Montana pheasant hunting prospects looking up for 2020, especially in the Northeast and Southeast
By Tom Carpenter
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Montana is one huge place, and there’s no way to do a pheasant hunting forecast justice in one broad sweep. So as per usual, let’s dive into each region, talking to the upland game bird biologists that work to keep Montana’s Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program (UGBEP) going strong.
Region 6 - Northeast Montana
LAST YEAR’S HUNT
“Based on our telephone harvest surveys, pheasant harvest was down a bit last fall in Region 6,” says Ken Plourde / upland game bird habitat specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). “That was despite bird numbers appearing to improve both last spring and this spring, so the issue seems like it was related to challenges hunting birds more than them not being there.”
“Lat fall was very wet, so many crops were never harvested which provided birds much more cover than usual,” Plourde continues. “While some hunters did report having good success, the challenge for most was that birds were more spread out with many holed up out in the standing grain fields, so it was harder to locate good numbers of birds in many areas. This was backed up in the harvest effort data, which indicated hunters harvested slightly fewer birds per day than usual.”
WEATHER AND CONDITIONS
“The winter of 2019-2020 was relatively mild for our area and as a result most birds came through winter in good shape,” reports Plourde. “As mentioned, due to fall precipitation many fields were unharvested, so there was a lot of food available in many spots that helped birds through the brief tough weather periods we did have. Spring crow count surveys showed populations near average to above average in the eastern portions of the region, and improving but still below average in the westernmost portion of the region.”
“Overall, weather conditions have been good since the fall of 2019 for producing game birds in Northeast Montana,” says Plourde. “Above average fall moisture left a lot of residual cover for nesting this spring. Early parts of nesting season were dry, but June and July had plenty of precipitation to produce insects for chicks. August has been dry, but there was a significant hatch of grasshoppers throughout the region, which also likely benefited broods.”
HABITAT, BROODS AND COUNTS
“Rainfall earlier in summer was sufficient for growing lots of cover, and much of it looked very good,” says Plourde. “August was very dry, so most of the cover in northeastern Montana has dried out by now and we may see less growth this fall unless things cool off and precipitation increases again.”
“Overall the amount and quality of cover for pheasants is about average this fall in much of the region,” he continues. “The last two years have had some weather that delayed crop harvest, and the previous year we had the severe drought, all of which created some challenges for hunters. It is worth mentioning that crop harvest is proceeding on an average pace this year. Hunters will encounter more normal habitat and crop conditions this season than they have in several years.”
“Bottom line, there were good numbers of broods observed and reports received this summer,” says Plourde, “especially in the eastern half of the region.
“Some informal brood routes run by a few of the biologists indicated an increase in broods observed compared to the previous few years in northeast Montana,” says Plourde. “It appears the number of pheasant broods were a bit above average, and the brood sizes were about average. Overall it appears pheasant hunting this fall will be about average in the region, and slightly better than average in the best habitats.”
“The eastern two-thirds of Region 6 looks to be a bit more productive for pheasants this fall, with birds in the westernmost portions of the region still recovering from the drought and hard winter experienced in 2017,” says Plourde. “Based on brood reports and biologist observations, pheasant numbers in the eastern parts of the region are roughly average for the first time since 2017. The hunting should be fair to good in any areas on that side of the region where there is good pheasant habitat.”
“For hunters unfamiliar with pheasant hunting in Montana or this Region, the Hunt Planner
map available on our website is a very good resource for planning trips. There are layers that show pheasant distribution and all the access opportunities available to hunters.
“The ability to identify high quality grass cover is crucial to pheasant hunting success here, especially earlier in the season when many pheasants may not leave those covers all day if there are enough weed seeds and forbs to eat,” advises Plourde. “All grass cover is not created equal, but many hunters spend a lot of time hunting older, monotypic grass stands that do not provide the height, density, or diversity of cover that pheasants prefer.”
“Often, spots that were great 10 to 20 years ago can be unproductive now,” says Plourde. “Hunters that take the time to locate habitats with taller, diverse grass species and a mixture of forbs are more likely to find pheasants. If everything in the grass stand looks about the same, and it is fairly easy to walk through, you're not in a great right spot for pheasants in Montana. Taking the time to drive a bit further and locate better cover can be well worth it.”
Region 7 - Southeast Montana
LAST YEAR’S HUNT
“Pheasant hunting was tough last year across Southeast Montana” says Justin Hughes, upland game bird habitat specialist Montana FWP Region 7. “Many folks struggled throughout the season to consistently find pheasants across the region. While bird numbers were up, there were many things working against hunters such as the large amount of cover on the landscape and thousands of acres of standing crops that remained in the field for much of the winter.”
But that’s all behind us: “Although it made for tough hunting in the fall of 2019, the conditions have led to an increase in bird numbers for 2020.”
WEATHER AND CONDITIONS
“The winter last year was relatively mild, and the region experienced much less extreme cold and snow than we typically see,” says Hughes. “This, paired with the tremendous amount of habitat that was produced by spring and summer moisture, really set birds up very nicely for winter. Large amounts of standing grain across eastern Montana were the icing on the cake for pheasant populations. Not only do standing crops provide food but also high-quality thermal cover.”
“The spring started out fairly dry for many parts of the region, which aided early nesting birds,” reports Hughes. “Habitat growth wasn’t hindered too much because of the large amounts of moisture that remained from 2019. Overall, the nesting season conditions were good for pheasants.”
“There were some large hail events in the western part of the region but for the most part these storms were pretty isolated,” he adds. “The brood rearing conditions have been good thanks to large numbers of grasshoppers. In some areas however, these grasshoppers have had a detrimental effect on habitat conditions.”
HABITAT, BROODS AND COUNTS
“Habitat conditions in Southeast Montana are fair to good across most of the region,” says Hughes. “Large amounts of moisture in 2019 helped to kick-off spring growth and many areas received regular rainfall up until mid-July. Residual cover from 2019 and growth from 2020 will make for lots of cover this fall.”
“Large swarms of grasshoppers have left some areas in the south east part of Region 7 lacking habitat though,” he warns. “Also, Region 7 had multiple fires burning that were each around 50,000 acres in size and has many smaller fires that have burnt farmland, river bottoms and prairie across southeast Montana.”
“While broods have been spread out on the landscape thanks to good habitat conditions,” says Hughes, “it appears that pheasants have had a decent hatch this year. There is strong anecdotal evidence from across the region that birds had a good initial nesting attempt.”
“Major waterways across the region are always good spots to start when looking for roosters in southeastern Montana,” says Hughes. “The large amounts of habitat and adjacent farmland can make for great conditions to produce a bag of roosters.”
“Hunters should do as much research as possible prior to their arrival in the state to ensure habitat conditions at their favorite hunting spot are what they expect them to be,” says Hughes. “Ground cover in eastern Montana can change quickly due to weather conditions, insects and wildfire. Hunters that put in the time researching their hunting areas and creating a ‘plan of attack’ will see success. Coming to a place like Southeast Montana can be overwhelming due to its vast area.” Call ahead, make some preparations, put together a plan.
“And no matter how many birds you bag, do not forget to thank landowners who allow public hunting, participate in FWP access programs such as Block Management and Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program, and help maintain the habitats and working landscapes that make Montana great,” adds Hughes.
Region 4 - North Central Montana
WEATHER AND CONDITIONS
“Starting in September 2019 there were a couple of snow events that had the potential to reduce the numbers of birds that didn’t have the proper habitat needs,” says Evan Rodgers, UGBEP habitat specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “The heart of the winter was mild though, with above average temperatures and below average precipitation. Considering both the early fall and late winter weather, over-winter survival looked fair.”
“Spring conditions were above average for precipitation, which led to good brood rearing cover and insect production,” says Rodgers. “We had a few snow events in the middle of April and May, with continued periodic precipitation into June and July. August was hot and dry and has led to extreme fire danger in the region. Hunters need to be cautious when in the field and should avoid driving through tall grasses.”
HABITAT, BROODS AND COUNTS
“Habitat going into the fall season looks good,” says Rodgers. “After the early spring moisture, things started to dry out which has led to high fire danger throughout the region. Much of the CRP fields around the area look to have great height and composition going into the hunting season.”
“Some landowners have been seeing good numbers of pheasants,” Rodgers adds, “but others aren’t seeing any pheasants when harvesting areas where they used to see good numbers of pheasants. Similar to what the brood routs have shown, pheasant numbers are good in areas that have high quality habitat, while other areas with low quality habitat have low pheasant numbers.”
“Based on the crow count surveys throughout region pheasant numbers are generally lower than average, but higher than average spring precipitation has led to greater brood rearing cover and insect production,” says Rodgers. “With the higher quality habitat throughout the region, we expect the brood survival to be good and there should be pheasants in the field where habitat is right.”
“I recommend hunters look at the new Hunt Planner
on our website,” says Rodgers. “There you can find publicly accessible private lands, some of which are enrolled in our Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program
and are open specifically for upland bird hunters. The Block Management Program
also provides excellent upland bird hunting opportunity in certain areas.
“Learn how to spot quality upland bird habitat,” says Rodgers. “Since the bird numbers are lower this year, hunters who can identify the key components that make quality pheasant habitat will have greater success in the field.
Tom Carpenter is editor at Pheasants Forever