December is the month when many pheasant hunters hang up their upland boots and chaps and call it a season, as the cold air and frosty conditions tend to diminish that dauntless zeal felt on opening day. In addition, as temperatures drop, birds head for heavier cover, where access is less than ideal and extra effort required to score a flush.
The idea of high-stepping through a cattail slough, versus a casual stroll through autumn-colored brush, doesn’t often appeal to many hunters, especially those in not-so-peak physical condition. However, as a result of above-average temperatures during the early season in many states, hunters running dogs often retired early from the field, or opted not to hunt at all, leaving this year’s bird populations slightly less pressured. Generally speaking, biologists and wildlife staff members have been seeing more pheasants and fewer hunters. So for those who prefer waterproof boots over a warm fire, there are still plenty of roosters left to be bagged.
Though Colorado’s pheasant population has struggled in recent years due to drought conditions, small game manager Ed Gorman views this season as a good step forward. “It’s been decent, probably about average in terms of success,” said Gorman.
Hunters continue to find birds held up in good habitat, as expected, but Gorman offered a sleeper spot in the form of land parcels slightly east of Sterling. Due to a wet spring, alfalfa fields there were cut later than usual and Gorman expects this contributed to more sustainable brood rearing. “Not a lot of public access,” said Gorman, “so hunters have to speak with land owners. Groups hunting that area specifically have done really well.”
As long as weather remains moderate, birds will stay scattered throughout landscapes with suitable habitat. However, should weather turn colder, Colorado birds will congregate in heavy cover on private lands that would require permission (unless enrolled in the walk-in program). Gorman also advises that all pheasant hunters should remain conscious of road conditions during periods of weather with high precipitation, since many roads throughout pheasant country are less maintained and may make for hazardous conditions if hunters are not cautious while traveling.
Season ends January 31, 2016.
East-central Illinois remains one of the main strongholds for pheasants in the state. In areas with good CRP, there are a decent number of birds, according to agriculture and grassland program manager Stan McTaggart.
“Hunters are seeing more birds than they expected in some areas of the state,” said McTaggart. “Some of the Free Upland Permit sites are starting off well, and hunters are seeing quite a few birds.” Above average temperatures may have kept some hunters and dogs at home or having to retire early, so those willing to test winter conditions may find success in the late season.
Season ends January 8, 2016 in North Region; January 15, 2016 in South Region.
While most Iowa DNR staff members are reporting more hunters in the field this year compared to last, overall hunting pressure on pheasant and quail has been relatively light, according to upland game biologist Todd Bogenschutz. “All the reports so far have been very positive,” said Bogenschutz. Initial roadside count information seems accurate with all regions reporting improved bird numbers this season. Areas with higher roadside counts continue to report good success rates for hunters.
As a result of slower crop harvest in south-central and southwest Iowa, late harvested fields may yield fresh birds. Barring significant early winter snowfall, Bogenschutz expects that late-season hunting should be good. Iowa’s full roadside report can be found at www.iowadnr.gov/pheasantsurvey
. Their new online hunting atlas is located at programs.iowadnr.gov/maps/huntingatlas/default.html
Season ends January 10, 2016.
Distribution of birds in Kansas remains patchy, though most birds are being located near food sources. Hunters are finding most of their success in the central portion of the state, where populations did not decline as significantly during past droughts. In addition, southwest numbers appear better than originally forecasted, according to small game specialist Jeff Prendergast.
Ice storms across the state following Thanksgiving made travel difficult but was not likely bad enough to have serious implications on bird survival, said Prendergast. “Snowfall in late season will concentrate birds and should improve success given below-average populations,” he said.
Season ends January 31, 2016.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff members have reported fewer hunters than expected but good numbers of birds in most areas of the state’s pheasant range. “Light pressure on public lands thus far means there are still plenty of harvest opportunities,” said upland game project leader Nicole Davros.
While an August Roadside Survey reported an increase in numbers, Davros says numbers are even better than expected. “Many field staff have indicated that they think this our best season compared to the last three to four years.” Hunters continue to see more birds and are experiencing the most success in the southwest, south-central, west-central and central regions of Minnesota. Some areas, such as the southeast region, are still recovering from successive harsh winters and wet springs, though pheasant numbers improved from last year.
Lighter hunter pressure so far—due to above-average temperatures making hunting tough on dogs—means the birds have not been pushed hard and there are still plenty of roosters available. Colder conditions will help concentrate them into winter cover, too, though recent moisture and above-average December temperatures may make access to wetland areas more difficult.
Season ends January 3, 2016.
In Missouri, pheasants are primarily found in the northernmost counties. While most hunters pursue bobwhite quail throughout the state, hunter field presence has been below average due to unseasonably warm temperatures, which have adversely affected conditions for working dogs.
Due to wet summer conditions, thousands of acres of cropland were not planted during summer. Many of these unplanted fields grew annual weeds that have provided outstanding habitat. As a result, the state saw an increase in bird populations. “Hunter reports seem to reinforce earlier forecasts—good bird numbers,” said small game coordinator Scott Sudkamp.
Sudkamp expects a return to more seasonable weather will draw hunters to the fields and improve conditions for dogs. Though Missouri is a marginal state for pheasants, Sudkamp attests good numbers can be found where habitat is sufficient. “Late season pheasant hunters should key in on good cover—native grasses, cattails, etc.—especially if it’s adjacent to food,” he said.
Season ends January 15, 2016.
Region 6 upland game biologist Ryan Williamson anticipated a good year, and most hunter reports are backing up his prediction. Though hunters have been experiencing mixed results as the fall weather was warm and dry, game check station numbers are still above the long-term average. “Reports are pheasants are not in normal fall habitats,” said Williamson, “and many hunters are reporting that stubble fields, fence rows and grassland habitats are still being used by birds. Most hunters working cattails and heavier cover are not doing as well.” Williamson suspects this pattern will continue until the region sees some cold winter weather.
Montana’s Region 6 has witnessed some very unpredictable weather this season, which has complicated hunting conditions. As well, a fairly dry summer may have played a larger role than initially thought. Biologists suspect birds may have moved around to different habitats or possibly had a lower survival rate in isolated areas. Still, check stations are seeing a large number of harvested juveniles—very comparable to previous years.
“Many hunters have reported they had to be more mobile and think outside of the box,” said Williamson. “I think hunters will still be able to find birds in CRP and other grassland habitats until we see some harsh winter weather. The northeast corner of Montana is always unpredictable with the weather, and it can change the game in a matter of a couple days.”
“This year is proof that a matter of a few miles can change how the hunting will be, so hunters need to anticipate moving around to find suitable habitats,” said Williamson. He recommends, this year especially, for hunters to do their research before packing the truck. Where there is good habitat in Montana, there should be birds, said Williamson.
Season ends January 1, 2016.
Recent reports from the field indicate hunters are having good success hunting pheasants in Nebraska, particularly in the southwest portion of the state, according to upland game program manager Dr. Jeffrey Lusk. The state experienced a relatively mild autumn, with warm temperatures and no snow. In some parts of the state, higher than average temperatures adversely affected hunting dogs, which in turn affected hunter success. However, temperatures over Thanksgiving weekend fell sharply, allowing hunters running dogs the opportunity to chase those birds congregated in heavier cover. “If we don’t have any severe winter weather,” said Lusk, “I expect we will have a good remainder of the season.”
Season ends January 31, 2016.
In the south-central and southwest portions of North Dakota, hunters are reporting good numbers, while hunters in the northwest and southeast parts of the state are seeing a fair number of birds. Due to a good hatch in the southwest, that area is experiencing the most production and success.
“If weather conditions hold (above normal temperatures), I expect a good late-season hunt,” said upland game management supervisor Stan Kohn. “Many folks quit hunting by December 1, but birds are certainly there and late-season hunters are going to find them with uncrowded hunting conditions.”
Season ends January 3, 2016
Anecdotal reports in Ohio suggest a few hunters have found encouraging numbers of wild birds in parts of the state’s pheasant range, while others have struggled to merely flush one bird. Overall, flush rates seem comparable to recent years, according to wildlife biologist Mark Wiley.
“The highest flush rates typically come from private land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program within Ohio’s primary pheasant range (northwest, west-central and a few eastern Ohio counties),” Wiley said. The best public land reports usually originate from Deer Creek, Big Island and La Su An Wildlife Areas, since these lands contain relatively large neighboring tracts of grassland habitat required to support wild pheasant populations.
Late-season success in Ohio will depend greatly on weather conditions. “If we receive some severe winter weather during the season, birds will move into robust cover near food sources, and hunters able to identify those wintering areas are likely to have successful late-season hunts,” said Wiley.
Season ends January 10, 2016.
For the opener in Malheur County, there was still plenty of standing corn, which made hunting challenging, but the number of birds bagged was still up. In the Columbia Basin, the wheat harvest was completed before the opener, and birds were found in the typical areas with remaining habitat.
After some recent poor or fair years, some hunters were pleased at the number of birds they found,” said upland game bird coordinator Dave Budeau. “Bird numbers are still down from our long-term average but hunters are finding more birds than last year.”
The eastern part of the Columbia Basin and North Malheur County continue to produce more pheasants than any other areas in the state. “Birds will continue to be available,” said Budeau, “but like in every state, the remaining birds have been to school and graduated with flying colors (pun intended). Remaining roosters will be much tougher to bag.”
Season ends December 31.
Like most years, field reports in South Dakota have been mixed during the opening weeks of pheasant season. While some hunters are finding easy limits, others are struggling to find birds. Like most other states, very warm weather made for tough hunting conditions, particularly for dogs.
“During the resident-only season, temperatures in the 90s kept hunter participation to a minimum,” said upland game biologist Travis Runia. A substantial amount of corn was unharvested during the first two to three weeks of the regular season, according to Runia, which provided a mid-day refuge for pheasants. “Hunters who targeted grasslands adjacent to corn during the last hour of the day had much better luck than those who hunted mid-day.”
Warm temperatures have also left pheasants scattered, which usually results in tougher hunting. “As the weather cools and corn harvest wraps up, I expect hunting success will continue to improve,” said Runia. “Hunting should be particularly good after the first snowfall which concentrates pheasants in heavy cover.”
Season ends January 3, 2016 in select areas. Check regulations for details.
The big pheasant surprise in Washington is Whitman County, according to section manager Sean Dougherty. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has been working with private land owners for a number of years to increase public hunter access as well as improve habitat quality throughout the area. “It looks like those efforts are really showing this year,” said Dougherty.
In Whitman County, hunters are seeing a lot of birds, though hunters are still falling short of their daily limits. “Everywhere else the hunters are only finding success at the pheasant release areas where WDFW releases domestically raised birds,” said Dougherty.
In Eastern Washington, fall rains, which increased dogs’ ability to find birds, helped hunters’ success rates. Southeastern Washington—which includes Whitman, Garfield, Columbia, and Walla Walla counties—are the areas the WDFW continues to target for pheasant enhancement efforts.
“Throughout eastern Washington, as winter weather sets in and snow falls, we would expect that success rates will only increase,” said Dougherty. “Typically, the majority of pheasant harvest increases later in the hunting season.”
Season ends November 30 in Western Washington; January 18, 2016 in Eastern Washington. Western Washington hosts a special regulation extended season in select areas from December 1 -15. Check regulations for details.
Reports are positive in Wisconsin, as stocked birds are providing plenty of shooting opportunities even several days after stocking. Still, there are minimal wild bird populations in some counties. Hunters are primarily, if not exclusively, harvesting stocked birds. Assistant upland wildlife ecologist Krista Pham anticipates that the high level of stocking will allow for good late-season hunting.
Season ends December 31, 2015.
The majority of pheasant harvest in Wyoming comes from areas where the Wyoming Fish and Game Department releases pen-raised birds (approximately 30,000 pheasants) in the southeast and north central portions of the state. There are wild birds found also in those areas, but for the most part hunters rely on pen-raised birds for hunting opportunities.
“Hunters and WFGD personnel observed an increase in wild bird numbers as predicted,” said Wheatland District wildlife biologist Martin Hicks. “However, this is still a very small population compared to other pheasant producing states.”
According to Hicks, the only late season opportunities are limited and on private lands in southeast, central and north central Wyoming. “The majority of opportunity will come on Wyoming Game and Fish Commission owned lands,” said Hicks, “and lands enrolled into the department’s Private Lands Public Wildlife program, where pen-raised birds will be released through mid-December.”
Season ends December 31, 2015.
Story by John Hennessy. John is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.
Photo Credits: Todd Sauers, Pheasants Forever / Nebraska Game & Fish