Flatbrook-Roy, Assunpink and Millville wildlife management areas are the places to be this season, especially if you're looking for excellent wingshooting action for ring-necked pheasants (and even bobwhite quail). (December 2006)
Back when I was but a mere tadpole, I didn't have much choice in deciding precisely what my favorite outdoor avocation would be.
After all, my father was an impassioned bird hunter, and his penchant for ring-necked pheasants kind of rubbed off. At my early age, little did I understand that I was being not-so-subtly indoctrinated to the joys of wingshooting.
Nonetheless, if I were attending one of those benefit dinners for hunters and their conservation efforts, and my ticket was drawn for a free elk or mule deer hunt, I'd re-raffle the ticket and use the money to finance a pheasant hunt in some state like South Dakota.
Certainly that's not a knock on deer hunting. If I had a dime for every day I've spent in a deer blind or stand, I could purchase my own pheasant ranch in the Midwest. Nonetheless, my personal choice, like thousands of others, is wingshooting.
But does New Jersey offer action anything like that found in the Mid-west, or some of the other northern states to which grouse hunters gravitate? The answer is both yes and no.
No, you won't find pheasants flushing in the numbers you would in the Dakotas and states like Kansas or Missouri. But you can find some surprisingly good pheasant hunting in the Garden State nonetheless.
It's just a question of narrowing your choices to the hottest locations, and then choosing the most opportune dates or times during which the ever-present hordes of hunters have thinned somewhat. This is, after all, New Jersey. There will always be hunters afield, but there are times when crowding is less a problem. We'll address that later.
Before delving into the where and when, those new to Garden State upland gunning should understand that New Jersey has one of the finest pheasant-stocking programs in the Northeast, bar none. But that program didn't merely fall into place. It was -- and still is -- hunters who support the program.
Unlike some states like Pennsylvania, where birds are sometimes reared by private contractors located statewide, New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) has only one source of pheasants, and that is Rockport Game Farm, located a couple of left turns off Airport Road in Warren County.
Not long ago, just prior to the last hunting-license fee increase, New Jersey's pheasant-stocking program was in jeopardy. Quite simply, funding for Rockport and its various stages of labor-intensive initiatives just wasn't there.
In fact, there was talk of shelving the entire program. And one of the primary culprits in this controversy was, of course, the white-tailed deer.
Garden State hunters had done nearly a 180-degree about-face since the 1950s and through the late 1970s. That was when the ringneck reigned as king. Eventually, however, New Jersey hunters made a choice -- and overwhelmingly, chose the whitetail as No. 1 in their pursuits afield. With the "king" unceremoniously unseated, there's little doubt that deer are now New Jersey's top-rated game animals and the focus of most hunters.
But with ever-decreasing numbers of upland hunters, DFW officials had to make a rather unpleasant decision: Either scrap the pheasant rearing and stocking program, or raise the price of a pheasant stamp to cover the cost of rearing and stocking ringnecks in the Garden State.
Consider this: In 1999, the price of a pheasant and quail stamp (the two are combined, not separate stamps) jumped from $22 to an astounding $40. Pheasant hunters were not exactly ecstatic about the costly decision, but they also knew if pheasant hunting was to continue in New Jersey, they had to bite the proverbial bullet. And they did. But there is another side to this coin that I will add -- an entirely personal opinion.
If you took everything I know about high finances, or banking, or investments, and placed that knowledge in a thimble then shook it, it would sound like a BB in a boxcar. I'm no financial wizard, that's for certain. But what do industries like the major airlines or auto manufacturers do when consumers slow their purchasing habits and these corporations consequently need to increase sales?
They lower prices or, in some instances, decrease the rate of interest charged on, say, new car payments. Often, they will do both. In other words, they make their product more affordable and appealing so that more people will purchase it.
The more purchases, the more money they make, despite the fact the profit margin would have been larger had they kept prices at higher levels. But those "per sale" profits don't mean much if no one is buying.
Since New Jersey hiked the price of a pheasant/quail stamp to $40, the number of sales for these stamps has decreased. I can't help but wonder whether DFW officials wouldn't have received more support in the number of upland hunters purchasing stamps, had they decreased the cost of a stamp rather than increased it?
Just a thought to ponder. I'll admit that second-guessing is always easiest from an armchair, as opposed to being in the trenches trying to hammer out a scenario that would salvage a program.
And save the program they did, despite an ever-downward spiral in hunting license sales.
According to Larry Herrighty, chief of the division's Bureau of Wildlife Management, the increased cost of the stamp undoubtedly saved the program. But it wasn't the funds generated by the stamp itself that helped to keep Rockport Game Farm afloat.
"Right now, if you consider the cost of the regular hunting license sold to upland hunters, combined with the cost of the pheasant/quail stamp, we (the division) just about break even. In addition, the folks at the game farm introduced some rather innovative measures that helped reduce that labor-intensive work that goes into rearing the birds. Consequently, we can now get along with fewer employees, due to the implementation of those cost-saving measures," Herrighty said.
According to a spokesperson for the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), since 1990 when the stamp increased to $40, some 15,405 stamps were sold.
The following year, the downward trend continued with a sale of 12,531 stamps, and in 2001, that figure declined to 12,462. The trend continued and by the 2005 season, a mere 11,532 stamps were s
Despite the increase in the cost of a stamp and declining numbers of upland gunners, however, New Jersey continues to do a yeoman's job of keeping our upland heritage going.
Each year, DFW employees at the Rockport Pheasant Farm rear more than 60,000 ringnecks. And some of the best shooting -- at least in my humble opinion -- lies in three of many stocked wildlife management areas (WMAs): the Flatbrook-Roy WMA tract in Sussex County; Assunpink WMA, which lies between New Jersey's central and northern regions, and the Millville WMA, located in Cumberland County.
Let's first take a peek at the northernmost WMA that is popular with those who chase the ringnecks, and that is the Flatbrook-Roy WMA.
Flatbrook-Roy is one of the WMAs chosen by wildlife managers to receive at least one of the lion's shares of released birds, and rightly so.
Located in the hinterlands of Sussex County, the Flatbrook-Roy WMA offers nearly custom-made ringneck cover. Division officials do manage much of this 2,000-acre-plus WMA for upland birds, primarily for the hopeful, albeit seemingly reluctant, return of the ruffed grouse some day. Grouse aside, that management also provides excellent cover for the ringneck rooster and its less colorful female counterpart. And by the way, when I mention rooster, it's because most upland hunters prefer to shoot the gaudy males. But recent game code changes now allow the taking of hen pheasants as well as roosters. The limit is two birds per hunter -- total, not two of each sex.
Nevertheless, Flatbrook-Roy received stockings of approximately 6,060 birds last season. These stockings were spread out over a period of some 15 release dates, starting the afternoon prior to opening day, up to and including the last day of December. Not bad for the most people-populated state in the Union!
Flatbrook-Roy is located just south of the town of Layton and slightly east of Bevans and the Delaware River. The WMA is dotted with fields and hedgerows that ringnecks love.
In addition, one of the ringnecks' nasty habits, when placed under a great deal of gunning pressure, is to head away from open fields and narrow hedgerows and make a beeline for the nearest hardwoods.
The birds do so not because they prefer hardwoods as their primary habitat, but because there are often fewer gunners and gun dogs running around the forested areas as opposed to the open fields.
And the Flatbrook-Roy WMA has enough hardwoods -- and, indeed, even conifers -- to hide nearly the complete feathered population of Rockport.
While addressing the potential of finding a ringneck or two in the wooded areas of Flatbrook WMA (after opening day, of course), I'm going to let readers in on a not-so-secret secret: If you're an avid bird hunter, in all likelihood you chase other varieties of feathered critters also.
No, I'm not going to tell you that Flatbrook harbors a huntable population of grouse. If only I could! As far as I know, grouse populations in New Jersey remain at one of the lowest levels ever recorded. But check out the wooded regions of Flatbrook during the woodcock season. You may be pleasantly surprised.
The Flatbrook-Roy WMA is easily accessed by taking U.S. Route 206, also called state Route (SR) 521, which runs from the village of Tuttles Corner right smack through Flatbrook. Give this WMA a try. I think you'll find it rewarding.
Next, we're heading south to central Jersey and the Assunpink WMA, located in both Mercer and Monmouth counties (though probably 90 percent of this WMA lies in Monmouth County).
Aside from the natural habitat found at Assunpink, it has another saving grace that offers hunters something that's easily overlooked by the younger generation, and that is easy walking.
With more than 5,300 acres of huntable land, much of which is planted and also cut along pathways and hedgerows, Assunpink is a ringneck hunter's dream come true. Certainly not all of Assunpink is flat, level and easily navigated. But much of it is, and therein lies the tract's attraction to pheasant hunters.
Whether you have a dog or merely kick some brush as many sportsmen do, the managed brush and fields at Assunpink offer excellent ringneck cover and thus the opportunity for a heavy game bag.
Last season, Assunpink received more than 4,610 birds, the first stocking of which takes place immediately prior to opening day, and finishes on Dec. 31. That's a lot of bird hunting. Keep in mind that as at most WMAs, the division's stocking program at Assunpink includes a total of 15 stocking days.
Assunpink is easily accessed by taking I-95 to Exit 11. From there, merely proceed north until the road forms a "T" intersection. The office as well as the WMA is straight ahead.
Finally, the Millville WMA -- or as it's known to us of the "elder" generation, the Edward G. Bevan WMA -- also offers some fine pheasant hunting for southern Jersey residents.
Located in Cumberland County, the Millville WMA is comprised of 12,290 acres of prime pheasant country. And these acres are managed primarily for upland game by the planting of annual cover and food crops. This WMA is also under a joint cooperative farming program. The end result of both programs equals a top-rated upland WMA for both hunters and the bird populations.
As with the previous two WMAs, Millville also has managed hedgerows and paths cut throughout the area's best pheasant cover. In fact, division employees use a brush hog (that's a rotary mower on steroids, folks) to cut pathways that offer hunters a chance to walk hedgerows and pathways through fields without crowding in on each other.
In short, the Millville WMA is a piece of pheasant heaven right out of the pages of history when pheasant was King. Those old enough to remember will recall seeing gaudy birds like so many bejeweled baubles and bangles, pecking away at the edges of dirt roads that are now paved over. Millville can't reverse time, but it will help bring back some of those nostalgic yesterdays.
The Millville WMA is easily accessed by State Route 555 south from the town of Millville, or north from the town of Dividing Creek. SR 555 cuts directly through the center of the WMA.
Despite aggressive stocking programs and managed habitat, New Jersey remains one of the most populous states in the country. Subsequently, crowding is almost always a problem at any WMA, especially on opening day.
Upland gunners will note in the hunting edition of the state-issued Wildlife Digest that each of the stocking dates is posted. This is as it should be. Once you pay for a license, you shouldn't have to guess as to where or when birds are available.
Nonetheless, the crowding usually takes place on the stocking days posted. Remember, if a WMA is going to be stocked on December 17, for instance, that stocking takes place during the late afternoon -- after lawful hunting hours -- on the 16th. I've found that by avoiding the stocking days and hunting what many refer to as the "off days," I reduce crowds by at least half, sometimes even more.
In addition, New Jersey's small- game season takes a breather during the week of the state's traditional six-day firearms season for deer. My personal experience has been that when I concentrate my hunting efforts on those dates following the buck season, as opposed to the more popular "beginning" season, the crowds will have dramatically thinned.
That's not to say you'll have an entire WMA to yourself, especially not during the posted stocking dates. After the six-day firearm season for deer, many bird hunters seem to either quit or reduce their upland hunting efforts. And that's a good thing for those wingshooters who continue on their quest for more ring-necked pheasants. Thanks to dear old Dad, you can bet that I'm one of 'em!
Give one or all of the aforementioned WMAs a try. If you're willing to hunt fewer of the stocked days to avoid the crowds, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at some of the fine ringneck gunning we have in New Jersey.