Wisconsin's December Pheasants

Wisconsin's December Pheasants

Most hunters put away their shotguns in November. That's a big mistake, because the educated roosters are out there just waiting to outsmart you! (December 2006)

Photo By Carol Migdalski

Thanks to Wisconsin's pheasant stocking program, this year has been a good one for our state's rooster hunters.

Pheasant stamp monies gave a shot in the arm to the state pheasant program, and as a result, most of the hunting pressure was on Wisconsin's stocked public lands earlier this season. Now that temperatures have dropped and the regular gun deer hunt is over, this is a perfect time for a few late-season rooster hunts. The week after the November deer season ends, the Department of Natural Resources empties its pens onto state lands. But even after these stocked birds are shot by hunters, there are still plenty of wild pheasants, including educated roosters that outsmarted you earlier in the season.


Perhaps some of you may disagree with this assessment. Perhaps you've hunted for wild birds in excellent habitat, only to see one hen flush. Maybe you've gone to your favorite spot only to find several hunters had beat you to it. While this was likely the case in October and November, pheasant behavior changes as the snow starts falling. With a little research and some common sense, you can have a great hunt in December.



Of course, overall success of the pheasant season depends greatly on the size of broods and their survival in the critical spring months. All indications are that pheasant broods did just fine this spring. In fact, numbers could be up perhaps 20 to 30 percent from last year.

"We had some rain and cold weather in May followed by a wet June," said Brian Buenzow, the DNR wildlife technician for Rock, Green and LaFayette counties. "While we would always like to see 80-degree days and a dry May, the weather this year probably didn't affect the broods that much. Unfortunately, we won't know for sure until the harvest numbers start coming in. Regardless, we had the biggest population of wild birds that we have ever had going into the breeding season. If the hens had small broods of four young, we will have a good season."


Andrea Mezera, an upland biologist with the DNR, said that most of the statewide data confirmed there are many wild birds on the landscape.


"We had good production of wild birds last summer and a mild winter," she said. "I would expect another stable year for the population numbers. In fact, the past three years have been very stable when you look back. We are also well above our long-term mean for our surveys."

The key to wild pheasant numbers depends greatly on habitat. If the habitat is there, then wild birds are capable of sustaining their population numbers. This all bodes well for hunters, but Mezera added, "Most of the wild populations are on private land. Hunters need to ask for permission first." Driving through the countryside and knocking on doors could be your best bet if you want to go after wild birds this December, especially since most people are done deer hunting on their own land and are willing to let bird hunters on their property.

Brian Dhuey, a DNR research scientist, agreed.

"Most wild birds made it through the winter in pretty good shape," he said. "We had above-average temperatures and below-average snowfall during January, and spring conditions were favorable for survival."

LOOK FOR HABITAT

Knowing that pheasants are in the area doesn't guarantee a successful hunt, because not all lands hold excellent pheasant habitat. You'll need to know what to look for to increase your odds at getting a rooster.

"When hunting pheasants in December, hunt the heavy grass cover," Buenzow said. "Whether on public or private land, this habitat will hold the most birds. Early in the season, pheasants are driven out of this kind of habitat, but as the snow gets deeper and deeper, they migrate back to the best habitat. The deeper the snow the better. The best would be 20 to 24 inches of snow like we had back in 2000. At times, this habitat can be very hard to hunt because of the deep grass. I've used snowshoes and skis, yet even these don't work really well in heavy snow cover. Use felt Pac boots and go slowly."

In December, you should also focus on food sources, preferably food patches in or near heavy grassland cover. Pheasants eat waste grain, corn, soybeans and ragweed seeds. As more and more farmers are forced to plow every acre to make a profit, suitable pheasant habitat has been in decline. If you don't have a wild place to hunt, target field edges, fencerows and weedy corn fields to find the most roosters. The best spot would be tall grasses with a food plot in the center. DNR professionals have managed sections of their lands for just this kind of habitat, and many hunters are starting to reap the benefit of this management. With a good percentage of pheasant stamp money going into continued habitat work, the future is bright for a sustained wild population.

WHERE TO GO

Good pheasant habitat exists mainly in the southern and west-central parts of Wisconsin. There are good pockets of wild birds in the southern and east-central areas of our state -- if you know where to look. The northern third of the Badger State is mostly forestland and not suitable to pheasants.

"We did not have the correct conditions for a long enough time period to run flush counts last winter, but there were reports of lots of pheasant sightings over the winter and spring," said Missy Sparrow, private lands wildlife biologist for the DNR. "Crow counts show about the same population as last year."

"Good wild release areas

are the south side of the Sheboygan Marsh in

Sheboygan County," Sparrow said. "Also try near Belgium

and Fredonia townships in Ozaukee County."

Eric Lobner, a DNR biologist, agreed.

"For the most part, conditions were fair to good in the Dodge, Fond du Lac and Columbia County area," Lobner said. "Conditions were slightly drier, with not too many days of cold and wet. Although early on, we had a couple of wet and cold days, and my suspicions are that these days were before the hatch."

Traditionally, these counties have had good hunting because of ideal habitat. These counties have a blend of grassland and farmland that provide good cover, nesting habitat and a constant food source.

"The spring crowing counts in the Glacial Habitat Restoration Area were up, and in some areas, significantly," Lobner said. "Hunters should continue to focus on the native prairie grass cover that contains a good proportion of seed-producing wildflowers mixed in, or those fiel

ds adjacent to agricultural food sources. As the season progresses, focus on the thicker cover, especially the shrub-carr marshes. This will be the key to success. Shrub-carr marshes are typically cattail-dominated wetlands that have a good mix of shrubs, including dogwood and willow that are generally devoid of tall trees. Our spring surveys in the GHRA looked pretty good, with some units experiencing a 50 percent increase over last year. Although any increase is warmly received, keep in mind that some units hit some pretty low numbers, and we still have a ways to go to see the highs that we saw years ago."

Much of the increase in pheasant numbers can be attributed to habitat work.

"This spring alone we have added an additional 600 acres of grassland habitat in the GHRA project area on properties open to public access," Lobner said. "Although these new plantings take a couple of years to get fully developed, we added comparable amounts of habitat the last several years, and much of that is coming along well and is starting to provide some great cover."

For additional information on where to hunt, Lobner suggested the DNR's Web site at www.dnr.wi.gov org/land/wildlife/ghra. They are working on making maps of the area available to hunters to download.

"This should give hunters a better idea of where all of these properties are located," Lobner said.

Meanwhile, farther north and east, there are plenty of wild roosters.

"Good wild release areas are the south side of the Sheboygan Marsh in Sheboygan County," Sparrow said. "Also, try near Belgium and Fredonia townships in Ozaukee County."

Changes in land use have had an impact on wild populations in this area.

"More houses keep going up in the country," said Sparrow, "which makes it more difficult for hunting and reduces the amount of hunting land. Hopefully, landowners will sign up for CRP improvements, which will lead to more acres of grass cover in the area. The use-value tax has been hard on the conservation practices on private lands, especially grasslands not enrolled in CRP. This is making it much harder to establish good habitat for pheasants."

To the south, there are additional areas to try, such as the new Turtle Valley Wildlife Area in west-central Walworth County.

"I saw four pheasant broods in just a short time on this 2,300-acre-plus parcel," said James Jackley, a former wildlife biologist in the area. "I know most CRP and other habitat in the county has birds as well."

While there is some limited public hunting available, most of the habitat is on private land.

"If you can get permission, there should be good hunting on private land," Jackley said.

Rock County has more CRP land than Walworth, and active grassland management has provided more public hunting opportunities in this area.

Buenzow, who also manages Green and LaFayette counties, said, "Check out the areas near Evansville and Albany. There will be more hens than roosters, but these areas have been managed in the past three or four years. In fact, some areas were burned last spring and will provide excellent pheasant habitat when winter comes." These counties have not been stocked for years. Now that there is suitable grassland, pheasant numbers have been strong, and no additional stocking has been necessary.

"The west-central counties really have been standing out the past couple of years," said Mezera about Dunn, Pierce, St. Croix, Eau Claire and Polk counties. "They are seeing some very high crowing counts. We do put a lot of money in those counties for grassland management, and pheasant stamp dollars, and so do our cooperators like Pheasants Forever. I guess you could say that this is one area where the habitat work is paying off as far as the pheasant population."

The DNR expects high rooster densities and good hunting in west-central Wisconsin this fall. Areas with unharvested corn and good upland cover produce the most flushes, and preliminary crow counts suggested good production.

"Spring weather was great for brood production," said DNR wildlife biologist Harvey Halvorsen of St. Croix County. "We had no cold rains or flooding, and last year there were reports of great hen flushes. The wild population looks excellent, but we still haven't reached that magic bubble of five roosters per square mile yet. Regardless, our crow counts are up about 30 percent.

"Unfortunately, the habitat has changed," continued Halvorsen. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife has initiated a cover conversion on many WPAs, so a lot of the land is in corn. This can be OK if you hunt the edges of the corn, especially when it is adjacent to CRP grass or prairie."

So when you go out to hunt this winter, remember to focus on good habitat. Even if that habitat didn't have pheasants in October and November, the birds should be there in December. Thick grassland and good cover will act as a magnet as the snow gets deeper.

Mezera is excited about this area of the state as well. These areas are a good example of pheasant stamp money that is well spent.

"Polk and the surrounding counties really stand out," she said. "They continually produce a lot of pheasants. Counties within the pheasant management zones also will probably be the pheasant hunters' best bet."

WINTER CONDITIONS

While knowing where to go is important, you also have to pay attention to your equipment. Last winter, I went on a winter pheasant hunt at the Eastman Club near Edgerton. We had a beautiful day with a clear blue sky and a bright sun, but temperatures were below freezing. I did a good job of dressing in layers and keeping my hands warm with a few Hot Hands stuck in my gloves, but I didn't plan for everything.

We stepped out into the field and flushed a pheasant almost immediately. I raised my gun and shot right away -- a miss, of course. I tend to miss those first shots until I get my adrenaline under control.

So I prepared for the second bird. Again, I missed the first shot, but was ready for a follow-up shot -- except that my shotgun wouldn't fire. The lubricating oil was nearly frozen. My gun recycled, but at a speed akin to a 7-year-old who has been asked to clean his room. Needless to say, it was nowhere near fast enough to get off a second shot. I knew what the problem was, but I was in denial. I couldn't believe that my laziness was going to cost me a special winter hunt.

Luckily, another member of our hunting party had a Browning Gold Hunter that he let me borrow, and I was able to finish the hunt. I was very lucky. This year I know won't make the same mistake. My shotgun is a regular workhorse, but after months and months of hunting, every firearm needs a little tender loving care. I have since found that they make special lubricants for cold weather, and this year I'll clean my gun and change out the oil i

n mid-November so that I'm ready for late-season grouse, pheasant and rabbit hunting. Keeping your gear in working order should be a top priority, right behind safety. Then you won't have to wonder if your gun will perform.

CONCLUSION

So when you go out to hunt this winter, remember to focus on good habitat. Even if that habitat didn't have pheasants in October and November, the birds should be there in December. Thick grassland and good cover will act as a magnet as the snow gets deeper. Start on public lands that have been actively managed for grasslands. Then try to get permission to hunt private lands and CRP lands. Both provide winter refuge for birds.

Your mission in December is to find the habitat, and you'll find the birds. With many hunters changing out their hunting gear for ice-fishing rods, you won't have the competition that you did in October either, and after you get those first December roosters, you'll never put your shotgun away in November ever again.

(Editor's note: Listen to "Outdoors with Dan Small and Judy Nugent" on your local radio station or at Lake-Link.com, keyword: radio.)

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