October 14, 2022
I caught up with Bob St. Pierre last week, the likable and enthusiastic public relations man for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. The Michigan-native-turned-Minnesota-man was in a particularly good mood.
For starters, Pheasants Forever's ever-popular Rooster Road Trip! video series is getting ready for an Oct. 18-24 run in Lewistown, Mont., arguably the Big Sky State's epicenter for top-notch mix-bagged upland bird hunting prospects for species including sharptails, Hungarian partridge, and of course, pheasants. And as we talked, St. Pierre was going over his packing list and preparing to head out the door on another upland bird hunting adventure in a season already filled with several good trips.
"It's been a good sharptail season (this year so far), and now I'm about to get into the woods for some ruffed grouse," explained St. Pierre. "This weekend is my annual Wisconsin ruffed grouse camp. And then, I turn my attention to pheasants."
Great News for Pheasant Hunters
And that's the other reason that St. Pierre was all smiles last week, because the upcoming pheasant campaign—especially in the northern states—should be a good one. And in some spots, the 2022-23 season could be an exceptionally good one, if not even more. "Our recent Pheasants Forever pheasant forecast for this fall, in a really broad brushed stroke, shows that even with the differences in weather and habitat conditions across pheasant country, it's going to be a pretty good season for most," said St. Pierre, while urging hunters to join PF and QF to do their part to help keep the roosters flying in good years and bad. "And even in some of the tougher states, condition wise, there are likely to be some spots that are bright this fall.
"From south to north from Kansas, up into Nebraska, then on to South Dakota and North Dakota, and back over towards Minnesota and Iowa, in much of that core of pheasant country, there was a mild winter, decent precipitation, and the habitat has rebounded somewhat from the drought that plagued portions of those areas during the summer of 2021."
With the rebound in habitat conditions, St. Pierre says there is a similar increase in overall pheasant numbers. "There is still some drought down south, in places like Kansas, but as you move north, it starts getting better and better," said the weekend outdoors radio show host on Minnesota's KFAN radio station in the Twin Cities. "When you start getting around some of the grasslands that abut agricultural lands, there are some eye-popping numbers (in some cases)."
With South Dakota's traditional pheasant season ready to start its Oct. 15-Jan. 31 run this weekend, and the season opener for Minnesota's Oct. 15-Jan. 1 season also taking place, there will be lots of cries of "Rooster! Rooster! Rooster!" filling the skies of Midwestern states now and over the next several weeks, according to St. Pierre. "I think some people might be surprised about how good things might be in some places," he said. "In parts of South Dakota and North Dakota, maybe it won't be generational numbers, but maybe the best numbers in the past decade.
"Those areas had better rainfall and even heavy snow back in April," he continued. "That was some pretty nice precipitation in April and May, and it really helped the Dakotas and eastern Montana bounce back from the drought that had gripped the northern part of the pheasant's range in the U.S. last year. That helped to spur a grassland green-up, then it helped spur insect production for this year's hatch, and then as we moved into June, things dried out a bit again, which was actually a good thing since broods that hatch are vulnerable to rain and chilly weather in the days after they are born."
With pheasants finding more cover, more grain, more grasshoppers, and the nests and eggs not getting washed away, along with newly hatched chicks not getting too chilled, and it all adds up to a sort of a perfect storm for pheasants this year. Add in ample food on the prairie and Midwestern landscape, and times are good for most of pheasant country.
"I know from the sharptail hunting I've already done this year, that the amount of grasshoppers on the landscape is almost Biblical right now," said St. Pierre. "There's food galore for young pheasants, whether they are eating grasshoppers, seeds, buffalo berries, rosehips, and other things. There is almost unlimited food for pheasants, sharptails, and huns out on the northern prairie right now."
While things could be better in some of the drier spots in the southern Great Plains—St. Pierre mentioned Kansas, and pheasant country in the Texas Panhandle and parts of northwestern Oklahoma is also abnormally dry this year—for the most part, scattergun enthusiasts had better have plenty of upland bird loads loaded into their vests.
St. Pierre, who shoots a Beretta 686 12-gauge over-and-under along with Federal Prairie Storm upland steel loads in #5 shot sizes behind his brace of German shorthaired pointers, certainly plans to have plenty of shells on hand. "Whether it's milo to the south or corn and beans to the north, a good place to find pheasants is often going to be just that intersection with ag in any form," said St. Pierre. "From sunflowers to corn to beans to milo, when you find such spots next to grasslands, you've got what you need for pheasant production (and oftentimes, hunting success)."
Almost Too Good?
If there's a downside to all of this in 2022, St. Pierre says it's that the habitat is almost too good in places, and that's going to spread the pheasants out, much more than hunters might have found a year ago.
"Last year, because of the drought and emergency haying and grazing of CRP land, you could figure out where the birds were likely to be, since they were concentrated in areas of suitable habitat," he said. "This year, outside of some spots in Kansas and maybe parts of Nebraska, there's pretty good habitat pretty much everywhere. The bird numbers are going to be better, but they will certainly be more dispersed than they were last fall. Expect scattered concentrations this year, because the landscape is allowing them to do that and spread out."
For opening day success, in general, St. Pierre says that hunters will want to know if the local ag crops have already or soon will be coming out of the field. If they aren't combined yet, hunt early and late in the golden hours of daylight, targeting pheasants along the edges of ag fields and near their connection to surrounding grasslands.
If the crops are coming out while a bird hunter is in the field, get to the edge of the nearest grasslands and have plenty of shotgun shells handy, says St. Pierre, because a limit might be forthcoming. And if the crops are already out, focus on the grasslands with your bird dogs to bust a limit of roosters.
While weather changes and hunting pressure are always going to be variables that will affect pheasant-hunting success as the season wears on, in general, the birds will be at their most naïve on opening weekend wherever an upland bird hunter hunts.
About the only other time the wise-guy roosters let their guard down is when the first big snowstorm strikes an area, but that's another story for another time.
For now, St. Pierre is getting his gear together and preparing to chase roosters behind the energetic points of eight-year old Esky, named for his hometown in northern Michigan, and three-year old Gitche, named in honor of the Native American name for Lake Superior, Gitche Gumee. With any luck, they'll capture plenty of memories in the field, as well as put a possession limit of pheasants into the freezer.
Because if there's one thing that St. Pierre loves as much or more than chasing roosters, it's inviting them to the dinner table. The Minnesota man likes to cook, and he likes to especially cook pheasants during this special time of the year.
"There's a cold front coming tomorrow," said St. Pierre. "It should drop us into the 20s and we probably won't see the 70s until mid-April next year. Fall has officially arrived here and it's the best time of the year. There's playoff baseball, there's some meaningful football games, there's some good food, and if you like wearing flannel and sweaters, then this is your time of the year. Fall is a good time to be alive and out in the field."
Especially when that field is full of rooster pheasants, cagey birds holding tight to a bird dog’s point, and then vaulting into a cobalt blue autumn sky filled with the rooster's cackling and colors of the rainbow. With fall now in full command, who isn't ready for a good bit of that?