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Despite Drought, Good Pheasant Opener Predicted

South Dakota's legendary upland bird hunting won't disappoint, according to the experts.

Despite Drought, Good Pheasant Opener Predicted

Just like the high energy opening scenes in a new episode of "The Flush" on Outdoor Channel, look for lots of smiles, lots of happy bird dogs, and lots of roosters during the opening of South Dakota’s pheasant season this weekend. In this shot, Bob St. Pierre celebrates a successful flush with his bird dog, Esky. (Photo by Travis Frank)

With the traditional opening bell for South Dakota's pheasant season looming this weekend, it’s time for an upland bird hunting party on the high plains with what might be the year’s most anticipated calendar date all across the Mount Rushmore State.

With the youth only season (Sept. 25-Oct. 3) and the resident-only pheasant season (Oct. 9-11) already in the books, the state’s traditional rooster busting season from Oct. 16, 2021, to Jan. 31, 2022, season will open up this Saturday morning. As usual, the starting bell each day will be at 10 a.m. Central Time, running until sunset daily as the orange army and a blizzard of bird dogs head afield seeking the three rooster daily bag limit allowed in South Dakota.

What will those rooster busters find this year when they head afield? Surprisingly good prospects, especially for a drought year.

That outlook comes courtesy of the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department, which notes that last winter saw favorable weather conditions grip the state. While there was a huge arctic blow in February that roared down the Great Plains as far south as the Rio Grande River in South Texas, in general, the winter treated South Dakota’s pheasant population rather kindly.

And despite the extreme drought that has gripped the high plains and upper Midwest during portions of this year, that positive carryover is likely to negate some of the drought’s effects during the peak of the hatch in late spring and early summer.

And with some timely rains in places this summer and early fall, there's reason for some additional optimism heading into this weekend's opener. Put simply, there should be plenty of birds rocketing into the air for hunters as the October bird hunt begins.

"Because of a mild winter, enhanced efforts on habitat management and intense predator control through the nest predator bounty program, if the weather patterns hold, we should expect fantastic bird numbers for the 2021 pheasant season," said Kevin Robling, secretary for the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks, in a 2021 Ringneck Outlook news item.

Do note that Robling’s optimistic outlook is also shared by others, particularly after biologists have gotten out in the late summer and early fall and put some highway miles on the truck tires as well as a few new creases in the boot leather.

"I’ve been out and about quite a bit, and I’m seeing birds," said Matt Morlock, acting director for Pheasants Forever in South Dakota, in a PF news release discussing the state’s pheasant outlook for 2021.

"In fact, in some spots I think we’ll actually see an increase compared to last year," Morlock continued. "I know that sounds surprising, but that’s what I’m seeing and also hearing from the farmers I talk with who really understand birds and habitat."

Some of that optimism from Morlock comes due to the fact that pheasants are persistent and will try and renest as conditions improve. Thanks to the aforementioned timely rains this summer, the breeding outlook has improved in recent weeks and that has led to better on-the-ground conditions than anticipated as the season opener approaches.

"We were set up to have an explosion of birds this year," says Morlock in the Pheasants Forever 2021 Pheasant Forecast for South Dakota. "While we did lose some productivity, I think we’re going to be surprised with how the birds came out of it. We were at a tipping point in July, but then a couple storms rolled through the state in early July that got us a bug hatch that helped production a lot."


What also helps out a lot is that there is rarely, if ever, a really bad pheasant hunting season in the Mount Rushmore State’s eastern two-thirds where so many pheasants breed, feed, live, and rocket noisily into the cobalt blue autumn skies of an October or November afternoon.

That was certainly true last year when 121,331 hunters in South Dakota took some 1,108,420 pheasants, to be exact. What’s more, some 27,000+ birds were harvested in the extended January 2021 season alone. And according to the South Dakota GF&P number crunching, that works out to a solid 9.14 birds per hunter during the 2020-21 season.

Also contributing to the optimistic fall outlook in this drought-stricken year is the fact that funds from the state’s Habitat Stamp went into effect on July 1, 2020, monies that have enabled the state agency to keep putting dollars to work in habitat projects that include high-diversity grass seedings, woody habitat improvement, and expansion of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), to mention a few.

While there are ominous clouds on the habitat and political horizon as habitat loss continues to accelerate and the federal government wrestles with what CRP will look like in the next Farm Bill as well as the possibilities of a National Grassland Act, another key factor in South Dakota is leading to an improved pheasant outlook this year, certainly on the local level. And that’s the last three years of the state’s Nest Predator Bounty Program.

Specifically, the SDGF&P indicates that the program has led to nearly 100,000 nest predators having been removed during that time span in a program that continues this year. Paying out $10 per tail with a maximum payout of $500,000 possible, this program continues to encourage participants to trap nest raiding predators at high intensity levels during the primary upland bird and waterfowl breeding season.

What does that mean? Simply this, that when predator control like this happens, it should mean more nesting success on the local level for both ring-necked pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, and various duck species that nest all across South Dakota.

With good pockets of pheasants scattered in the western third of the state—particularly where good habitat is found—and the legendary numbers of roosters found in the central and eastern thirds of the state, it all looks surprisingly good for South Dakota pheasant hunters as the season prepares to open for 2021-22.

What’s more, there could be success early on and there could be success later, too, the former coming from the fact that birds have less grassland habitat to disappear into early on and the latter coming due to the fact that roosters should push into cattail sloughs and swampy wetland areas once the cold weather and snow arrive for good.

"With our water dropping down the cattail beds have taken off, so later in the season that’s where the birds will be,” notes Nick Cochran, SDGF&P conservation officer for Brown County, in the PF South Dakota Pheasant Outlook story.

Pheasants Forever’s Morlock agrees, noting that he rarely hunt roosters until after Thanksgiving anyway.

"It’s going to be tough early on, so don’t hunt in October or early November and write the year off," said Morlock.

"Come back when the crops are out, snow is flying, birds are grouped up and young birds are fully colored out," he added. "The dogs work better in cooler weather, and it’s just a better all-around hunt."

Early or late this year, it looks like South Dakota’s legendary pheasant hunting won’t disappoint, offering another surprisingly good season filled with cries of “Rooster! Rooster! Rooster!” as colorful birds noisily vault into the autumn skies.

Come join the upland party this fall and see what all of the pheasant hunting fuss is about, especially in a state with the kind of wingshooting that South Dakota is famous for. Drought, or no drought, you won’t be sorry.

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