The Great 8: The country’s top eight pheasant hunting states

bb516b74-c9d0-4ca8-ad3a-c8a2c7f72acd Take it from someone who’s been there. If your fall passion is pheasant hunting, move to South Dakota. Walk out your back door and enjoy the greatest pheasant hunting on earth. If, for some odd reason, you don’t want to live in The Pheasant Capital of the World (sub-titled Wind Central) in order to hunt three months out of 12, get ready to travel.
 
Traveling to hunt isn’t a bad thing. You get out of your rut, meet new people, discover new country and have something to brag about in your old age. If you can remember it. Sometimes you must travel a thousand miles or more to find good rooster hunting, but sometimes a weekend jaunt will suffice. And you don’t have to go to South Dakota. There are other states with good to great pheasant hunting, about eight of them. I call them the Great Eight. In all you can find dozens of private pheasant preserves and lodges ready and able to lead you to wild birds and/or “supplemented” birds. These are a great option for first visits, for folks with limited time and anyone who wants to maximize chances for getting birds. But for the DIY, hard-core purist, public land hunting is the Holy Grail, and parts of each Great Eight state offer it.
 
When researching potential hunting grounds, Google the state’s tourism and economic development board. They often provide more details on good locations and friendly hunting towns than do fish and game agencies. Towns themselves often do the same, some going as far as providing names and numbers of cooperative landowners.
 
Most states don’t publish the year’s estimated pheasant population, nesting success, roadside counts and the like until September at earliest, so check websites then – read Pheasants Forever’s 2016 Pheasant Hunting Forecast. You should be able to get all necessary regulations, maps and licenses online, too. Most state fish and game departments do a good job of disseminating information on their websites, so dive in and learn. Meantime, here are some insights, highlights and tips on where to find ringnecks in the Great Eight states.

 

Iowa

This is where the tall corn grows, and when it’s interspersed with tall CRP grass, it’s where the pheasants grow, too. Hunters took 270,000 roosters to dinner during Iowa’s 2015 season, the 5th year of increase in a row. But that’s much less than it was in CRP’s heyday. Iowa exemplifies what is wrong with pheasants across much of the country – not enough good habitat. Loss of CRP grass in recent years has exacerbated this.
           
Northwest Iowa traditionally has the most pheasants because it is drier with less woody cover, but regional weather can change that. Sometimes counties from Marshalltown and Cedar Rapids south to Oskaloosa are better, sometimes the Ft. Dodge area.
           
Iowa’s Habitat and Access Program has 25,000 acres on 50 chunks of private land open for walk-in hunting. These are clearly posted with orange signs. Maps are available from Iowa DNR offices and online. In addition, Iowa DNR manages 360,000 Wildlife Management Areas for wildlife and public hunting. Of these 103,197 acres are grassland/wetland most suitable for pheasants.
           
  • Season: Oct. 29, 2016 – Jan. 10, 2017
  • Limits: 3 roosters daily, 12 possession limit
 

Minnesota

Minnesota DNR reports best hunting in the Southwest, West Central and East Central parts of the state. Annual rooster harvest in the Land of 10,000 Lakes has averaged 350,000, but not in recent years. Weather and declining CRP grass gets much of the blame. The 2015 count was up 33% over 2014, but that was still 39% below the 10-year average. Find farm country with a mix of CRP and cattails sloughs for your best chance.
 
Wildlife Management Areas, WPAs and Walk-In Access – hunters can access 1,440 public wildlife areas totaling 1.29 million acres. Most of these acres are not suitable for pheasants, but plenty are. Minnesota DNR has an excellent WMA locator with maps and detailed descriptions of each unit, including suitability for pheasants. In addition to WMAs, the state has a few dozen private land plots in its Walk-In Access program. A fair number of federal Waterfowl Production Areas grace the southwest counties, too, and they’re open for hunting. Their big cattail sloughs can be bird havens in rough weather. All public hunting sites can be found on the DNR website, both on a downloadable atlas of maps and via GPS coordinates and an iOS mobile map. Official boundaries of lands in the Access program are clearly signed. A WIA Validation must be purchased to legally hunt WIA sites. That, along with all necessary hunting licenses, can be bought online or by calling 1-888-665-4236. 
           
Suitable headquarters might include Worthington, Pipestone, Marshall, Montevideo, Redwood Falls, Austin and Hinckley – but snoop around. Often you’ll find small farm towns in the best ringneck regions that bend over backwards to accommodate pheasant hunters. Dog friendly motels, bird cleaning stations, freezer facilities and more.
 
  • Season: Oct. 15, 2016 – Jan. 1, 2017
  • Limits: 2 roosters daily, 6 possession limit until Dec. 1, then 3 daily, 9 possession until end of season 
 

North Dakota

Public hunting lands are a good news/bad news deal in North Dakota. The good news is there are some 2.5 million acres open to public hunting. The bad news is not all are good for pheasants and they are spread among several state and federal government agencies. Nice problem to have!
           
The PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) program strives to open 1 million acres each year. All are neatly delineated on the annual PLOTS atlas of maps, which also shows all other public lands. This atlas may be more valuable than your dog. Atlases are available from NDF&G and vendors across the state. You can view maps on the ND Game and Fish Department website, too. They show all public lands, color coded, along with roads, trails, towns, rivers, lakes etc. The website also has Garmin GPS downloads for coordinates and smartphone map apps. On the ground, all PLOTS lands are marked with triangular yellow signs.
           
The state's main pheasant range is south of I-94, and the southwest corner, especially around Mott, Scranton and Bowman, is usually the hot spot. Parts of the southeast can also be good, as can the draws and hills bordering the Missouri River. Check out Ellendale and Edgeley in the southeast.
 
  • Season: Oct. 8, 2016 – Jan. 8, 2017 (except in parts of Williams and McKenzie counties, consult regulations for details)
  • Limits: 3 roosters daily, 12 possession limit
 

Kansas

The northwest and north-central regions have long been ringneck strongholds here, but good hunting can be found in localized areas throughout the central, south-central and southwest counties. The southeast is primarily quail country and the Flint Hills between highways 77 and 75 south of I-70 is light on ringnecks, but is the main prairie chicken region.
           
The northwest region holds nearly 12,000 acres of public land and 341,000 acres of Walk-In Hunting Access private lands open to public hunting. The north-central region adds 75,500 public acres and 294,000 WIHA. You should find a bird or two on all that! Good headquarter towns include Goodland, Colby, Phillipsburg, Hays, Concordia and Salina. Don’t overlook smaller towns in the area. Many have mom and pop motels and restaurants that cater to hunters. The drought-stricken southwest suffered drastic bird declines for years before getting some relief last year, but this spring was dry again. Check with locals and Fish & Game before hunting Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal areas this year.
           
Kansas Wildlife, Parks & Tourism has maps galore covering WIHA lands, state wildlife areas and federal lands open to hunting. Get them online or pick up a printed Kansas Hunting Atlas at license vendors across the state. Many Kansas state parks offer not just campsites, but cabin rentals during the hunting season, adding convenience in otherwise rural areas.
 
  • Season: Nov. 12, 2016 – Jan. 31, 2017
  • Limits: 4 roosters daily, 16 possession limit
 

South Dakota

King and still champion, South Dakota again promises the best pheasant populations in the world. Hunters have been bagging about a million each season over the past few years. The Mitchell area west to Chamberlain was exceptional last year, and the Aberdeen region west to the Missouri River wasn’t far behind. Two isolated “sleeper” counties are Bennet in the southwest and Roberts in the extreme northeast. Martin and Sisseton are headquarter towns there. Other traditional hunter communities include Winner, Mitchell, Pierre, Huron and Aberdeen.         
 
Over 5 million acres of the Sunshine State are open for public hunting. State Game Production Areas, Waterfowl Production Areas, CREP, Walk-in Areas and more are identified in the annual Public Hunting Atlas available from license vendors, SDGF&P and online.
 
  • Seasons: Oct. 15, 2016 – Jan. 1, 2017
  • Limits: 3 roosters daily, 15 possession limit
 

Montana

The Big Sky may be most famous for mountains and big game, but ringnecks in the northeast are a pretty big game of their own. In fact, they crow in good abundance in many lowland valleys where grains are grown and on the wheat high plains between Great Falls and Lewistown. There’s plenty of free access to chase them, too, a combination of millions of acres of private land in the Block Management Program, WPAs, State School lands, National Wildlife Refuges and many state Wildlife Management Areas. Not all is pheasant habitat, but plenty is. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has a handy program for finding WMAs by Name, Region, nearest town and even by species found on them. A Hunt Planner software program on the website is a great aid for finding good public hunting, too. Annual Regional Hunter Access guides list and show all Block Management locations for the year and become available in August. BMA access is somewhat complicated. Some lands are open to walk-in hunting; others must be reserved or require written permission from the landowner. The Montana WF&P website has all the details, so get online and start plotting. Good headquarter towns include Sidney, Glasgow, Glendale, Miles City, Lewistown, Great Falls, Havre and Malta. 
 
  • Season: Oct. 8, 2016 – Jan. 1, 2017
  • Limits: 3 roosters daily, 9 possession limit
 

Nebraska

The Cornhusker State is a bird hunting cornucopia. You’re liable to bump into not just ringnecks, but bobwhites, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens. And you can look for them on 800,000 public access acres on 300 state and federal land areas. That’s only 2% of the state’s total land, so if you can talk yourself onto private lands, you’ll have the potential to walk yourself to death in a flurry of upland hunting.
 
Nebraska’s public hunting areas include Wildlife Management Areas, Waterfowl Production Areas, National Forests, Grasslands, Corps of Engineers and National Wildlife Refuges. To find them, get the annual Public Access Atlas. Pay special attention to the 280,000 (roughly) acres of private lands in the Open Fields and Waters Program. Go online for a digital atlas or pick up the hard copy at license vendors.
 
Despite its border with South Dakota, Nebraska’s best pheasant hunting is traditionally in its southwest corner plus a concentration in the north Panhandle from Alliance northeast to Gordon. Headquarter towns include Alliance, Chadron, Sidney, North Platte, McCook and Holdrege. Parts of the northeast can still be good where all the CRP wasn’t torn out.
 
  • Season: Oct. 29, 2016 – Jan. 31, 2017
  • Limits: 3 roosters daily, 12 possession limit
 

Colorado

Your Colorado Rocky Mountain high doesn’t have to end with elk and mule deer. The Silver State hides pheasants in its eastern counties. You just have to do a bit of prospecting to find them. The northeast corner is the perennial hotspot. Fort Morgan, Sterling, Yuma, Burlington and Limon should be good headquarter towns. This is the dry, High Plains where irrigation goes a long way toward giving wildlife a lift. Look for a mix of drylands sage-step, shortgrass prairie, CRP fields and grain fields.
           
Colorado has no WPAs like the Dakotas, but a good number of Walk-In Access private lands are open and scattered across the pheasant range. An Atlas showing these is available from license agents or the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website. In addition, there are many State Wildlife Management properties that may accommodate pheasant hunters. It’s complicated as some require advanced registration, some limit number of hunters per day, species that can be hunted, etc. Find State Wildlife Area lands and specific regulations in the 2016 State Recreational Lands brochure available from CPW.
 
  • Season: Nov. 12, 2016 – Jan. 31, 2017 (East of I-25); Nov. 12, 2016 – Jan. 1, 2017 (West of I-25)
  • Limits: 3 roosters daily, 9 possession limit
 
 
Story by Ron Spomer
Photo Credit: Chip Laughton