If you're an avid upland hunter you know about South Dakota's Golden Triangle. It's the region encompassing the area from Gregory to Winner to Chamberlin that makes up the best pheasant hunting country in the world. What many pheasant hunters don't know is that Colorado has it's own mini-version of the Golden Triangle. Yep, Colorado.
OUR OWN RINGNECK PARADISE
Think of Colorado and you naturally think of mountains and trout streams, but the Centennial State's Front Range has quickly become one of the best pheasant hunting destinations in the West. A succession of mild winters and favorable nesting seasons coinciding with an expansion of the state's Walk-In Hunting Access Program has Colorado's pheasant fortunes on the rise. The best hunting is centered on the northeastern portion of the state in an area basically bordered by Burlington on the east, Julesburg on the north and Sterling on the west. It's no coincidence that this largely agricultural area is also where a good portion of the lands enrolled in the Walk-In program exist. The hunting doesn't rival South Dakota's best counties, but it better than you probably know, close to home for many hunters and getting better.
The highest pheasant densities can be found in the northeast and eastern counties of Colorado. Logan, Sedgwick, Phillips, Washington and Yuma typically provide the best hunting.
"All though the northeast is the core," claimed Colorado Department of Wildlife Small Game Coordinator and Walk-In Program Administrator Ed Gorman, "there are areas in the southeast that can be pretty darn good." A bonus in the southeast is that there are also scaled and bobwhite quail.
KEEPS GETTING BETTER
2011 is setting up to be another outstanding year for pheasants on the Front Range. The winter was relatively mild, which is good for pheasant survival, but the lack of moisture is not so good — kind of a double-edged sword. "The winter was kind of a catch-22," quipped Gorman. "We didn't have a lot of heavy snow, which was good for pheasant survival, but the lack of moisture meant things were pretty dry going into the spring and the lack of moisture can hurt the invertebrates that the chicks rely on."
Gorman said that the prime pheasant range in Colorado did receive some timely spring rains, especially in the northeast. The rains are important because much of eastern Colorado is agricultural lands that produce corn and wheat. The corn is normally irrigated using irrigation pivots, but the wheat depends on spring rains for a jumpstart. The emerging wheat is prime habitat for pheasant nesting. "Overall, I say we had an excellent carryover of birds and so far we're experiencing excellent nesting conditions. The peak hatch generally occurs from about the first week of June through June 15. I've already seen some hens with broods," said Gorman. "That bodes well for hunters this season if we can avoid the violent summer storms and prolonged drought." Hunters and wildlife managers are keeping their fingers crossed.
WALK-IN A RUNAWAY SUCCESS
The 2010-2011 Colorado pheasant season was the best on record. High pheasant numbers, an expanding Walk-In program and the removal of the Walk-In access fee resulted in more hunting effort and higher harvest.
"I think removing the access fee had a good effect," said Gorman. "It got a lot more people out hunting and utilizing the resource. From the surveys we did, there was a 30 percent increase in participation and a similar increase in the harvest," offered Gorman. "Harvest increased significantly per hunter. Surveys that the DOW conducted indicated that hunters averaged over four birds per hunter for the season. That's the first time that has ever happened." Overall, around 18,000 Colorado hunters harvested in excess of 72,000 pheasants during the Nov. 13 to January 31 season.
Last season marked the 10th anniversary of the Colorado Walk-In Access Program. 2010 was also the first year that hunters could access the Walk-In lands free of charge. "Last year we had about 220,000 acres enrolled in the program," said Ed Gorman, "about the same are we had the previous year." Walk-In properties are open during three different time periods. Some areas have an access date of September 1, which allows hunters to take advantage of the property for dove and other early-season hunting. Those lands are open until the end of February. Other lands do not open until the opening day of pheasant season in November and remain open until the end of February. Still other lands allow extended access and close at the end of March. Hunters need to make note of signs posted at each property to make sure the land is open to hunting during the specified period. WIA offers access for small game hunting only. Big game hunting remains at the discretion of the landowner.
In 2010, great habitat and excellent precipitation patterns produced record pheasant numbers. In fact, pheasant numbers in 2010/2011 were up approximately 27 percent from the previous year. In 2009-2010 numbers were up 25 percent from the 2008/2009 season. The boost in pheasant numbers is largely habitat-related. Cover has improved in part due to habitat created through the efforts of the DOW, Pheasants Forever and the National Resource Conservation Service. The good news is these entities have entered into a partnership to put three private land biologists in the field to implement Farm Bill and DOW conservation programs that will likely bolster pheasant populations even more.
Last season represented another first for the CDOW and hunters. Along with a small game license, hunters received a DVD that detailed hunting opportunities and tactics for pheasants in Colorado. The DVD was a huge success by most accounts.
The bible for Colorado hunters is the Walk-In Atlas and the supplemental Late Cropland Atlas that shows lands enrolled in the Walk-In program. Properties are coded with a C, G, W or O according to habitat. The Walk-In atlases are published annually and it's a good idea to hang on to the previous year's atlas. That way you can quickly see new properties that have been added or deleted and refer to your notes from the previous year on productive areas, habitat changes and hunting success.
"G" designates grassland on the atlas, which is the most predominant cover type on the map. Most of the grassland is Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land and the properties attractiveness and desirability to pheasants can vary greatly. Newly enrolled lands that have recently been taken out of production are prime habitat and are used heavily by pheasants. Annual weeds, like kochia and wild sunflowers, quickly infiltrate the fields of grass, providing a good mix of habitat. Pheasants can be found in these grasslands throughout the day and throughout the season. Pivot corners are quite often composed of these early-stage grasslands and represent great opportunities for both large and small hunting parties.
Stage 2 grasslands occur when native grasses begin to push out the annual weeds. The cover type is generally shorter and more sparse than early or late stages, but can still hold birds during early season and is often used as night roosting cover.
If left undisturbed, these grasslands eventually mature into thick stands of short and tall native grasses, mainly switchgrass and Indian grass, which provide exceptional cover, especially in cold weather. Pivots corners or small tracts of this mature grass are perfect for a man and his dog. A well-orchestrated party of hunters can cover large, expansive fields of thick grass.
The letter "C" on the atlas designates corn. Cornfields themselves do not represent particularly good pheasant cover, but they have a huge influence on what might be in the field next to them. Corn stubble, like the wheat stubble in Colorado, is taller than in most other pheasant states. Find a field of waist-high corn stubble with some weeds mixed in the undergrowth and pheasants will use it heavily, particularly early and late in the day. Pheasants will run like the dickens in corn stubble though so a methodical drive with plenty of blockers is about the only way to harvest any birds from the corn stubble. But locating corn stubble next to prime grassland can be a hotspot. The corn harvest usually takes place during the first couple weeks of the season. Hunters who spend some time scouting can keep tabs on the corn harvest. Once the corn is down, the surrounding grasslands get even better. Cold weather forces the pheasants to feed more often and they will usually be found in close proximity to a harvested cornfield, especially early and late in the day.
Wheat stubble is designated by a "W" on the Walk-In atlas and is an ace-in-the-hole for many hunters. Hunters often ignore wheat fields because they are large, expansive and featureless, but they can be pheasant magnets. "The hunting public doesn't recognize wheat stubble for the great pheasant cover it is," said Gorman. "The problem, or opportunity, is figuring out how to hunt it. Organized drives are about the only way because the birds are going to run so you need a strategy."
Pheasants use wheat stubble more in Colorado than others states because of the way it's harvested. More and more farmers in eastern Colorado are using stripper heads when harvesting wheat. Stripper heads remove only the head of the grain and leave between 95-98 percent of the stalk. Wheat stubble that is 24- to 28-inches high makes for great pheasant habitat. Studies have shown that for every five inches of wheat stubble, pheasant use doubles. Twenty-inch high stubble is likely to hold twice as many pheasants as 15-inch high stubble.
Dirty wheat stubble can be especially good for pheasants. Dirty stubble is left over from the previous year as the field is allowed to lay fallow. The dirty stubble provides outstanding nesting cover and pheasants use the fields heavily, especially if annual weeds have grown up in the field. Hunters should look for locations within the fields that are particularly thick or where the annual weeds predominant.
"O" on the hunting atlas indicates other habitat that can take the form of creek bottoms, abandoned farms, trees and plumb thickets. These types of habitat can be especially good when inclement weather sets in and are good areas for a couple of hunters and a dog to bag a bird or two.
One thing hunters will have to deal with when hunting Colorado is the ever-present wind. Wind can be uncomfortable to hunt in, but it can also be used in the hunters favor. By hunting into the wind, the wind can mask hunter movement, cause pheasants to hold tight in thick cover and give dogs an advantage. Add a little snow and you can have great hunting.
Five inches of fresh snow had fallen the night before, so I new any track that I came across would be fresh, but the only tracks I'd cut so far were coyotes and they are the last hunters you want to be behind. I continued hunting along the fencerow and the grass got gradually thicker as we neared the middle of the field. I noticed a solitary pheasant track in the snow paralleling the fence in the opposite direction. My eyes followed the tracks as they made a wide circle behind me and around my other side. I followed the tracks to a big tuft of switch grass that had tail feathers sticking out of it. On the other side I watched as my Lab, Keifer, crossed the tracks and followed the trail, snorting, with his tail going 100 mph. I got my feet steadied as he neared the grass, stuck his nose in and sent the rooster skyward. It tumbled in a cloud of feathers.
Colorado pheasants are rarely that easy.