Last year's improved pheasant hunting has Sunflower State shotgunners and biologists hoping it was a sign that Kansas' pheasants are making a comeback.
By Marc Murrell
If you hunted pheasants in Kansas during the 2001-02 or 2002-03 seasons, you likely experienced several of the worst seasons in Kansas' pheasant hunting history. Diligent hunters kicked up a few birds in certain locales, and a fortunate handful of hunters deemed the seasons poor to fair at best. But for the rest of the masses, those seasons may well have gone down in history as the absolute worst for pheasant hunting in the Sunflower State. So what was the cause?
"Drought in 2000," asserted Randy Rodgers, the wildlife biologist who keeps tabs on Kansas' upland birds for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "We just didn't have any moisture for the 2001 wheat crop, and the wheat that year was so poor that a lot of it was destroyed."
There's a strong correlation between the quality of the wheat crop and the success of pheasant nesting. The peak of the pheasant hatch is usually the second week in June. Other factors play in later in the summer, but the quality of the wheat crop and even timing of the harvest is critical.
"If harvest comes early, nesting success is lower," Rodgers said. "If it's late, we can find the nesting success can be really good. A 10-day swing either way, or even a week, from the average can make a huge difference in terms of nest success."
And the weather problems snowballed from there in 2001. Extremely hot conditions in May and June likely killed many pheasant chicks, as they're very vulnerable to weather extremes.
But Kansas' pheasant hunters likely looked to the following season with some hope as Kansas generally holds its own in pheasant harvest when compared to other states.
"Typically we're around third, sometimes fourth, sometimes second," Rodgers said. "Nobody ever beats out South Dakota any more. They are by far the top pheasant state."
Iowa typically pulls down the second spot in harvest, according to Rodgers, but there's an asterisk beside that figure. "They have roughly twice as many hunters as we do," he said.
On occasion, Nebraska or even North Dakota may slip into top spots. Much depends, of course, on their pheasant populations in a given year.
Last year, Kansas pheasant hunters were able to take limits of ringnecks even in some areas not thought to be so hot. Overall, the season turned out better than had been expected. A sign of changing times? Photo by Marc Murrell
So even a bad year in Kansas isn't all bad, and pheasants have the ability to bounce back. But over the last 20 years, pheasant numbers have been battling habitat changes, too. As a result, unfortunately, our numbers have steadily declined.
"The population fluctuates," Rodgers stated. "Since about '83, our pheasant population has really fluctuated at a much lower level than prior to that."
The reduced fluctuation in numbers is attributed to agricultural intensification, Rodgers notes. Increased herbicide use, more crops being squeezed into less time and space, and one of the biggest factors - shorter wheat stubble heights - have contributed to lower numbers in the last two decades than seen previously. Lower populations typically mean fewer birds for hunters to harvest - and that measure too has steadily declined.
So what were hunters to think going into last fall's season? The poor success of the 2002-03 season left many hunters scratching their heads, wondering if their new shotgun or bird dog pup would ever get much use again. But Rodgers has seen bird numbers bounce back when everything clicks.
"I've seen it do that several times over my career," he said. "When the spring weather conditions, particularly how it affects the wheat crop, are right, it's remarkable what they can do given the opportunity."
There were a couple of spots in Kansas that were better than others were last year. Many hunters found some of these spots and had incredibly successful hunts for conventional hunt dates like the opener and during the Thanksgiving holiday. One such hunter was Newton resident Jack Kelly.
"I've hunted out near Dodge City since 1979 when I went out there to play football at Saint Mary's of the Plains College," he recalled. "I got to know one of the kids I played football with who farmed, and it turns out he ended up being related to Jackie, my wife. And it just grew into a big family event as well as a reunion for some of the guys who played football together."
Kelly has seen his shares of highs and lows over those three decades, but last year's success was put into perspective by his 12-, 14- and 15-year-old sons, Mike, Shawn and Kirk. "After a morning hunt where we would get rises of as many as 15 to 20 birds in a field, they asked, 'Is this what it was like in the good ol' days?'" he said.
The group Kelly hunts with consists of roughly 15 or 20 hunters; some hunt the whole day, others join in on a few fields. Kelly admits that they didn't hit it hard both days of last year's opening weekend, but they still found plenty of birds and had great success.
"Over the course of two days we shot just over 80 birds," Kelly said. "We've had higher numbers, but we didn't hunt the full two days and only hunted a little bit Sunday morning. Most of the birds were taken the first day."
Other hunts during Thanksgiving and at the first of January with friends and family yielded plenty of rooster opportunities and similar success for Kelly and his hunting companions.
"I think this fall will be another good year," Kelly added. "I really think it will be as good or better this year."
Kelly and his group weren't alone in their success in that part of Kansas last year, either.
"The southwest in general was really good last year," Rodgers remarked. "They had some excellent hunting down there. The southwest certainly has the breeding population, but we'll very much have to wait and see how the production is, because of a possible early wheat harvest and relatively poor-quality wheat.
"And north-central was good last year, too. But with the breeding population that we have there, and relatively good conditions as far as the wheat crop and moisture conditions, I think the potential is pretty good for north-central Kansas to come through and be in pretty good shape this year."
Kansas has about 105,000 resident pheasant hunters, and hosts 35,000 to 40,000 non-residents who venture to the state to chase roosters.
"When WIHA (the Walk-In Hunting Area program) came on we had a big increase in non-resident hunters," Rodgers said. "In the early '90s, before WIHA, we were averaging roughly 25,000 to 30,000 non-resident hunters."
Hunters visiting the Sunflower State this year will likely have about 1 million acres on which to try their luck chasing wily roosters, as the number of acres enrolled last year nearly hit that mark. Coupled with private land connections for some hunters, this fall promises to be at least a step in the right direction - if Mother Nature cooperates.
Rodgers looks forward to the 2004-05 pheasant season with guarded optimism. Many things can, and often do, go wrong between spring and the time that wingshooters venture afield. However, it helps to start off with the odds in the birds' favor as far as numbers go.
"It's always nice to start with a greater breeding population," Rodgers said. "There are a lot of things that can happen - like it could rain during harvest time and delay the wheat harvest. You don't want it to be rainy and cool, because that's hard on the little chicks. The crystal ball stuff? Until I can predict the weather to a fine degree, I'm not going to be able to do it."
Rodgers does publish an Upland Bird Forecast in the fall, usually in late September, that provides a run-down of pheasants, as well as quail and prairie chickens, by regions of the state. It provides a general guide for bird hunters planning a trip. Even a region that often contains several dozen counties with poor to fair outlook might have some fine hunting in select areas.
The Upland Bird Forecast is available on the KDWP Web site at www.kdwp.state.ks.us.
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