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Perfect Storm Leads to Good Pheasant Season Prospects in 2023

Despite harsh winter, perfect storm of habitat and weather conditions has led to solid pheasant season prospects in 2023.

Good Pheasant Season Prospects in 2023

Spring and summer conditions have pheasant hunters brimming with confidence heading into the 2023 seasons. (chris276644 / Shutterstock photo)

Like many Americans wingshooters, Bob St. Pierre has a special fondness for the magic of opening day.

Earlier in his life, that meant the pastime of baseball for his beloved Detroit Tigers, or opening day of grouse season with the family back home in Michigan. Later on, after a post-college move to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, it meant work since he was a PR guru for a minor league baseball club in the Twin Cities.

Now as a middle-aged man working for two of the nation’s leading wildlife conservation organizations, opening day means a mix of both work and play, a day that with any luck will have plenty of ring-necked pheasants vaulting noisily out of dense cover and into the crisp cobalt-blue air of autumn and the back-and-forth nose of a German shorthair trying to unravel a complex scent trail.

For St. Pierre, the chief marketing and communications officer for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, there’s nothing quite like opening day, especially when someone cries out “Rooster! Rooster! Rooster!

And those cries are happening right now all over pheasant country, with some openers already marked off on the calendar and others about to happen. The 2023 pheasant season opened in Iowa and Nebraska on Oct. 28. Kansas opens on Nov. 11. Further south in northwestern Oklahoma, the season won’t open up until Dec. 1 and in the Texas Panhandle, upland wingshooters will have to wait until Dec. 2.

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Despite the harsh 2022-23 winter, habitat conditions and pheasant production have been surprisingly good this year in many parts of rooster country. (Shutterstock image)

While those openers are still to come, the traditional start to pheasant season has already occurred in several states in the Midwest and northern Great Plains, the core of the rooster's American range. That includes South Dakota, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana.

In many of those spots, prospects are good this fall and in some respects, that’s a bit of a surprise after last year’s harsh winter in many locations, especially coming after a fall season when pheasant numbers were already having to rebound somewhat as we described in this space a year ago.

In fact, some outdoor scribes openly opined in stories last spring that while the jury was still out, the bitter cold and heavy snowfall last winter could hurt not only big-game and whitetail numbers in some regions, but also some upland bird species too.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen according to St. Pierre.




“I’d say overall, I’d give this upcoming season two thumbs up and note that prospects seem far better than we might have expected,” he said. “Across the majority of the northern pheasant range—in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Nebraska and even Kansas – it was a much harsher winter in 2022 and on into 2023. There was lots of snow and cold weather.

“In fact, there was so much snow that some wintering areas were buried and there was a lot of concern around earlier in the year concerning bird numbers as we left the winter season. And then we even had a really hard late April snowstorm too, and I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, what a double whammy!”

But like the game of baseball that St. Pierre—an enthusiastic man now in his 40s, married to Meredith for many years, and pack leader to a couple of great German shorthaired pointers—has loved so much over the years, sometimes, a successful comeback happens in the late innings, not earlier in the game.

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“The good thing is that we went from winter to summer quickly and all of that snow melted pretty fast,” said St. Pierre. “That led to an early green up and it created nesting cover and a catalyst for insect production. Plus, there were no real gully washers this spring when the nesting season was happening, so when the hens sat on their nests, they did so without losing a lot of nests.”

Meaning that nesting success was good and lots of young pheasant chicks hit the ground. But even then, the comeback story of pheasants in 2023 wasn’t complete. That's because not only were hens able to successfully nest this year in the northern part of the upland bird’s range, but also rode a perfect storm of prairie weather and habitat conditions that allowed for a big percentage of first nesting attempt success.

That’s important because it’s when pheasant hens will lay the most eggs and have the best chance to really boost population numbers. St. Pierre says that first nesting attempts result in an average of 11 to 13 eggs per pheasant nest, a figure that declines steeply with each subsequent nesting attempt. In fact, by the time a hen is on her second attempt, the average number of eggs laid is cut in half down to seven per nest, and on the third attempt, it’s even worse with only three to five eggs laid per nest.

If the first nest idea is one key to success this spring and early summer in the northern part of the pheasant’s range, once those big numbers of chicks were actually on the ground, then the second part of this year’s comeback story came into play thanks to the abundant insect population and decent natural food production. That helped keep young pheasants alive through the all-important first weeks of life when they are so susceptible to inclement weather and hungry predators.

In baseball talk, a bases loaded jam last fall and winter turned into an inning ending 6-4-3 double play this spring and summer. Because when upland bird biologists began their summertime surveying efforts, they found pheasant country teeming with birds up north.

"Yeah, nesting success was phenomenal this year and the various roadside counts around pheasant country support that," said St. Pierre. "My home state of Minnesota, for example, found that while numbers were down or average in a few spots, the southwestern part of the state is up 101-percent. North Dakota is up on roadside counts statewide by 62-percent, and down in South Dakota, bird numbers are up there too. And in Iowa, pheasant numbers are up 15 percent statewide."

Taking a look at the Pheasants Forever "2023 Pheasant Hunting Forecast" page, a state-by-state look shows some negative impacts from drought and habitat loss in places like my home state of Texas. But the further north you roam with your bird dogs, the better the news tends to get this year.

“There was some drought in southeastern South Dakota and northeastern Nebraska,” said St. Pierre. “But, even so, I’d think that bird numbers should be up in Nebraska, and maybe even in Kansas, too. They should also be up this fall in Montana. Generally speaking, across the pheasant’s range, we’re looking at an improved season in the northern part of that range this year.”

Like any seasonal forecast for a game species, that can vary from spot to spot, and St. Pierre points to the Minnesota pheasant opener earlier this month to bear that idea out.

“The opener in Minnesota was a little thinner in spots than maybe we had hoped for, but we still got some birds,” he said. “On my opening hunt, we got three birds for six guys on that Saturday, which is significantly lower than what we’d normally expect. But we were in a part of the state that on the map this year, shows as being poor. But that’s where the cabin is, that’s where the guys were, and that’s where we were going.”

St. Pierre said that on the Monday morning after the Minnesota opener, others in the office at Pheasants Forever’s national headquarters reported great hunting during the “debriefing session” that took place around the office coffee maker.

“Like I mentioned, bird numbers were said to be up 101-percent in southwestern Minnesota,” he said with a chuckle. “And based on the Instagram reports I saw, that’s accurate. Our people had some fantastic openers the further west and southwest they were willing to go.”

With a fall calendar filled with upland bird hunting opportunities—St. Pierre has already chased sharptails, ruffed grouse, woodcock, and pheasants this fall and the organization’s annual Rooster Road Trip! video series is about to begin filming—and the marketing and communications man for PF and QF is looking forward to prospects of another opener or two.

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Bird dog lovers should have plenty of pheasant shooting opportunities during upcoming seasons according to Bob St. Pierre of Pheasants Forever. (Shutterstock image)

In fact, he’s counting on it as the video cameras look on.

“Yeah, I recently filmed the pilot episode of a new series for us called Opening Day,” said St. Pierre. “It’s about my love of opening day and when I hear that term, I think back about being a five year old kid during the holidays. You know, there was nothing better than coming down the stairs on Christmas morning and the smell of eggnog in the air, the tree all lit up, and coming down with mom and dad to see what Santa had brought. And now, as an adult, that Christmas morning excitement has been replaced somewhat by opening day, as long as you’re willing to hop in the truck.”

With several openers already under his belt this year—including sharptails in North Dakota, ruffed grouse in Minnesota, and pheasants in Minnesota—St. Pierre loves the family, friends, dogs, hunting traditions, and nostalgia that opening day can deliver.

Such moments bring back powerful memories of deer season openers with his late grandfather Jim Mauer, and with his parents Bob and Joanne St. Pierre, and topping it all off with grandpa's time honored bean soup recipe that simmered back in the cabin.

There's also a family grouse camp in Wisconsin these days, a state where his brother Matt, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now lives and his nephew Nicholas attends college as a junior wildlife biology major at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point.

The latter St. Pierre now possesses and hunts with a Browning Citori 28-gauge over-and-under shotgun, the treasured scattergun that Bob's grandfather used to hunt with and passed on to his mom. Now Nicholas has it, and the circle on opening day seems warm and complete as the family gathers near Rhinelander each autumn season.

"It's pretty special to see that shotgun being passed from generation to generation," said St. Pierre. "Special just like the opening days that we get to share together. We all like to bird hunt and we have the bird dog menagerie going on with my German shorthairs, my parents Brittany’s and my brother's Springer Spaniel."

St. Pierre paused, no doubt thinking about the magic of opening days, and the chance to share it all with family, friends, and special canine companions.

"The landscape is beautiful with the colorful leaves and all," said St. Pierre. "And with bird hunters in hunter orange and roosters in the air, it's something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting."

A painting made complete with the thump of a shotgun on the shoulder, a load of Federal Premium Prairie Storm pheasant loads whistling through the crisp autumn air, and a noisy rooster stopping in mid-flight, headed for the game vest and the dinner table.

It’s all nearly perfect, and the reason why so many bird hunters across America dream of October hunts filled with opening day smiles and a game vest heavy with wingshooting success. Because that might just be upland bird hunting at its best.

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