Although ringneck numbers were somewhat down through much of the Great Plains region last year, pheasant hunting remained good to excellent in many places. 2010 promises much of the same. (September 2010)
With an annual pheasant harvest that has at times surpassed 2 million birds, South Dakota is the nation's top pheasant state. Mike Cnudde shows a pair of roosters he shot near a wetland in South Dakota.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.
Biologists knew the 2009-10 pheasant season in the Great Plains states was not going to be as good as the previous few years. A fairly severe winter in 2008-09 caused some losses and cut into the spring breeding population. Then a cold, wet spring limited reproduction across much of the Great Plains pheasant range. Both the number of broods and the number of chicks in the broods were lower than normal last spring.
But even with fewer birds, the Great Plains states still represent the best pheasant hunting in the country. Indeed, some spots offered phenomenal hunting. There was a bumper crop of birds from the previous year, so hunters saw plenty of pheasants. The heavy spring rains and plenty of fall moisture mean heavy cover and delayed harvest, so birds were often tough to find and even tougher to flush in expansive, uncut fields. Those who waited until the end of the season seemed to have the best luck.
Nature was a bit kinder last winter. The previous year's rains caused vegetation to flourish and left plenty of winter cover and moist soils this spring. It appears hunters may experience the good old days again this fall.
"Pheasant harvest was generally down in North Dakota in 2009, like we expected," said Stan Kohn, North Dakota Game and Fish Department upland-game biologist. "The downturn occurred for two reasons. We had a pretty severe winter in 2008-2009, and we had more winter mortality, which meant we had a smaller breeding population. Then we had some cool, wet weather in June, which hurt reproduction. Brood numbers were down, and the number of chicks in the broods was down. With a lower population of young birds in the harvest we knew numbers were likely to be down."
Kohn noted that in a normal year juvenile birds outnumber adult pheasants four or five to one. Last year, the ratio was probably closer to three to one.
In 2007, North Dakota hunters harvested an estimated 907,000 pheasants. That number dipped to 776,000 in 2008. "I would guess that the harvest for last season would be down below 700,000 birds," Kohn said.
Not only were there fewer birds, but also they were harder to find. A wet fall made the harvest difficult, if not impossible, for many farmers. There was already a preponderance of cover because of heavy spring rains, and with acres of standing crops, pheasants had plenty of places to hide.
Biologist Kohn thinks that there are plenty of birds left for seed, and with a little luck, hunting should be much improved in 2010. "We've had a much better winter as far as pheasants go in 2009-2010," he said. "We had no snow until Christmas and although we had a late winter, it wasn't too harsh. We probably had 40 inches of snow in 2010, whereas we had 100 inches in 2009. So far, we're coming through the winter in good shape, but we still have that critical period from late March through early April to deal with."
Kohn said it was too early to tell how the spring will shake out, but we're headed into the breeding season with a lower population than experienced during the 2004 to 2008 time period. He said last winter's snow left plenty of moisture in the ground. Moisture is good for producing insects that are so critical in the early life stages of a pheasant chick's life.
The prime pheasant areas in North Dakota tend to change slightly from year to year, depending on habitat and localized factors. "The best areas bounce back and forth depending on the year," said Kohn. "The southwest is always one of the better areas, and anywhere south of Interstate 94 and east of the Missouri River generally holds good number of birds."
With an abundance of CRP ground and adequate moisture, pheasants have been expanding their range in North Dakota. Areas that once had no pheasants now are producing darn good hunting for those who do their homework and want some great action all to themselves. You'll find pockets of birds in the northwest portion of the state all the way to Williston back east to Lake Sakakawea, Lake Audubon to the Devil Lake area. Much of the terrain in the west is reserved for cattle, so a key is to locate isolated croplands adjacent to wildlife management areas.
With pheasant numbers booming, their range expanding and plenty of public ground, more and more wingshooters have been making the trek to North Dakota. Hunter numbers have hovered right around 90,000 in recent years.
Of course, you can't have pheasants without habitat. No one would argue that the recent boom in pheasant numbers across the Great Plains states is due largely to the Conservation Reserve Program. With many CRP contracts set to expire in the next couple of years, the future of CRP is kind of up in the air and with it, the future of pheasant hunting in North Dakota and other states.
Still, hunters should have no problem finding a place to hunt in North Dakota. State wildlife areas and federal waterfowl production areas abound. More than a million acres are also enrolled in the Private Lands Open to Sportsman (PLOTS) program, which is a huge hit with hunters. Throw in another 3 million acres of CRP and BLMN lands and you've got more than enough property to wear out a pair of hunting boots.
For more information on pheasant hunting opportunities in North Dakota, contact that North Dakota Game and Fish Department at (701) 328-6305 or online at www.gf.nd.gov. For licensing information call (701) 328-6335.
It used to be that 1 million was a barometer with regards to the pheasant harvest. Top that number and you were considered one of the premier pheasant hunting states in the country. Not any more.
Just a few years ago the South Dakota pheasant harvest nudged 2 million birds, and with a little luck, it could top that number. South Dakota is the undisputed, hands-down "Pheasant Capital of the World."
"We probably experienced a 15 to 25 percent decrease in the harvest, which was about what we predicted," said South Dakota Game Fish and Parks upland game biologist Travis Runia. "Brood surveys predicted it."
He estimated the harvest in 2009-2010 was right around 1.67 million birds, down from an incredible 1.88 million in 2008. The 2009 state
wide pheasant-per-mile index was down 26 percent from 2008. The 2009 count was still the fourth highest count in the last 45 years. Even in a "down" year South Dakota can be mighty good.
Runia said a record late corn harvest made it difficult for hunters to finds pheasants, but it may have turned out to be a godsend. "We went into the winter with 500,000 acres of standing corn that provided both a refuge, cover and food for the birds."
South Dakota pheasants made it through the winter in fine shape in most locations, but there were exceptions. "Winter took its toll," stated Runia. "The northwest part of the state took it hard. It was the worst winter there since 1996-1997. East of the river (Missouri), losses were not nearly as bad as 1996-1997, but we still lost some birds."
In spite of the losses, Runia said there's an adequate breeding population going into the spring to provide good hunting this fall; however, it's not likely to be a banner year.
"Reproductive potential is lower because there are fewer birds, and cover could also be an issue," he said. "We now have one million acres enrolled in the CRP program. There was 1.5 million acres just three years ago."
He said that 125,000 CRP acres are due to expire in 2010 and another 150,000 acres in 2011. He was encouraged, though, by the fact that a new sign-up period might offset some of the CRP losses. Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) lands account for another critical 100,000 acres of habitat, much of it in the productive James River watershed. The state's highly popular Walk-In program has in excess of a million acres enrolled, of which approximately 400,000 is prime pheasant habitat that is a blend of CRP and croplands open to public hunting. There are restrictions on use of the lands, so check a current hunting guide or contact the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks at (605) 773-3485 or online at email@example.com.
"Traditionally the James River Watershed provides some of the better pheasant hunting in the state," said Runia. The Golden Triangle between Winner, Gregory and Mitchell are famous for producing outstanding pheasant hunting, but the private lands there, and across much of South Dakota, are reserved for guests or paying customers the first few weeks of the season. You better have some arrangements made before you decide to head there. Although public lands are plentiful, they get hunted hard and can be a zoo on the weekends. Alternatives are to come later in the season when hunting pressure is less when birds tend to move back into the good cover on pubic lands or head to areas that are outside of the traditional pheasant hotspots.
"There are good pockets of birds in places west of the river, Runia said. "Perkins County is one of those sleeper spots. It's mainly wheat country, but where you find good pheasant habitat, you'll find birds and bonus grouse and partridge, too."
Runia expects good hunting this season, but he does not necessarily expect it to be better than last year. "The loss of CRP ground is more of a factor than the number of birds," he said
It had been 25 years since I'd hunted in Kansas for pheasants before making a trip there last year. Nothing had changed for the most part, except the opportunities for public hunting were better than ever.
"The Walk-In Hunting Access properties have been a huge success," stated Kansas Department of Wildlife and Park upland-game biologist Randy Rodgers. "It's increased the number of non-residents coming to Kansas to hunt." The WIHA program accounts for more than one million acres of huntable lands, with a major portion of it in the western half of the state. For more information on the Kansas WIHA program call (620) 672-0760.
"The loss of CRP is going to be a factor. A lot of people are taking a wait-and-see attitude," said Rodgers. "There's strong interest in staying in CRP and the CREP program within CRP. CREP is a great opportunity for the states to do more things with the land. It's also a way for states to leverage state and federal money. It allows more options.
"We had a more severe winter than normal, but not extreme," said Rodgers. "I don't think we'll see any significant losses for pheasants, but bobwhite quail suffered."
Pheasant numbers in Kansas are habitat driven, which means getting moisture at the right time and in moderate amounts. "The northeast part of the state was not good last year. We got too much rain at the wrong time," Rodgers said.
"We had above normal moisture in western and northwestern Kansas and very good reproduction. We had a good population going in, so we had very good numbers of birds in Western Kansas. The north-central area was not as good. The southwest was average, but improved."
Overall, the pheasant harvest was up moderately to probably 800,000 pheasants, according to Rodgers.
"I'm optimistic at this point," said Rodgers, when asked about the prospects for 2010. "We have a good number of breeding birds and soil moisture content." For more information on Kansas pheasants contact the KDWP at (620) 672-5911 or online at www.kdwp.state.ks.us.
In the mid-1960s, the pheasant harvest in Nebraska was 1.5 million birds, and it's been on a downward trend since. In 2008-09, 325,000 pheasants were harvested and 2009-10 produced similar, or slightly better, numbers. What's causing the drop in pheasant numbers?
"Farming practices," said Nebraska Game and Parks upland game biologist Jeff Lusk. Clean farming, fall tilling and dwindling habitat contribute to the lower harvest numbers. Up until last year, the prolonged drought was also a factor. There are also fewer hunters. The number of resident and non-resident hunters has paralleled pheasant numbers. Few hunters means fewer pheasants harvested. But it's not all gloom and doom.
"The hunting varied regionally," said Lusk. "There were good reports in the southwest and reports of seeing more birds in the northeast." There was good hunting to be found in Dundy, Hayes and Perkins counties in the southwest and Burt, Cedar, Dixon and Madison counties in the northeast.
Lusk said the season was plagued by bad weather, and where the hunting is good, access is poor. One bright spot is Nebraska's CRP-Management Access Program. Last season, 156,000 acres were enrolled in the program, which allows walk-in access hunting. "About one third of our annual pheasant harvest takes place on the CRP-MAP lands," Lusk said.
Good weather last spring produced a great hatch, especially for quail, which saw their numbers explode in the southwest and along the counties hugging the Kansas border. Pheasants did well too, benefiting from timely spring rains, which jumpstarted the green vegetation that produces plenty of insects and food for chicks.
"Winter survival should be good in most places," said Lusk. "We had a pretty bad winter with deep snow and some ice in the central and eastern porti
ons of the state. I'm sure we'll see some localized effects. Winter was not as bad in the southwest, which is a prime area."
Nebraska's pheasant season traditionally opens the last Saturday in October and runs until January. For more information, contact the Nebraska Department of Game and Parks at (402) 471-0641 or www.ngpc.state.ne.us.
The ingredients for a great pheasant season are in place. There was an ample breeding population going into the winter in most states; winter wasn't too severe; and most states have more water than they've had in a very long time.