Pheasant production rebounds in core Nebraska regions. With scouting for good habitat, hunters should find success this year.
By Marissa Jensen
Editor’s Note: If you’re reading this forecast, you must hunt pheasants. If you hunt pheasants and don’t belong to Pheasants Forever or you need to renew, it’s time. Since inception, PF has impacted over 19 million acres of habitat, and created over 200,000 acres of permanently public wild places to hunt and recreate. Upland habitat, public lands and hunting heritage need you. Join, renew or extend and for a limited time get a sweet PF Field Hoodie to boot!
One of Nebraska’s more recent and infamous mottos, “Honestly, it’s not for everyone,”, doesn’t necessarily ring true for pheasant hunters, and the upcoming 2020-21 season seems to provide more reassurance that Nebraska should be a state that upland hunters consider.
“Anecdotally, pheasant production this summer appears to be better this year (compared to 2019), at least within our core pheasant areas,” says John Laux, Nebraska Game and Parks Upland Habitat and Access Program Manager. But to start let’s take a closer look at how the past year has played out for weather in Nebraska.
WINTER AND SPRING CONDITIONS
Like other midwestern states, pheasant populations aren’t necessarily impacted by mild winters like they are in the further north of pheasant range. This proved to be the case throughout the 2019-20 winter in Nebraska, with no mass mortality events noted.
“Pheasant counts during this year’s April Rural Mail Carrier Survey (RMCS) were up 20 percent statewide,” says Laux.
Conditions throughout spring and summer continued to be favorable for pheasant production. Total precipitation noted throughout primary nesting season was above normal in the north-central and southeastern portions of the state. Additionally, these numbers were slightly below average in other regions. However, the abundant moisture from 2019 provided a helpful head start for nesting habitat this year.
During peak hatch time, Nebraska experienced heatwaves, but many regions received rainfall during these extreme temperatures, providing a much-needed reprieve and improved habitat for brood-rearing. Most recently, portions of western and northeastern Nebraska have experienced moderate to severe drought conditions to take into consideration.
HABITAT AND BROODS
“Habitat appears to be sufficient in most areas, but hunters should keep an eye on future weather patterns as habitat conditions may change between now and the season opener,” cautions Laux. “Dry conditions during late summer triggered emergency haying and grazing. Consequently, some publicly accessible, Open Fields and Waters (OFW) lands in these counties will likely be impacted this fall, so pre-season scouting is highly recommended.”
Relatively good numbers of broods were reported by biologists throughout the state, where suitable habitat exists. Broods were variable in size and age, which Laux shares is indicative of nest success occurring both early and late throughout the nesting season.
Nebraska continues to utilize RMCS to evaluate populations, with surveys being conducted in April, July and October of each year.
“Statewide, pheasant counts increased slightly (+5 percent) during this year’s July RMCS compared to 2019 but remain below the 5- and 10-year averages,” shares Laux. “Regionally, increases were observed in Southwest, Panhandle, and Northeast regions. The most notable increases occurred in the Southwest (+47 percent) and Panhandle (+36 percent) — which are considered the core pheasant range — and this year’s pheasant indices (within these regions) were equal to or slightly above their respective 20-year averages.”
Readers can find more information on survey results and summaries online at Nebraska’s Upland Page
and Upland Gamebird Hunting Outlook
When asked where hunters should target their efforts this year, Laux points to three distinct regions: Southwest, the Panhandle and Northeast Nebraska.
“The Southwest is known for its diverse agricultural landscape, abundant habitat and good bird numbers,” says Laux. “There are also plenty of publicly accessible lands as roughly a third of all CRP acres found in this region are open to public, walk-in hunting through OFW. Tall wheat and milo stubble fields also provide excellent pheasant hunting opportunities and biologists expect to enroll more than 40,000 acres throughout the region this fall.”
“The expansive patchwork of CRP and winter wheat fields in the Panhandle is also known to support good numbers of pheasants and should provide good opportunities this fall according to survey results,” he adds. “Public access is more limited compared to the Southwest but OFW tracts in both the southern (Cheyenne, Deuel, Morrill, and eastern Kimball) and northern (Box Butte and Sheridan) Panhandle provide plenty of opportunity.”
Don’t rule out the Northeastern portion of the state; “In the mid-90’s, Northeast Nebraska was known as a premier pheasant hunting destination,” says Laux. “Although this landscape has changed considerably since then, good hunting opportunities do still exist where suitable habitat (primarily CRP) is abundant. Portions of Knox, Antelope, Cedar and Dixon Counties will provide some of the better pheasant hunting and public access opportunities this year. Birds in eastern Nebraska are heavily reliant on CRP and some isolated tracts supporting good pheasant numbers are often overlooked by most hunters.”
Laux reminds readers that although drought is a term that upland hunters never want to hear, the overall weather conditions and habitat for Nebraska during nesting season were favorable. However, if drier conditions persist long into fall and winter, hunters will need to be flexible and change their approach to increase success they find in the field.
Laux provides four insider tips to help you be successful this upcoming season:
1. Pre-Hunt Scouting
“This is especially important in counties impacted by CRP emergency haying and grazing. Although cover will be reduced on some (not all) CRP fields in certain areas of the state — including portions of the southwest and panhandle — this may concentrate birds in some of the remaining cover so hunters that do their homework and take a quick drive will likely have the upper hand.”
2. Hunt Early (or Late) Season
With drier conditions persisting in some areas of the state, hunters may find a higher percentage of corn and soybean fields harvested by the season opener (October 31) this year, which may enhance hunting opportunities and harvest success during the early season. For those seeking more seclusion, hunting during the late season is a good option” Hunting pressure generally tapers off as the season progresses and snow cover can often give you the advantage over some of the more educated roosters.”
3. Target Other Productive Habitat Types
“Biologists expect to enroll over 40,000 acres of tall wheat and milo stubble into OFW this fall throughout portions of western Nebraska. Many of these fields include unfarmed pockets and weedy fencelines that should not be overlooked. Tall stubble is generally underutilized by hunters compared to CRP fields, but some folks are starting to catch on to the opportunities. If you hunt out west, make sure to pick up the 2020-21 Stubble Access Guide
(published in mid-October) that displays the publicly accessible tall stubble fields along with other lands open to public access.”
4. Key in on Water Sources
“If conditions remain dry, water sources will likely become increasingly important in certain areas. Most obvious to hunters are the free-standing water sources (stock ponds, ditches, wetlands) but birds will also shift their diets to increase water intake during dry spells. High water content is typically found in most insects as well as some of the more succulent broadleaf plants, which are generally more abundant in weed patches and other recently disturbed areas. Although irrigation typically ceases well before the pheasant opener, birds produced in some areas may have fared better or concentrated near crop fields that were irrigated. Pivot corners are easy to pick out on aerial imagery and may be worth walking if birds seem thin elsewhere.”
Nebraskan Marissa Jensen is Education and Outreach Program Manager for Pheasants Forever.