Montana Pheasant Hunting Forecast 2018

bdcf0224-af72-40e5-8e02-0afffcaaa736 By Tom Carpenter

Let’s take a tour around Montana’s vast pheasant range and see what’s in store for this fall’s hunting seasons.
 

SOUTHEASTERN MONTANA – REGION 7

WEATHER AND CONDITIONS
 
“The weather that southeast Montana experienced throughout the summer was generally pretty good for upland game birds,” reports Justin Hughes, Upland Gamebird Habitat Specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 7. “The region received regular precipitation events that resulted in large amounts of grass and forbs across the landscape. There were optimal brood rearing conditions due to the moisture and relatively mild temperatures. Hens should have experienced near optimal brood rearing conditions throughout the summer.”
 
HATCH AND BROODS
 
“Despite the ideal hatching and brood-rearing conditions, pheasant numbers are looking fair at best,” says Hughes. “Upland bird populations in southeastern Montana were impacted heavily by the severe drought the region experienced in 2017 that was then followed by an extremely harsh winter.”
 
“Field observations this spring/summer are showing that there are some broods out there that did well,” says Hughes. “However, the adult population of breeding birds going into the spring was impacted enough that bird numbers are still recovering across the region.” 
 
HABITAT AND PROGRAMS
 
"The best news is, the habitat in Region 7 is looking great,” says Hughes. “Our native rangelands really responded well with a large flush of native forbs that are essential for foraging chicks. If we are so lucky to string together a couple spring/summers like this, bird populations should respond very well.”
 
TOP SPOTS
 
“Pheasant hunting this fall in Southeast Montana will likely be marginal to fair at best,” predicts Hughes. “Folks that hunt irrigated agricultural areas will notice that bird numbers were likely less impacted than birds living in the dryland agricultural areas. Hunters are going to really want to key in on those high-quality habitat areas that provided the best habitat conditions through the drought and winter last year to increase their chances of finding birds.”
 
INSIDER TIPS
 
“I urge hunters to be mobile and take advantage of the access opportunities that Montana has to offer,” says Hughes. “Hunters that put in the effort by doing their homework prior to their arrival in southeastern Montana, putting in the miles while hunting, and targeting the best habitat sites, will be rewarded with roosters in their vests.”
 

NORTH-CENTRAL MONTANA – REGION 4

WEATHER AND CONDITIONS
 
“Weather this spring and summer was relatively conducive to pheasant production this year despite some concerns that untimely heavy rains and flooding may have had a negative effect on hatching nests in some locations,” reports Jake Doggett, Upland Gamebird Habitat Specialist with Montana FWP Region 4.
 
“While the rains shut off even earlier this year compared to last year, the winter was long and wet,” he adds. “Retained soil moisture helped keep cover looking good through June and most of July. Things did dry up significantly in August however, which like last year can affect bird use of cover in some areas.”
 
HATCH AND BROODS

“The big concern this year in north-central Montana has revolved around how long and severe the winter was and its impact on local pheasant populations,” says Doggett. “There’s no question winter survival was low across the region; in some areas worse than others (this was reflected in spring crow counts).”
 
“While the spring weather, generally speaking, was conducive to nesting, reports from the field suggest there are still fewer young-of-the-year birds then normal and that despite the high reproductive output potential of pheasants, bird numbers were likely reduced significantly over the winter,” he reports. “More than one year may be necessary for a full recovery.  Reports of 'much' fewer juvenile birds have been coming in since mid-July and through harvest.” 
 
HABITAT AND PROGRAMS

“Similar to 2017, habitat looked good through much of the spring and early summer,” says Doggett. “However, drought struck the region in late summer, impacting cover quality in some areas.”
 
TOP SPOTS

“In Region 4, areas that normally support modest pheasant hunting may be poor this year primarily due to a tough winter and the ability of local populations to bounce back given the conditions,” says Doggett. “The range in which you find reasonable numbers pheasants in north-central Montana will seem much smaller this year. For hunters, this means higher hunting pressure in areas where hunting is usually best. It'll be up to hunters to do the legwork and find those secret spots that are generally resilient to weather conditions.”
 
INSIDER TIPS
 
“It's very important to be able to identify good pheasant habitat when it comes to being successful as a bird hunter in Montana,” says Doggett. “Seeking out educational information as a refresher prior to your hunt can make a big difference in how successful your time spent afield will be. High-quality thermal cover, nesting and security cover, and food are the key habitat components all upland game birds need to thrive.”
 

NORTHEASTERN MONTANA – REGION 6

WEATHER AND CONDITIONS

“Spring and summer weather conditions were good for pheasant production in much of northeastern Montana this year,” reports Ken Plourde, Upland Gamebird Habitat Specialist for Montana FWP Region 6. “The timing of rainfall was good this year and spaced out well enough to get the habitat greened up in time for the nesting season, and they stayed that way well into July in much of the region.”
 
“August was dry,” Plourde adds, “but at that point most chicks are mature enough that it is less of a concern.”
 
HATCH AND BROODS

“Pheasant populations were heavily impacted by the severe drought we experienced in 2017, and we will still be recovering from that this year,” says Plourde. “Overall it appears brood sizes this year are average or slightly better this summer. Based on that, we expect to see some improvement in bird numbers compared to last season across much of the region.”
 
HABITAT AND PROGRAMS

“Due to the good weather conditions this spring and summer, habitat conditions are generally fair to good in most of the Northeast,” says Plourde. “Due to variable weather conditions across the region and the loss of CRP we have experienced over the last few years, hunters should plan on taking the time to locate areas where there are adequate amounts of good habitat if they want to find birds in good numbers.”
 
“Montana’s Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program has completed many projects in northeastern Montana that help improve habitat for game birds and provide access to hunters,” says Plourde. “These projects can serve as a good starting point to locate good places to hunt. Hunters can find more information about the program and order an access guide by visiting http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/hunterAccess/uplandgamebird/
 
TOP SPOTS

“In general, hunters this fall should see fair to average pheasant hunting across much of northeast Montana in areas with good habitat,” says Plourde. “Due to habitat changes and variable conditions, hunters should always plan to be adaptable to locate those good areas. In Region 6, the counties in the northeast corner of the state are generally the most popular for pheasant hunting. There are also decent pheasant populations found in the other counties along the Hi-line, where the most suitable habitat for pheasants will be found along the river corridors.”
 
INSIDER TIPS

“It is important that pheasant hunters be adaptable to the habitat and weather conditions they find in the area they plan to hunt,” describes Plourde. “Birds may use slightly different habitats and areas each year depending on factors like weather conditions, farming activities or changes in conservation program enrollment.”
 
“Instead of only relying on what has worked in the past,” he concludes, “the most successful hunters continually experiment and try different things until they figure out what birds are keying in on at the place and time they are hunting.”