Throughout prime pheasant hunting states, very similar to last year, this season got off to a warm start, creating difficult conditions for both canines and hunters. In certain states, such as Minnesota and Kansas, corn fields remained up later than usual, allowing for spread out landscapes in which roosters could run and hide. In other states, such as Montana and North Dakota, loss of CRP and other habitat has started to take its toll, adversely affecting overall bird populations. Still, generally speaking, wildlife staff members in top pheasant states are receiving many positive reports. Even states that suffered from initial lower numbers are anticipating cooler weather could turn things around and still make for good pheasant hunting in the latter half of the season. Some states are even anticipating their best late season in several years. Read on to find out where and how you might pinpoint ringnecks this winter.
Colorado received ample moisture this past year and experienced great nesting success, so they were expecting better numbers compared to previous years. After one week of hunting, reports in some areas were even exceeding initial expectations. “I think in some locations there are probably more pheasants than we originally thought,” said Ed Gorman, small game manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We knew some areas were a little drier and wouldn’t have as many birds, but, overall, there are still more pheasants than we expected.”
After one week, hunting success reports have been mostly positive—some fantastic, some below average, but overall very good. Hunters fared well in traditional hot spots such as southern Yuma County, Phillips County, Sedgwick County, Kit Carson County, and all of Logan County—which is a nice surprise, since traditionally the southeast portion of that county mainly experiences the most success.
Crop harvests are 99 percent complete, according to Gorman, so with cooler weather, Colorado hunters can expect to find birds concentrated in heavier cover. “There are plenty of birds out there,” Gorman said, “it just takes some strategy and boot leather to go get them up. Mid-to-late season hunting is kind of a numbers game. For all those you flush out of range, there will be a couple holding tight.
“It is a matter of going out and hunting in the right habitat,” Gorman said, “and using a strategy that gets you in range. One of the hard things about being warm for so long, birds can be anywhere on landscapes and are difficult to pattern and find concentrations. More traditional Colorado weather should make things easier.”
Season ends January 31, 2017 east of I-25, and January 1, 2017 west of I-25
Bird harvest numbers in Iowa have coincided with initial reports, which suggested the best pheasant numbers in the past 10 years. “We are not back to 20 to 30 years ago,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, “and I don’t know if we can get back there because we don’t have the CRP or habitat we did back then, but this is the best it has been in a long time. If there is good, well-managed habitat, people are finding birds.”
Hunters continue to find success in central and north-central Iowa. During opening weekend, only 50 percent of crops were out. Currently, 95 to 97 percent of crops have been harvested throughout the state, though in south-central Iowa, there is still some standing corn, so hunters may have a harder time there, Bogenschutz advised.
Since Iowa opened on October 29, the state has experienced trends of warm weather. “Best hunting has been first thing in morning,” Bogenschutz said. “Though it is still challenging to pinpoint birds, some people have also been going out in late evening and having success. I am thinking there are a bunch of people waiting for it to cool off.”
Bogenschutz has received fairly positive reports for most parts of the state except the southwest, though he said hunting may have improved in that area since crop harvest has progressed. “From what I am hearing, folks are pretty pleased with what they’re seeing when they go hunting,” he said. “I think with a little bit of snow and cooler weather, hunting is going to be good for pheasants and quail.”
Iowa recently acquired 25,000 acres in their Iowa Habitat and Access Program
(IHAP). More information, including details regarding public land and other new opportunities, is available on the state’s IHAP web page
. Other helpful resources found online are Iowa’s full roadside report
and Iowa’s online hunting atlas
Season ends January 10, 2017.
Reports in Kansas remain limited since the state is only one week into pheasant season. While Kansas was anticipating good numbers, better than long-term averages, harvest reports have been spottier than predicted, according to Jeff Prendergast, small game specialist for Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “Reports that have come in to this point are mixed with some having good success and others struggling,” he said. “Heavy precipitation through the summer created heavy cover in both CRP and crops, which are now creating challenging cover conditions.”
Crop harvest is still ongoing in the northern half of the state, so hunters there may have difficulty locating large concentrations of birds. “It has been hot and dry creating challenging conditions,” Prendergast said. “Scenting conditions for dogs has been poor and birds have not been sitting well. As weather improves, we expect that hunting will be better and will concentrate birds providing a better idea of where densities are greatest and hunting opportunities are best.”
Season ends January 31, 2017.
Minnesota saw an overall statewide increase of 29 percent for pheasants during their August roadside surveys. Since hunting season has started, it appears reports are meeting those expectations of higher bird numbers. “Some reports indicate that folks are seeing even more birds than we predicted from our August roadside surveys,” said Dr. Nicole Davros, upland game project leader for the Department of Natural Resources.
Hunters continue to experience varied success across Minnesota’s pheasant range—from fair to excellent. However, varied success has not been due to lack of flushes. “Some hunters just aren’t connecting,” Davros said. “Others have reported that birds were unusually jumpy earlier in the season.” Minnesota’s pheasant stronghold areas in the western half of the state continue to see good success, but hunters are also having good luck in some overlooked areas, such as south of the Twin Cities metro area and south-central Minnesota.
Wet conditions going into the season meant crop harvest was behind schedule. As a result, birds were never very concentrated in one area since they still had corn to hide in. By mid-November, most of the corn had been harvested. “There are some fields left with standing corn due to wet spots, and it may stay there through winter now that we are getting snow,” Davros said. “The late crop harvest made the early pheasant season tougher than usual, but it has set things up very nicely for late season pheasant hunting.”
Warm fall temperatures made it difficult for hunters to safely run their dogs during the first half of the season. Still, despite the warm autumn and delayed corn harvest, hunters have generally seemed pretty happy with the first half of the season, according to Davros. “Temperatures have now cooled down substantially. We have some snow on the ground in areas, and most of the harvest is complete,” she said. “Birds should be more concentrated and holding tighter so the second half of our season should be very good … the best it has been in recent years.”
On the habitat front, the loss of CRP, along with pattern tiling and drainage, continues to be a concern for Minnesota. “We have also seen more deep tillage this year due to the very wet summer” Davros said. “Some fields have even been chisel-plowed twice. These tillage practices lead to higher rates of soil loss—something we’re already seeing on windy days this fall.”
Season ends January 1, 2017.
Montana’s Region 6 upland game biologist, Ryan Williamson, has been receiving mixed reports—varying from okay to average. “Due to the unusually warm fall weather, hunting has been a hit and miss for the most part,” he said. “Birds in areas of heavier hunter use are getting wise quickly and harder to hunt.”
Spring surveys in Region 6 indicated a good increase in pheasant numbers, so the region anticipated a good fall turnout and success. However, fall weather had a large impact on hunting, not just for pheasants but for most species of game. Up until the week after Veterans Day, highs were still in the 60s to low 70s, which likely contributed to lower success rates despite an increase in pheasant numbers. Still, the region has recently received some cold weather, and Williamson expects that may help hunting by pushing birds into thicker cover. Birds are not using traditional fall habitats right now because of weather, so exploring new areas is a must, Williamson advised.
Hunters always seem to do well in the northeast corner of Montana, according to Williamson. “Areas along the Milk River have been about average as well this year, but again, it’s largely a hit or miss,” he said. “I hear of hunters with high success rates and seeing a lot of birds and the next hunter hunting in the same general area hardly sees any. This is a highly unusually year for bird hunting, but the population is doing well throughout the state.”
“With our CRP situation and the warm weather, some of the ‘traditional hunters,’ those who go the same spot or hunt the same way regardless of the circumstances, are not doing as well as years past,” Williamson said. “We have been really telling people they need to explore new areas if they aren’t doing well and think outside the box when it comes to hunting. I have been hearing a lot of people are finding pheasants in more native habitats, wheat stubble near some CRP or thicker cover and small areas of grassy habitats.”
Last year’s mild winter conditions throughout Region 7, southeast Montana, were favorable for winter survival, and spring crow counts indicated that the population was above average, according to Region 7 wildlife biologist Jacqueline Tooke. “However, a dry spring may have inhibited nesting cover and extensive thunderstorm activity around peak hatch for pheasants may have negatively impacted chick survival in some areas,” she said. “An average hunting season was still expected this season, but seems to be a little below average when compared to the last two years.”
Hunters in the western parts of Region 4, in north-central portion of state, seem to be having a fair to good year; and the number of bagged birds seems to be satisfactory, according to Region 4 upland game bird habitat specialist Jacob Doggett. “Hunter reports from hail-damaged areas in the eastern part of the region are few and far between; with some reports suggesting the hunting outlook is poor,” he said. In regard to a late season, Doggett expects similar, perhaps better, success as a result of cooler weather.
Season ends January 1, 2017.
Nebraska anecdotal reports, thus far, are good for pheasants and excellent for quail, according to Dr. Jeffrey Lusk, upland game program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. As suggested by the Upland Game Forecast, reports are better in the southwest and panhandle portions of the state. Weather has been unseasonably warm throughout Nebraska, with temperatures in the mid- to upper 70s on some days. Unusually warm, dry conditions likely affected dog efficiency in the field and increased fatigue for both dogs and hunters, requiring them to quit early on some days.
Still, hunters are finding the most success is in the western parts of the state. “More pheasant habitat is the primary reason,” Lusk said, “along with mild weather conditions over the past year.”
While Lusk prefers to rely on data instead of predictions in relation to late season expectations, he did suggest if weather patterns remain stable and void of severe and prolonged events, hunters should continue to experience success through the late season.
Season ends January 31, 2017.
North Dakota experienced drought conditions earlier in the year, which affected nesting success. Additionally years of lost CRP and emergency haying this fall have made it difficult for hunters to bag birds this season. “Things are not great, especially in the southwest where most of our birds are,” said Aaron Robinson, upland game bird biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “The central part of the state is also struggling. This is definitely not a stellar year compared to other years.
“It’s a combination of everything—we have lost a lot of CRP, and that is really starting to show up now,” Robinson said.
Success rates remain spread out, though most hunters are finding their birds on private land, specifically pieces of property managed primarily for pheasant hunting, such as land owned by outfitting companies. “From a general public, non-resident-type hunter perspective, they haven’t had too many good reports,” Robinson said. “The do-it-yourselfers are having a hard time doing it themselves.”
Season ends January 8, 2017.
In general, throughout South Dakota, pheasant hunting was challenging during the first month of the season, according to Travis Runia, upland game biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. Bird numbers were down going into the fall, then unseasonably warm and dry weather, as well as a late corn harvest, continued to complicate matters and contribute to poor hunting success.
However, the second half of November started with snow and cooler temperatures, which should improve hunting conditions. “Corn harvest is nearly complete, which should set the stage for better pheasant hunting opportunity for the remainder of the year,” Runia said. “Hunters should concentrate on heavy cover adjacent to a food source during late season rooster hunts.”
Small game license sales in South Dakota were down this year, approximately 5 percent lower than last year. A slight decrease in hunter numbers overall, in addition to many hunters having to retire their dogs early due to warm weather, may suggest there are still plenty of roosters left to bag in South Dakota. According to Runia, several field staff noted good hunter success on Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) fields in the northeastern portion of the state. “All CREP lands are open to public hunting and contain excellent habitat,” he said.
Season ends January 1, 2017.
Story by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.
Photo credit: Josh Dahlstrom – Pheasants Forever