From put-and-take hunts to cleanup and preserve-style offerings, there is more than one way to take aim at our most celebrated game bird. (November 2007)
Pheasants are the favorite upland bird of most Indiana small-game hunters.
Photo by Mike Schoonveld.
Except for global warming, there's no environmental issue today receiving more attention from the scientific community than invasive and exotic species. In the U.S., an exotic species has been defined as any plant or animal that was not found in North America before discovery and settlement by Europeans. In other words, zebra mussels, starlings, English sparrows, purple loosestrife, garlic mustard and more than 200 other species of plants and animals in Indiana are here now, but weren't present in 1492.
I've often wondered why, with so many invasive species stowing away on ships or planes to invade North America that so few have proved to be welcome and valuable assets. There are not many people who wouldn't send all the zebra mussels in the Great Lakes and other waters back to Europe where they came from. Let's send all the African bees back to Africa and the Asian lady beetles back to China. There are no good carp, starlings or any of the other dozens of invasive species I could list.
In fact, of all the exotic species of which I'm aware, only one has become a welcome transplant to the areas it has colonized in the New World. And that exotic species is none other than the ring-necked pheasant.
Originally found only in Asia, ringnecks were introduced in Oregon in the 1880s and into almost every other state in the Union in the next few decades. In some areas, they pros pered; in other regions, they weren't so successful. Here, in Indiana, there are areas where (given enough habitat) ringnecks will exist in densities unrivaled anywhere in the country.
Regardless that these birds aren't native to Indiana and regardless that pheasant populations aren't spread evenly across the state, they are still the favorite and most sought-after game bird for most Indiana upland hunters. The statistics show it!
Anyone hunting non-migratory, feathered game in Indiana is required to purchase a Game Bird Habitat Stamp along with his or her normal hunting license. Specifically, this includes people hunting ring-necked pheasants, bobwhite quail, ruffed grouse and wild turkeys. Sure, many people hunt both pheasants and quail, both grouse and turkeys or any other combination. But when pinned down as to which game bird is most important to individual habitat stamp buyers, pheasant hunters easily outnumber hunters primarily interested in hunting bobwhites, turkeys or grouse.
This popularity has developed because there are actually four different ways to hunt pheasants in our state. They all involve dogs, shotguns, brisk fall days and a healthy amount of effort. However, your demeanor, your budget and where you live are the overriding factors to determine which particular style will suit you best.
Wild ringnecks exist primarily in northern Indiana. The soils that developed under prairie grasses or in wetland situations are where pheasants can prosper. A major part of several northwestern Indiana counties were prairie grasslands when settlers came to the state. In other areas of northern Indiana, vast shallow marshes existed and with ingenuity, work, manpower and machines, many of these marshes were drained and the wetlands were converted to agricultural crops.
Habitat found in these areas will produce pheasants. Unfortunately (at least for pheasants and ringneck hunters), prairie soils and drained wetland acres are some of the richest farmland in the world and finding extensive tracts of undisturbed habitat is tough these days.
The USDA's Conservation Reserve Program, and other habitat initiatives which offset lost farm income in trade for establishing areas of cover, has helped Indiana's wild pheasant population to a degree. Sadly, these programs will never produce enough habitat and wild pheasants to satisfy all of Indiana's hunters.
This is where capitalism and the Hoosier entrepreneurial spirit steps to the plate. These days, there are dozens of licensed shooting preserves around the state. Many are listed at www.blackswingandclay.com, but there are others. Their premise is simple.
The preserve operator establishes fields and other habitats on his acres, raises or purchases ring-necked pheasants grown on pheasant farms and releases these birds into the habitat. The hunters come along later and try to locate the stocked pheasants.
Comparing one preserve with another is almost impossible. About the only similarity is there is a fee involved and the hunting will be for pheasants. The amount of the fee varies. Some places allow hunters to bring their own dogs, while others furnish the dogs and handlers. Some preserves are large, while others are small. Some dress the birds for you, and offer sporting clays, overnight lodging and the list goes on and on.
If hunting on a preserve is something you'd consider, give several a try. If one doesn't suit you, chances are the next one or the next will provide exactly the combination of amenities to furnish you with a perfect day afield.
Each year, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) turns a portion of seven of its fish and wildlife areas (FWA) and state reservoir areas (SRA) into shooting preserves, starting the Saturday before Thanksgiving and lasting until the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
These put-and-take hunts are different from hunting on private preserves in several ways. Most notably is that DNR hunts follow state regulations allowing only two pheasants per day to be harvested for a $15 fee (though it may go up to $20 this year). Most private preserves allow bagging as many pheasants as you want or can afford.
The premise of these hunts is simple. Go online to www.wildlife.in.gov and find the put-and-take pheasant hunt registration page. Sign up for a hunt at any of the available properties, pay by credit/ debit card when you sign up, and then print out your receipt. Show up at the property, trade your receipt for a daily hunting permit card and anytime after 9 a.m. that day, head for the release area you've chosen and start hunting.
Before the hunt, DNR personnel will have stocked the fields with a pair of pheasants for each hunter listed on that day's roster. Since these are pen-reared birds with no chance of surviving in the wild, both hen and rooster pheasants are stocked and are legal targets.
Hunt until you have your t
wo-pheasant limit or have had enough hunting for the day. There's no guarantee, and unlike private shooting preserves, which are relatively small, the DNR areas are often vast. Even though the pheasants are farm-raised, they aren't pushovers. Overall success usually ranges around 70 percent.
If a put-and-take property releases 2,000 pheasants and the success rate is 70 percent for hunters, statistically there should be 600 pheasants left on the area once the paid hunt is finished. On the Monday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 26), any hunter with a small-game license and game bird habitat stamp is permitted into the pheasant release areas to "clean up" the remaining pheasants.
The cleanup hunt lets people who were unable to reserve a spot (only a limited number of hunters are allowed daily) to get in on the hunt. It permits hunters who didn't obtain their limit during an earlier paid hunt to get the bird they missed; but most of all, it puts the remaining pheasants to better use than allowing them to starve or fall prey to predators.
Again, there's near zero chance of survival for these birds, so either sex is legal in the cleanup hunt zones. The cleanup hunt lasts until the end of the statewide pheasant season (Dec. 23). Again, using statistics, the better chance of success comes early in the cleanup season when the maximum number of pheasants is available.
Put-and-take and cleanup hunts are held at Roush Lake SRA and Winamac, Willow Slough, Tri-County, Pigeon River, Atterbury and Glendale FWAs. Of these, only Willow Slough and Pigeon River have any wild pheasants in residence.
The ring-necked pheasant is a magnificent trophy regardless of where or how it is hunted. Moreover, it's one invasive species I hope sticks around forever!