New Jersey's Pheasant & Quail Bonanza

New Jersey's Pheasant & Quail Bonanza

Wingshooters throughout the Garden State are once again experiencing fine hunting for ring-necked pheasants and bobwhite quail on many of our state's wildlife management areas.

Photo by Roger A. Hill

By Bob Brunisholz

For weeks, perhaps months, Garden State upland hunters have envisioned the sight of gaudy ring-necked pheasants blasting off from a hedgerow, corn field or perhaps even a cedar swamp. Now, the time for dreaming is over as opening day of New Jersey's bird season is upon us. Admittedly, pheasant hunting isn't what it once was in the Garden State decades ago when ringnecks drew literally thousands of gunners afield each year. Make no mistake, three decades ago or longer, deer season was still extremely popular, but at that time the whitetail took a back seat to pheasant and quail.

All of that, of course, has changed during the last few decades as New Jersey began offering what could be labeled as some of the most liberal and lengthy deer seasons in the continental United States. Now, it is the ringneck pheasant and the bobwhite quail that would be the runners-up in any popularity contest.

But there still remains a crowd - and I do mean crowd - of die-hard upland gunners who dream of opening day of pheasant season in much the same fashion as a youngster dreams of downing his or her first buck.

These are the upland hunters, fans of the feather club, if you will, and in New Jersey they are making a return. And this return of good hunting (and interest in the same) is primarily due to the folks at the Division of Fish and Wildlife's Rockport Pheasant Farm.

One of the factors that figured prominently in the decline in popularity of ring-necked pheasants and quail can be attributed to a severe loss of habitat in the form of farm fields. Back in the heydays of bird hunting, a wingshooter could obtain permission to hunt from the landowner or farmer. Some farms were leased by private gun clubs, which, in turn, helped to reduce hunting pressure on public grounds. Unfortunately, many, if not most, of those farms have gone the way of the buggy whip. Oh sure, there are still some fine private clubs as well as pay-per-bird preserves, but the bulk of New Jersey's open spaces that are suitable as bird habitat have been turned into lush, green lawns replete with backyard barbecues. And during the last decade or two, perhaps even a bit longer, when the corn and sorghum fields disappeared, so did the upland hunters who traipsed those fields.

Today, nearly all pheasant and quail shooting is done on public lands. That in itself can be dismaying, but it also points out that the ringneck is still very popular.

If you're anything like me, you would rather hunt birds than breathe. But the Garden State's pheasant and quail stocking program nearly collapsed several years ago during a time of statewide fiscal problems. The DFW at the time was working with a budget that bottom-lined in the minus column. It was, indeed, a close call for those who loved wingshooting.

The stocking program was saved by two elements, one of which was doubling the cost of a pheasant/quail stamp from $20 to $40; it was a move that didn't particularly endear bird hunters to the state's bean counters. Nonetheless, it helped keep the program running.

The other element can't be counted in dollars and cents. If you ever get a chance to tour Rockport Game Farm and talk to Jim Ackerman, the head man at the facility, and then watch division wildlife workers labor at the game farm, I strongly suggest you do so.

It was Ackerman and his crew who, through innovative and sometimes extraordinarily creative means, not only maintained the production of ringnecks at Rockport, but actually improved productivity in spite of budget cutbacks. Cutbacks that often leaned toward division officials considering scrapping the entire upland game program.

The facility today aims at rearing a minimum of 55,000 ringnecks for stocking during the upland season. Quail, however, are purchased from private vendors, which was another move that helped save the pheasant program when division purse strings were stretched to the breaking point.

In reality, however, and assuming there are no natural or manmade disasters at Rockport, Ackerman and his crew actually produce closer to 60,000 birds. And each and every bird is released during the regular fall season as well as later in the extended upland season in December and January.

Rarely do any of us ever down a pheasant without admiring its lavish and brilliant plumage. But rarely do bird hunters contemplate the labor that goes into getting those pheasants into the field where you and I can enjoy hunting them.

During the last week of June, I spent nearly an entire morning with Ackerman and his crew, including Joe Penkala, supervising biologist for the division who has his office at Rockport.

What I learned was, to me at least, a shade short of amazing. Did you know, for instance, that rearing pheasants could be such a dirty job it requires workers at Rockport Game Farm to attend classes where the use of respirators is taught? And that each of the men go through annual medical exams to determine whether they may have contracted any lung or blood disorders brought on by inhaling or coming into contact with various airborne bacteria or blood disorders? No? Neither did I.

The workers at Rockport are not required to wear respirators year 'round, and you won't see them wearing them in the spring or summer. But during fall, when the birds are being "herded" into the catch runs and from there into the catching house, a respirator isn't "nice to have," it's a need to have.

At Rockport, Ackerman maintains a healthy stock of breeders, and during spring and summer, from April through the early part of July, eggs are collected by hand and the eggs are then carefully placed in trays designed to tilt to what looked to me to be a little less than a 45-degree angle.

In the wild, the egg-turning process is done by the hen pheasant, but at Rockport it's done by hand, or at least it is in the egg room where recently collected eggs are placed in trays and turned every 24 hours.

Finally, in the fall, the birds are herded into the catch house where they are placed in boxes and taken to the state's various wildlife management areas (WMAs) for you and me to hunt. No easy task, this pheasant rearing. And the aforementioned description barely scratches the surface of the labor required to make opening day memorable for upland gunners. Record keeping at the Rockport facility is also detailed and scrupulous.

So what WMAs can we expect to find the total numbe

r of 55,000-plus birds this year?

For starters, let's address quail. At one time, the division raised its own quail. Now, however, only two WMAs are stocked with quail and those birds are reared by a private contractor and then purchased by the state with funds provided by sportsmen and women when they purchase a pheasant/quail stamp.

Penkala and Ackerman said quail stocking this year would be no different than the releases in recent years. As in the seasons since 2000, quail will be released only at Greenwood Forest and Peaslee WMAs. The December quail stockings are slated for 2, 4, 6, 20, 23, 27, 30 and Jan. 3, 2004.

As for pheasants, the stockings this year will be much the same as last, with one exception. Penkala said that the traditional release of pheasants at Fort Dix will not take place.

"As everyone knows, the security needs of our nation change almost daily. Still, at this point in time, the only military reservation that will not be stocked with birds this year is Fort Dix. Other than that single exception, we will stock as in previous years, but your readers should be aware that security needs may change rapidly, and we will do whatever it takes to accommodate any additional areas of stocking if the need arises," said Penkala.

Subsequently, ringnecks will be stocked and ready for hunting at Assunpink, Black River, Berkshire Valley, Clinton, Colliers Mills, Flatbrook, Glassboro, Millville, Nantuxent, Pequest, Port Republic, Tuckahoe, Walpack and Whittingham WMAs on Dec. 2, 4, 6, 20, 23, 27, 30 and Jan. 3, 2004.

In addition, birds will be stocked and ready to hunt at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Heislerville, Howardsville, Mad Horse, Manahawkin, Medford, Stafford Forge and Winslow WMAs on Nov. 15, 22, 27 and 29 and on Dec. 6, 20, 23, 27, 30 and Jan. 3, 2004.

Keep in mind, pheasant and quail stocking schedules are weather sensitive. A little rain or snow certainly will not alter the stocking schedule, but a major storm could result in a schedule change.

Currently, a total of 23 WMAs will receive pheasant stockings, but not each of those areas are specifically designated as a WMA, such as the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which consists of federal and state lands.

Out of all these choices, my personal selection may be a bit prejudiced by the proximity of any particular WMA to my home, but the Pequest and Assunpink WMAs would be among my top picks, as well as Whittingham WMA in Sussex County as a third top choice.

Located in Warren County, with only small, select sections that are heavily wooded, the Pequest WMA seems almost built for birds and the upland hunter. Composed of numerous fields and hedgerows, as well as some fields that are planted with crops such as corn, sorghum or hay, the Pequest offers excellent bird cover. Incidentally, most of the growing and cutting of these crops is finished shortly before New Jersey's bird season opens.

The Pequest WMA contains more than 17,000 acres of woodlands and fields located between state routes (SRs) 522 and 49. Next, Assunpink WMA is also a bird hunter's dream come true. While much of Assunpink is, admittedly, woodlands, there is an equal area that contains hedgerows and fields that are more than suitable as cover for the gaudy ringneck.

Assunpink is also one of the largest WMAs if one considers bird cover only. There are, certainly, larger WMAs, but not many offer as much suitable cover for birds. This is a tract that consists of more than 5,600 acres, many of which are the epitome of bird country.

Assunpink is located in central New Jersey, lying mostly in Monmouth County, but eastern portions of this WMA are located in Mercer County. It is easily accessed from I-195, from which one would take Exit 11 to Imlaystown/Hightstown Road or from the New Jersey Turnpike on the eastern portion of the WMA.

Finally, and not necessarily in order of importance, is Whittingham WMA in Sussex County. Bird hunters who have yet to try Whittingham are in for a pleasant surprise. This WMA contains more than 1,500 acres, many of which are maintained for the propagation of upland species, including pheasants.

The upland program at Whittingham encompasses more than 1,000 acres managed specifically for upland game. Undeniably, Whittingham has many wooded tracts of the sort that bird hunters rarely give a second thought to, but the fields and hedgerows, as well as vegetation cutting and other management programs, make this WMA a welcome surprise to upland gunners. I heartily recommend this WMA to anyone with a dog and a desire to bag a brace of ringnecks.

Whittingham is located in Fredon and Green townships, Sussex County, and is immediately accessed from SR 206.

The homework factor involves looking closely at your current edition of the Wildlife Digest. That little booklet is worth its weight in gold to an upland hunter, and by choosing some of the smaller or less popular WMAs, but WMAs that are stocked nonetheless, you won't find yourself fighting the hordes of pheasant hunters traditionally found on some of the premium upland grounds.

Regardless of what method you may adopt to avoid the crowds, pheasant and quail hunting in New Jersey is still worth the effort. And if you're wondering why, or how I came to love upland gunning so much, I can tell you it's partially genetic.

Long ago, my father had to leave to hunt celestial pheasants, quail and grouse. But as a youngster, I recall him telling one of his cronies: "If it was Monday and I was seated at my kitchen table and God came down and sat with me to tell me I was going to die next Sunday, I'd spend the rest of the week bird hunting."

'Nuff said? Good wingshooting this season in the Garden State. The birds are back!

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