explicit regulations.
The DNR roots the basis for hunting regulations in sound conservation-management techniques. However, the burden of responsibility to ensure stable levels of wild pheasants will remain in Indiana is not wholly up to the DNR, it is also up to you and me.
All individuals who hunt these magnificent birds should have a sense of stewardship for the sport of pheasant hunting. Each of us must do our part to make sure these game birds will still be around next season and for generations to come. Joining organizations like Pheasants Forever or Quail Unlimited are good ways to exercise this stewardship, and get involved with habitat restoration.
The DFW studies wild pheasant and quail population levels and sets the daily bag limit and season lengths appropriately. The daily bag limit for wild pheasants is gender specific, and it is two male birds (i.e., two ringnecks). Moreover, the season is a short one at about six weeks in duration.
An extenuating factor that directly affects remnant Indiana pheasant populations is the amount of hunting pressure that is applied. Even if there is high-quality habitat, and good numbers of pheasants in the high-quality habitat, this natural resource must not be shot down to the point where there are not enough birds left to sustain adequate population levels. This is why the Game Bird Habitat Areas are not hunted every day, and all of the hunting on these areas is strictly regulated by the DFW.
All individuals who hunt these magnificent birds should have a sense of stewardship for the sport of pheasant hunting.
Aside from the Reserved Pheasant Hunts, or being lucky enough to know a landowner who has property with wild pheasants and quail on it, and allows you to hunt there, are the put-and-take hunts.
The put-and-take hunts give everyone an opportunity to get out and hunt pheasants with a guara
ntee that pheasants are going to be where you’re hunting. The birds used in these hunts are not wild birds, but they are good fliers and they will provide you with a genuine hunting challenge.
“The put-and-take hunts help to keep people interested in pheasant hunting,” said DNR staff specialist Mark Reiter. For 2005, Reiter notes that an online (Internet) registration process would be used.
“This process will make the hunts more accessible to everyone. In the past, those hunters who could show up at ‘dark-thirty’ were the ones who got to hunt,” Reiter said. Please visit
www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild for details.
For 2005, there will again be about 20,000 birds purchased for the program, and these birds will be distributed to the DNR properties that participate in the put-and-take hunts.
The properties that are participating this year are Atterbury, Glendale, Pigeon River, Tri-County, Willow Slough, Winamac FWAs and Roush Lake. This means each property will receive about 2,850 birds, but this can vary depending on the size of the property, and the demand for birds.
There is a charge for put-and-take hunts, and it is $15 per person. The daily bag limit is two birds, and this is where a deviation from the normal pheasant-hunting rules comes into play. The two birds can be of either sex. In other words, hens and ringnecks can both be taken.
Only males can be legally killed when hunting wild birds, but during the put-and-take hunts, hens are fair game as well. This may seem like a conservation dilemma on properties where wild hens exist, but since the “put-and-take” birds are raised in captivity, there is, at least for the most part, no additive mortality to the wild pheasant population.
Nevertheless, on properties that do have wild birds, like Willow Slough, a wild hen could accidentally get shot; hence, the elimination of the extended season hunts. The extended season hunts were held on certain FWAs, and this management policy was designed to extend the normal upland season for pheasants by about another month. This practice has since been eliminated not only because of the risk of additive mortality for hen pheasants, but also because of the pressure it put on other types of wildlife that are trying to make it through winter.
Typically, the wild pheasant population on properties like Willow Slough is pretty small as compared with the Game Bird Habitat Areas; therefore, the risk of mistakenly shooting a wild hen is low.
The put-and-take hunts start on the first Saturday before Thanksgiving, and typically run for nine days. After the supply of pheasants runs out, “cleanup” hunts are conducted to give hunters an opportunity to take birds that got away during the put-and-take hunts. There is no charge for cleanup hunting, and the limit of two birds (either sex) per day is still in effect.
Only male or cock birds can be legally killed when hunting wild birds, but during the put-and-take hunts, hens are fair game as well.
Counterbalancing the risk of additive mortality is the fact that thousands of hens are released during the put-and-take hunts, and some of them could survive and breed in the following nesting season, although it is unlikely. Hunters who take part in the cleanup hunts could decide not to shoot hens with the hope that “released” hens would become part of the wild bird population or contribute to it during the breeding season; it’s a personal decision.
With the preceding words on habitat, management techniques and pheasant-hunting choices as a backdrop, let’s now take a look at five options for pheasant hunting this season.
WILLOW SLOUGH FWA
Located in Newton County just outside of Morocco, Willow Slough FWA contains 9,956 acres. This makes it one of the larger FWAs in the state. Willow Slough is a participant in the put-and-take hunts, and because of its size, it can handle a lot of pheasant hunters.
“We can accommodate 200 hunters per day, and we utilize four distinct areas,” said property manager Spitznagle of the put-and-take hunting at the Slough. Spitznagle notes that the four areas used at Willow Slough, “are the best looking for pheasant hunting,” in terms of a natural setting. By releasing the pheasants in these areas, hunters will get a more realistic pheasant-hunting experience.
Typically, pheasants are found in fields with plants that are indigenous to the prairie, like big blue stem, little blue stem, switch grass and foxtail. The fields that are used at Willow Slough for the put-and-take hunts have these or similar types of plants.
By concentrating the put-and-take hunts into four areas, Spitznagle said the return rate on hunting effort is also better. To get an even better return on your hunting effort, this writer advises the use of a pheasant-hunting dog.
In the expansive fields at the Slough — or anywhere else you decide to go pheasant hunting that is geographically large — the birds can (and will) run on you. If you don’t have a dog or use techniques like blocking and “pinching,” it could make for a long day.
At this time, lead shot is allowed at Willow Slough, but the use of non-toxic shot (like steel) is gaining momentum, and the rules could change rather fast. Therefore, it is a good idea to have both types of shot (i.e., lead and non-toxic) with you.
For more information about Willow Slough, call (219) 285-2704.
PIGEON RIVER FWA
Pheasant hunters can harvest both released and wild birds at this large FWA, which is located in the northeast corner of the state in LaGrange and Steuben counties. FWAs in the northern part of the state often have wild pheasants mostly because of the weather; in the southern part of the state, it’s too hot for pheasants to survive.
Within the boundaries of Pigeon River’s 11,600 acres, pheasant hunters will find a lot of good pheasant-hunting opportunities. Every year, Pigeon River FWA harvest numbers indicate it is one of the most productive pheasant-hunting public properties in the entire state.
Not insignificantly, it is a great place to try cleanup pheasant hunting. Like the other FWAs in Indiana that participate in the Put-and-Take Program, a large number of pheasants are released at Pigeon River. It’s very likely that a lot of cleanup birds will be available because of the large number of birds released.
Cleanup hunters should stay in touch with the office personnel at the property where they want to go hunting to find out when the supply of put-and-take birds will run out, and the cleanup hunts will begin.
ntrating the put-and-take hunts into four areas, Spitznagle said the return rate on hunting effort is also better.
For more information on Pigeon River FWA, call (260) 367-2164.
HUNTINGTON LAKE RESERVOIR (J. EDWARD ROUSH LAKE)
Huntington Lake Reservoir is the only DNR reservoir property that conducts put-and-take hunts. Located in Huntington County, near the town of the same name, Huntington Lake Reservoir is 8,217 acres in size.
Since Huntington Lake Reservoir is in the northern third of the state, it can produce some wild birds. This property is a participant in the put-and-take hunts, which includes cleanup hunting.
For more information on Huntington Lake Reservoir, call (260) 468-2165.
TWO WILD BIRD CHOICES
If you’d like to try your luck for wild birds, here are a couple of public-land choices.
Kankakee FWA is noted for its excellent waterfowl hunting, but this 4,095-acre FWA in Starke County also has hundreds of acres for upland hunting. Areas L-4 and L-3 just south of state Route 8 are the places to try.
Check-in is by self-service and a self-service station is located at the parking lot by Area L-4. Kankakee is steel shot only. Call Kankakee at (574) 896-3522 for more information.
A valid hunting license and a game bird habitat stamp are required to legally hunt pheasants in Indiana. Pheasant hunters at Kankakee FWA, and elsewhere in Indiana, are also reminded that they must wear hunter (safety) orange as required by the regulations.
Round Lake Wetland Conservation Area (WCA)
At 140 acres, Round Lake WCA is pretty small, but it does contain the kind of habitat that both pheasants and quail like.
Round Lake WCA is in Starke County a few miles north of Winamac FWA. To find this WCA, be sure to use a map of the area. The atlas-type maps that contain topography information are excellent for finding spots like Round Lake. You can obtain these maps at just about any store that has outdoor sporting goods.
Work the area’s fields and the edges around the lake and you’re likely to stir up a pheasant or two. Contact Winamac FWA for more info at (574) 946-4422. Good hunting!