Rocky Mountain Pheasant Hotspots

Rocky Mountain Pheasant Hotspots

Here are the places you'll want to hunt in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho this year to put some long feathers into your game bag.

"Stay with the dog, Matt - she's onto something." The two of them went into a patch of weeds and buckbrush, and all feathered heaven broke loose. Three cocks and a couple of hens blew out of there. I heard the almost indiscernible pop of the 12 gauge and saw one rooster fold completely, signaling a clean kill. It was exciting to have everyone's limits filled by 10 o'clock in the morning of the first day.

Pheasants have, in fact, all of the characteristics of excitement: beauty, speed, noise and above all, the smarts. They are the epitome of great game birds, and to take them somewhat consistently, a hunter needs stamina, the ability to shoot under pressure and a good partner - ideally a trained dog. Just as important, however, is knowing where they live at various times of the day.

On the way home, we discussed what constituted the anatomy of a hunting hotspot, and how to recognize one. The first one that came to mind was the roosting area, probably because that is what we think about the first thing in the morning. Pheasants are generally looking for two things when they pick a roosting spot. When the weather is bad, they will want a place with enough insulation and thick cover to keep them warm and dry. They will also want to be shielded from owls and, where coyotes and foxes can't quietly dash in and have them for a midnight meal. In the West, common roosting spots are slough grass, cattails or heavy weed banks.

Fortunately, it usually is not difficult to determine where birds are roosting. A little time spent zigzagging through a promising spot will show roosting "nests" with telltale white, popcorn-like droppings the birds leave through the night. Sign from the previous night should remain moist until noon the next day. Good roost hunts are generally measured in minutes rather than hours. Pheasants will probably be up and on the move toward feeding grounds within the first half-hour to an hour after daylight and won't return until the last half-hour before dark. Be lucky enough to raid a roosting area and you will see some of the best action on close-range flushers you've ever enjoyed.

Most of us spend the greatest part of our time hunting these birds in feeding areas. Most good pheasant areas are a patchwork of grain fields of one kind or another. What the ringnecks' favored food might be has been argued for years. There is no doubt they dearly love grains such as corn, milo and wheat, but the birds must also feel safe as they feed.

The West is short on corn, so look for wheat or barley stubble, preferably with dense weed corners or bordered by CRP land. Bench grain land surrounded by buckbrush, weed or slough draws are also perfect.

As the season progresses, don't be surprised that birds aren't where they used to be. As previously mentioned, pheasants have smarts, and they constantly move to protect themselves. Start looking at outlying pockets of cover and enough feed to keep them going. These locations may be a half-mile up some draw away from heavy hunting traffic.

The short description of a first day hunt at the start of this article related to an opening morning on a beautiful day in north central Montana near Lewistown. It was the fall of 1999.

To report on pheasants in the northern mountain states just as accurately as possible, it will have to be explained that the three states discussed, have experienced moderate to severe drought conditions since that hunt. This has caused bird populations to be affected, and it will behoove hunters to seek those areas least harmed, which will be described as we travel state by state.

Photo by Vince Fischer

This state gets its name from the Shoshone phrase ee dah how, which means, "the sun comes down the mountain." This describes the state quite aptly, because the greater portion of this 84,000-square-mile state is, in fact, rugged mountains. It does, however, have rich soils in the northern and southern plateaus that produce wheat, barley, peas and alfalfa without irrigation. In the drier southern portion, irrigation canals carry water to the plains areas making that portion productive for similar crops. Those conditions spell "habitat" for upland birds.

"We had a fairly typical year last year for pheasants," said bird biologist Tom Hemker, headquartered in Boise. "We harvested approximately 125,000 birds last year and that was probably down somewhat from previous years because it has been dryer than usual." He continued, "The best hunting is generally in the southwestern portion of the state, but also in the valleys up around the town of Orofino."

He went on to explain that the best hunting in the southwest is because of an active planting program in seven wildlife management areas: Fort Boise, Payette River, Sterling, Cortier, Market Lake, Mud Lake and C.J. Strike. These are mostly located by their associated names but hunters are encouraged to call the Idaho Fish and Game for those in the areas they hope to hunt. For example, the Fort Boise and Payette River WMAs are in the far west close to those towns, and the others are somewhat east in the southern end of the state.

"The purpose of the pheasant-stocking program is to augment existing wild pheasant populations to provide additional hunting opportunities on public lands throughout the pheasant hunting season," Hemker said. "In 2000, the stocking program was expanded through the legislature appropriations process and the number of pheasants released increased from 5,700 in 1999 to 14,000 in 2000 and 16,000 in 2001. It is hoped that number will be increased a little in 2002".

The program calls for releasing birds twice a week on the WMAs throughout the hunting season.

Is this a quality hunt compared to hunting birds raised in the field? "That, of course, is open for argument," Hemker replied, "But in my opinion, this offers an excellent opportunity for a larger group of hunters to use accessible lands." This, of course, has a great deal of merit, especially the part about utilizing public lands.

It is important to know that hunters must purchase a WMA permit if they intend to hunt when pheasants are stocked. Each permit is good for six roosters and additional permits may be purchased at a cost of $21.50 each. A general license costs $128.50 for non-residents plus $21.50 for other upland birds. The hunter also has the option of purchasing an "upland bird" license for $72.50 but it is not valid for the first five days of the season.

Idaho is divided into four areas for hunting. The season in the north begins Oct. 12 and ends Dec. 31. The south section opens Oct. 19 and closes D

ec. 31. The east opens Oct. 19 and closes Nov. 30th; and the west opens Oct. 19 and closes Dec. 1.

"This is all pretty confusing," Hemker confessed, "and I urge all upland bird hunters to obtain free, a copy of the Upland Bird Hunting Regulations."

To give the prospective hunter a tip, 10,240 birds were planted in the southwest portion of the state in 2001, by far the majority that was planted in any section. As a sidelight, this state also boasts having chukar partridge, blue grouse and sage grouse that nest throughout the state. These could be a bonus.

This has been my home state for over 70 years. That, along with having a love affair with pheasants, provides a good insight to the bird situation here. Six or eight years ago, Montana became a destination point for pheasant hunters over a wide area. I can remember meeting folks from places that made it necessary for them to go through North Dakota and South Dakota from the east, and Idaho on the west, to get here. That was a surprise to me at the time, but the attraction was a good number of birds and a very cheap license. That was then, but there have been some changes.

Last year the non-resident license increased from $55 to $110. The state also restricted non-residents from hunting the first two days of the season, and on top of those things, a serious drought condition in much of the state caused poor cover and a reduced production of birds.

Those things were the general conditions. To get the best particulars, I contacted John McCarthy, pheasant biologist for the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks. "As you know, most of the state has been in a serious drought condition for two years," he began. "That has caused a dramatic shortage of cover and we have experienced poor production."

It was quite obvious that he caught himself being negative and his next remark brought some consolation. "There still remains a bright spot, however," he pointed out. "The far eastern end of the state has actually had normal precipitation. If you were to look at a map, come into the state 100 miles from the eastern border, and draw a line perpendicular north to south, that section lying east had good hunting last year.

"It is still too early to tell for this fall but it looks like everything is in place to repeat for that area," he continued. "The rest of the state looks pretty bleak."

What did he think about planting to help the situation?

"The legislature passed a statute several years ago mandating that some planting be done," he began. 'We don't believe in the policy very much but it is law and we have done a limited amount, almost all of it in the far northeast corner where habitat is good with a large amount of Conservation Reserve Plan lands sitting dormant." He was able to dig out information that disclosed that in the years from 1990 through 2001, a total of 92,000 birds had been planted. That is less than 8,500 birds a year, which is not a large program. "We think the program has been poor," he remarked. "The birds have simply not looked or acted like natural stock. We think hunters were disappointed whenever they were in contact with any of them." He went on to add, "Fortunately, given decent conditions we have some excellent field-raised bird populations."

McCarthy then talked about how many pheasants are taken annually in Montana. "Last year's figures aren't completed, but in 1999 there were 150,000 birds taken, and in 2000 we had a harvest of 130,400 roosters," he said. "That won't match South Dakota, but that is good hunting considering our small population. I regret in saying it, but last year's numbers will be down and we have our fingers crossed for 2002. I urge all hunters to contact us for current reports as we enter the hunting season."

Montana's pheasant season opens Oct. 12 and continues through Dec. 15.

Wyoming and Colorado are the only two states that have straight, rectangular borders. That, however, is about the only straight lines that Wyoming has. This great, rustic piece of real estate goes from rolling plains to a piece of the Black Hills country to some huge chunks of the Rocky Mountains. In the hunting arena, it is best known for big game but it also has some pretty fine bird hunting.

I had a good visit with Craig Smith, the state bird biologist who lives in Cheyenne and works for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

"Although we are dryer than we would like, last year was really quite average for pheasants in our state," he remarked. "We expect 2002 to be similar for numbers and for a harvest take."

He went on to explain that they have a comparatively large and comprehensive planting program. "We put out about 20,000 birds annually," he said. "The greatest number is planted in Goshen County in the southeastern portion and in Sheridan County in the far north-central part of the state." It was then logical to hear him say, "Those two counties are the premier spots for pheasants in Wyoming. Seventy percent of our birds are taken there."

The WGFD does not yet have statistics for the pheasant harvest in 2001, but in 1999 the take was 55,475 and in 2000 it was 46,200. "We think our planting is a combination of replenishment and put-and-take," Smith commented. "The plant is done right before season, the two sexes are about equal in numbers and we actually allow the taking of hens in some areas." Bird managers hope some of the planted birds will carry through the winter and complete natural hatches.

I inquired if he was aware that a policy of planting can be controversial, and that one school of thinking maintains that creating proper habitat will allow for satisfactory propagation among the birds. "I realize that," Smith replied. "But we have a heavy demand from the public and I personally believe it offers a good opportunity for a greater number of birds and a quality hunt. We are getting some good feedback from hunters and they like the opportunity of having a somewhat guaranteed number of birds around.

"Our general season opens the first weekend of November and will close Dec. 31. License cost for residents is $15 and the annual fee for non-residents is $50. There is also a daily license for non-residents of $15 per day if they elect to hunt just a few days," Smith added.

Once again, this is another state that has additional opportunities for hunting upland birds in the form of an excellent population of sage grouse and, of course, blues and Franklin grouse in the mountains.

Web sites and telephone numbers for state departments: Idaho -, (208) 334-3700; Montana -, (406) 444-3186; Wyoming -, (307) 777-4600.

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