Is it possible to have an even better pheasant season than what we saw last year in the Great Plains? Yes! (September 2007)
As fall unfolds on the Great Plains, so too does the grandest spectacle the nation's biggest outdoor playground has to offer -- pheasant season!
For the region's pheasant hunters, the past decade has been like a dream in which the game bags are heavy and the shells spent. On an annual basis, the fertile grasslands of the Great Plains produce more pheasants than any other location in the nation.
With expanding bird populations, improving moisture conditions, and solid gains in public access, the upcoming pheasant season in the Great Plains could be the best of the best. Here's a closer look at what each of our states has to offer.
The secret's out: North Dakota is full of pheasants. The hunting hasn't been this good in more than 60 years, and wingshooters are taking full advantage.
Stan Kohn, upland game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, has 30 years of experience under his belt, and he believes that these are the best pheasant numbers he's ever seen. "What we've experienced over the past several years is an expansion of the pheasant range in North Dakota," he said. "We are seeing hunters harvest good numbers of pheasants in counties that at one time barely registered on our surveys."
We can thank several years of mild winters for playing a large part in the expansion, and though this past winter was more "normal" than has been the case of late, Kohn reported no significant losses. "We are probably carrying over as many birds as possible into spring," he stated.
Pheasant hunting has always been popular in North Dakota, and with added opportunities come more hunters. "Both resident and non-resident hunter numbers have been on the rise," Kohn remarked. "We have seen a record number of over 90,000 hunters the past couple of seasons, but with more areas to hunt, and local hunters staying closer to home, pressure has actually eased in some of the traditional hunting grounds."
This season will once again see the popular areas south of Interstate 94 holding solid numbers of birds. And those numbers are spilling over: Robust pockets exist as far as the Williston area in the northwest and to the banks of Lake Sakakawea, Lake Audubon and beyond, to the Devils Lake region.
The biggest concerns currently facing North Dakota's pheasant population are the effects of lingering drought in the southwest and fears relating to the current farm bill and the Conservation Reserve Program. Anyone with interest in upland game numbers is aware of the current CRP situation and its value to all wildlife. Many contracts entered into in connection with this program that over the past decade has lifted pheasant numbers from the cellar to the attic across the region are due to expire in the target year of 2007, so all parties concerned are holding their breath to see what the future has in store.
"We are going to see some changes," noted Kohn. "Time will tell where and how much. CRP has been instrumental in building the pheasant numbers we have today, and without it, numbers are going to be affected."
The positive effects of the program have been obvious to any wingshooter. In 1990, when the program was in its infancy, approximately 47,000 hunters shot 175,000 pheasants in North Dakota; by 2005, that number shot up to 92,000 hunters harvesting a modern-day record 809,000 pheasants.
In addition to big numbers of birds, North Dakota hunters have been treated to additional gains in the popular land-access program known as PLOTS -- Private Land Open To Sportsmen -- which at last count had enrolled more than 800,000 acres, many of these lying in some of the state's best hunting areas. Overall, PLOTS is very popular with hunters and landowners alike.
Kohn thought that hunters coming into the state should be reminded that non-residents are not allowed to hunt on land owned or leased by the NDGFD, which includes PLOTS acreage, until after the first week of the season.
North Dakota's season is tentatively set to open Oct. 13 and to run into January 2008. Hunters will be allowed three roosters in the daily bag with a possession limit of 12; shooting hours are from a half-hour before sunrise to sunset. License costs will stand at $20 for residents and $100 for out-of-state-guests. The non-resident license is good for two seven-day periods or 14 consecutive days; additional licenses may be purchased.
The news coming from the pheasant fields of South Dakota couldn't look much better, even though the harvest last season slipped slightly from the book-buster of 2005.
"Our winter went very well," said Tom Kirschenmann, senior wildlife biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "We had high numbers of birds left in the fields after last season, and those birds benefited from the mild conditions. We did experience more 'normal' winter conditions, but overall we had a very good number of carryover birds."
That's great news for a state that boasts 80,000 resident and 97,000 non-resident pheasant hunters. Those wingshooters harvested an estimated 1.84 million ringnecks last year, and, although that was slightly off from the record 1.95 million roosters taken in 2005, it's still a ton of birds. This kill figure overwhelmingly leads the nation, and buttresses South Dakota's claim to the title of "Pheasant Capital of the World."
"Hunters were pretty happy last year, and the slight decline occurred in areas hardest hit by last summer's drought," explained Kirschenmann. "We went into the season telling hunters those areas were down, and the season played out as expected. Overall, we had a great season last year, and we are set up to have another this year."
Hunter numbers rose along with the strong bird numbers. Resident hunters held at 80,000, but non-resident numbers jumped by 2 percent, to 97,000. "Any wingshooter in the nation dreams of hunting wild ringnecks in South Dakota," said Kirschenmann, "and right now people are enjoying some of the best hunting the state has seen in half a decade."
Like their counterparts in their neighbor to the north, South Dakota officials thank CRP for the vast jump in bird numbers since the program began. Some of the nearly 1 million acres of private Walk-In lands that the state leases are CRP properties, and
their existence is vital. "Several hundred thousand acres are set to expire this fall, and that could bring a big change to the landscape," Kirschenmann remarked.
Drought conditions limited habitat and hunting opportunities in the western reaches of the pheasant belt last year; fortunately, population gains in the eastern parts of the range helped ease the situation. For this season, the main pheasant belt will once again lie along the upper James River Valley and south-central parts of the state.
South Dakota's pheasant season will run from Oct. 20 to Jan. 6. License costs will hold at $29 for residents; the 10-day non-resident license (good for 10 consecutive days or two five-day periods) will run $110. Each licensed hunter is allowed three cock pheasants, with 15 in possession.
Pheasant hunters hitting the fields in Nebraska last fall had an average season. Strong pockets were found throughout the region, but a few sleepers existed as well. Scott Taylor, upland game manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, summed up the 2006 season as "not outstanding, but not poor, either."
The Cornhusker State has witnessed its pheasant population strengthen gradually over the past six years. Those gains have taken time, and Taylor points to the effects of drought conditions as the chief culprit in suppressing numbers. "We have seen a slow growth in harvest numbers over the past few years," he observed, "but every time we think we have turned the corner to make bigger steps, Mother Nature throws something else at us."
Harvest numbers for the past season were still being compiled when I talked to Taylor, who felt that the total kill was comparable to 2005, when 437,000 ringnecks were taken. "That is up from the 406,000 birds taken in 2004," he said, "but I would still like to see that number in the half-million range or beyond."
One limit on Nebraska harvest numbers is a falloff in hunter numbers. "We have been losing some of our hunting base," said Taylor, "with both resident and non-resident numbers slipping the past couple of years."
In 1998, Nebraska saw 77,000 resident hunters and 22,000 non-residents hitting the pheasant fields; in 2005, those numbers fell to 56,000 residents and 14,000 non-residents, respectively. "It's hard to maintain or gain in annual harvest numbers when some of our hunters are staying home," Taylor stated.
Unlike the Dakotas, Nebraska experienced much tougher conditions this past winter; the full effects, whose influence has yet to be projected, will not be revealed until fall. "We saw some significant snow in the southwest region," Taylor reported. "The snow came toward the end of the hunting season, and some areas were hit pretty hard. Hopefully, if we experienced any losses they will be local, and those areas can recover quickly."
Coupled with the heavy snow was a late-January ice storm that hit the central part of the state hard. The storm was heavy enough to cause structural damage to personal property, and such conditions can be tough on pheasants trying to scratch out a living on the prairie.
"Fortunately, the storm occurred later in the season and we didn't hear of any big losses," said Taylor. "When losses occur on a large scale, I am usually quick to hear about them, so we are crossing our fingers for that region as well."
Taylor went on to say that whenever we have serious winter weather conditions, it's typical to expect the worst and hope for the best.
On the bright side, added moisture helped ease some drought worries and pushed the severe drought line farther west. In the season that's upon us, the northeast and southwest regions should provide the best hunting the state has to offer. Look to Dundy, Hayes, and Perkins counties in the southwest and Burt, Cedar, Dixon, and Madison counties in the northeast. The northeast was down a little last year, but improved habitat conditions should provide good hunting again this fall.
Along with the Cornhusker State's share of state and federal land open to public hunting, another boon to pheasant hunters in Nebraska is the CRP-MAP program, which allows hunting on private acres leased by the state. The program, which opens some 180,000 acres of private CRP land across the state to public hunting, is very popular.
This year's Nebraska hunting season is set to open Oct. 27 and run into January. The daily limit will again hold at three roosters, 12 in possession. Shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to sunset. The required resident annual small-game permit is $12; the non-resident license is $68. Both include the $1 agent fee.
Until this past season, Kansas pheasant hunters had seen their most popular game bird population on an upward trend, but owing to severe drought in the western reaches of the state, officials went into last year's season predicting a 15 percent drop in numbers.
"We knew going into last season that it was going to be tough in some areas of western Kansas, where production was down and adult birds made up the bulk of the population," said upland game biologist Randy Rodgers of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "We may have been overoptimistic, as some local areas really suffered from the drought and bird numbers suffered. Overall, we had a decent season, but we were down from the 764,000 roosters taken in 2005."
To make matters worse, those same areas were blanketed last winter with heavy snows that sat as deep as 3 feet on the level with drifts four times that. "That area took the brunt of the winter," said Rodgers. "In many cases, winter cover was at a premium and bird numbers took a hit; it was just a very tough situation.
"If you follow a line from the extreme southwest in Morton County and head north and a little east to the Nebraska line, you can see which areas were most affected. To the west of that line the snows piled high, and numbers will show that in the harvest this fall. We did get some really needed moisture, which improved habitat and production, but we just didn't have the carryover birds in some of those areas, and it is going to take more than one season to fully recover."
East of that line, conditions actually look good. Wheat crops and other habitats responded well to added spring moisture and allowed for better production. "This area holds a lot of promise," Rodgers asserted. "We actually have the potential for a pretty good season this year. We will just have to wait a few more weeks and see how things play out."
Although CRP acres are beneficial to pheasants, wheat production is vital to Kansas' ringnecks, and a delayed crop generally provides the best nesting conditions. The state has always lived by the motto that what's good for its wheat is good for its pheasants, so hunters should look to those areas to experience the best that Kansas has to offer. In particular, the north-central and south-central regions look strong for this fall.
Kansas is the only state in the Great Plains that allows four roosters in the daily bag. About 125,000 hunters took to the fields last year in search of those daily limits. Very popular with the state's wingshooting faithful is the Walk-In program -- Kansas' version of leasing private acres for public use -- which boasts over a million acres that it has opened to public hunting.
For this year, the season opener is tentatively set for Nov. 3 and will run through January 2008. Residents will pay $20.15 for their annual license, while non-residents will shell out $72.15 for the same.
As the Great Plains states gear up for another pheasant season, hunters are advised to take full advantage of the great hunting the region has to offer, as questions surrounding the CRP program could change our landscape and the modern-day pheasant boom we have come to enjoy. The region currently boasts some of the best pheasant numbers in more than half a decade, and this season could be our best one yet.
Find more about Great Plains fishing and hunting at: GreatPlainsGameandFish.com.