Here's the latest on what to expect this year when it comes to ring-necked pheasant hunting on select fish and wildlife areas in our state.
Photo by Soc Clay
By Mike Schoonveld
"Tried it once, didn't like it," a friend of Tom Despot, manager of Winamac State Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA), told him. Tom's pal was describing his one-time participation in a state area put-and-take pheasant hunt.
Put-and-take hunting is the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife's (DFW) answer to the demand by Hoosier hunters for opportunities to hunt and harvest ring-necked pheasants. It's not the perfect answer. It's not even a good answer in the minds of many, but it is the easiest and most cost-effective way of addressing the sporting demand for pheasant hunting around the state.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, this is how it works in a nutshell. The DFW purchases 22,000 pen-reared ring-necked pheasants each year to stock on six FWAs and at Huntington Reservoir, a property administered by Indiana's Division of State Parks and Reservoirs. The FWAs involved are Atterbury, Pigeon River, Tri-County, Willow Slough, Winamac and Glendale. The put-and-take season begins the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving and ends the weekend after Thanksgiving. In 2004, those dates will be Nov. 20 to 28.
Each morning of the season, hunters travel to the property they wish to hunt. At the property check station each hunter pays a $15 fee, selects which part of the property he or she wishes to hunt, gets a permit card and then heads for the parking area to get ready for the hunt.
The property staff tallies the number of hunters who sign up to hunt in each part of the property being used for put-and-take hunting. For every hunter a pair of pheasants is loaded on a truck and the staff drives the truck through the fields releasing the birds.
The pheasants are turned out prior to the 8 a.m. starting time. The actual hunting begins at 8 a.m. after the pheasant truck has vacated the field. Hunters fan out across the fields and hunt for the released birds. The daily limit is two pheasants per hunter, the same as the limit on private land for wild pheasants. One difference, however, is that on put-and-take hunts both hen and rooster pheasants are released so both hens and roosters can be harvested.
If you are a person who prefers to hunt small game on the properties that host a put-and-take season, but you don't want to participate in the put-and-take hunt, you aren't out of luck. Only certain sections of each property involved are used for put-and-take hunting. The rest of each FWA is open for free to licensed hunters who are after bobwhites, rabbits or other small game. When you check in to hunt (a process required of every hunter, every day), just indicate to the attendant that you want to hunt in one of the areas not involved in the put-and-take program.
Though the sections of each property being used in the put-and-take pheasant program are off-limits to other small-game hunters, deer hunters may, if they wish, hunt in these units simultaneously with put-and-take pheasant hunters. Some deer hunters do just that, but most either switch to other areas during the pheasant season or hunt the early-morning shift before the pheasant hunters and their dogs leave the parking areas. Other deer hunters will wait until late in the day after the bulk of the put-and-take hunters have finished. In general, the put-and-take hunters have their entire hunting units to themselves.
To finish the story about Tom Despot and his friend, Tom suggested his pal try it once again, but with a twist. "We've changed a few things since you were here years ago," Despot told him. "Most of those changes had to do with spreading out our hunters to make the put-and-take hunt less hectic, more enjoyable, safer and more like the experience of hunting wild pheasants would or should be."
Among the things done at Winamac was to lower the number of hunters who are allowed on the property each day. Fewer hunters means more elbowroom for the rest. Another thing was to increase the number of parking areas from which hunters can depart to hunt. Instead of a dozen or more guys all heading out at the same time from the same spot, perhaps only a half dozen will be assigned to any particular parking area and even then, there's the chance that not all will choose to leave at the same time.
A phenomenon growing in popularity on all the properties involved in the put-and-take program is "after-work" hunters. The sign-up starts at 6 a.m. on most of properties, which means hunters who are local or work nearby can go to a property, sign up and pay for their hunt in the morning; but instead of heading to the field with the other sportsmen who are there for the morning hunt, they go to work.
After work, these guys return to the property ready to hunt until the end of the day. Though 8 a.m. is the earliest a person can take to the field, there's no requirement for a person to be present at 8 a.m. The result is fewer people heading into the field at the starting bell and other people heading out at different times during the day after the morning guys are done with their hunts.
Despot explained this to his friend and suggested, "Come sign up in the morning, then go do something else until 11 or noon. Start then, see how you do and let me know what you think of the program."
It turns out this particular hunter likes the new program! Now, instead of putting the program down as in the past, he comes several days during the season and has a great time.
SHOW ME THE MONEY!
The cost for each participant in the program in 2004 is $15 as it has been for several years. Is it too much or too little? Actually, it's just about right. The goal of the DFW put-and-take program is to break even and it does.
Compared to the cost of visiting a commercially run, private shooting preserve, the state-run program is a bargain. Remember, however, the owners of private shooting preserves are in the business to make a profit. Most private preserves charge a base price for so many pheasants released and then offer a "per-bird" rate, typically $15 to $20 per pheasant for additional releases. Since the DFW releases two pheasants for each hunter who signs up and no additional fee, that's a per bird rate of only $7.50.
How can the state break even at this price while private operators have to charge double or more? Are these other guys getting rich? Hardly.
First, the DFW buys the pheasants in bulk and that affords them a discount over the price a game breeder charges independent operators. The DFW also guarantees they will buy a certain number of pheasants. There's no speculati
on on the part of the pheasant farmer. He's got a contract in hand while the pheasants are still in the egg that every bird on the contract will be used and paid for. That's not a guarantee he can demand of his private sector clients.
Remember, too, the state-run hunts don't offer the personal attention and all the other perks that are available on private shooting preserves. Few, if any, hunts on private preserves are conducted without the service of a trained bird dog and handler. Most of the private preserves clean your game, offer the luxury of a morning or an afternoon hunt; they may even serve lunch or snacks and you can book almost any date you want from Oct. 1 to the end of March.
The DFW only has to worry about the price of the pheasants and a few administrative costs. A private operator has to worry about the price of the pheasants and dozens of other costs when it sets the price of admission.
THE DARK SIDE OF
There's a dark side of the put-and-take hunt on most properties at least for part of the season. It's not so much "the dark side," however, as it is "the dark outside."
These days only the most thoughtless traveler takes a long trip and just hopes to find vacancies at roadside motels. Only the most hopeful concertgoer heads for the box office minutes before the band takes the stage and hopes there are leftover tickets to be purchased. Only in an emergency would a person head for an airport without having a plane reservation in hand.
That's just what put-and-take hunters have to keep in mind when considering hunting on any of the properties that hold these special hunts. The hunting opportunities are available only on a first-come, first-served basis. So on the weekends of the hunt, on Thanksgiving and the day after, the guys who come first get there when it's dark outside. They start lining up in the wee hours of the morning to ensure they are close enough to the head of the line that they get in on their favorite unit or parking area when it's their turn at the counter.
This is the system in effect again in 2004, though rumors of change are being heard from the DFW. As inhospitable as the first-come, first- served system is, there are ways to cope with the archaic system.
On most properties, the only two days of the nine-day season that are sure to fill up quickly by hunters who have traveled to the property under the cover of darkness are Thanksgiving Day and the Friday right after turkey day. These first weekend days either don't fill up at all, or don't fill up at the 6 a.m. rush.
There will be some guys there early, but most of these are either remembering the Thanksgiving Day crowds from the previous year or hunters who want to make absolutely sure they get to hunt a particular field from a specific parking lot. The sign-up period extends until a half-hour prior to the start of the hunt, and realistically, other than the super-crowd days, one can show up at 7:29 a.m. and get just as good a spot as the first guy in line.
If you want to hunt on one of the busy days - they are the days most people have off from work - call the property where you plan to hunt and ask them for advice about what time people are likely to start lining up. Crowds are different at each property and the property personnel know from experience what usually happens where they work.
RUMORS OF CHANGE
"A few years ago, there were rumors the DFW planned to eliminate the put-and-take pheasant hunting program," said Glen Salmon, director of the DFW. "All the division's programs are scrutinized periodically, and when we took a good look at the put-and-take program, the decision was made to continue the annual hunt and to make the put-and-take program the very best it can be. We also want to make it a tool to retain current hunters and to recruit future hunters.
"We know there are hunters who try it once or twice and never again. We know there are people who think about trying it, but shy away for some or many reasons. The division is currently exploring ways to improve on our current methods, which could include additional, more convenient ways to register for the hunts prior to coming to the property, possibly through the new computerized hunting and fishing license sales system scheduled to be activated in 2005."
ODDS FOR SUCCESS
Put-and-take pheasant hunting is different than going to a private preserve where success is guaranteed. Preserve owners have methods to ensure their clients find the birds they release and have ample opportunity to harvest them. The only guarantee offered to a DFW customer is that there will be two pheasants released for them in the area in which they are signed up to hunt. Finding the pheasants, getting a fair shot at them and bringing one or two of them down is all up to you.
That's how it should be. The program isn't a meat market where you plunk down the money and have the game served on a silver platter. What the program does offer is a chance to go afield in an area with good cover with the knowledge there are birds to be found. Finding them is part of the fun and the challenge.
Mathematically, the odds of hunters finding pheasants increases with each day of the season. On the first couple of days of the season, a good harvest is about 50 percent of the birds released. In other words, if 50 pheasants are turned out in a hunting unit, hunters will bag only 25 of them. Though none of the pen-reared birds are hardy enough to survive the winter, most will do okay in the wild for several days. If the harvest was only 50 percent on each of the first two days, by the third day, statistically, there should be twice as many birds present. In practice the numbers game doesn't compute exactly. Some birds fall to predation and some escape the area, but inexorably, the success rate climbs as the season progresses and each day's leftover birds boost the pheasant numbers in a field.
The put-and-take pheasant program has a loyal bunch of hunters who participate eagerly each year. Some are quite successful regardless of the statistics involved. They are as apt to bag their pair of pheasants on day one as they are late in the week.
A hunter with perseverance is always going to do better than one who makes a couple laps around a field and gives up. Hunt hard. Even a pen-reared bird knows enough to scoot into the thickest cover it can find. A hunter with perseverance and a good bird dog is going to do even better. The dog is going to sniff out those birds and will more easily find the downed birds after they are shot.
A hunter with perseverance, a good dog and a trained shooting eye has the best odds for success. Good shooting means a hunter, early in the week, will be able to take advantage of the opportunities as they are created. Even late in the put-and-take season a person who is going to need five or more opportunities to successfully bring down a bird is going to come up short on most days.
All FWAs have shooting ranges where clays can be thrown. Head to a property a few times prior to the season with your huntin
g partners and trigger a few boxes of shells at clay pigeons. Shooting is fun and the practice will mean more birds in your game pouch.
Perhaps you, like Tom Despot's friend, tried put-and-take pheasant hunting sometime in the past and came away from the experience vowing to never go again. Perhaps you've heard horror stories of skirmish lines of hunters, running and gunning with no more safety than when Teddy Roosevelt was charging up San Juan Hill.
Perhaps it's time you revisit a FWA during the put-and-take pheasant season and see for yourself that most of the bad things are gone and the few remaining distasteful aspects can be easily overcome. No one will argue that put-and-take hunting is a substitute for hunting wild pheasants, but it is an alternative that is inexpensive, available and can be as enjoyable as you make it.
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