Despite weather rollercoaster, outlook is positive for Ohio pheasant hunting this fall
By Andy Fondrick
Quality habitat and critical habitat management may have played a key role in helping pheasants to navigate some trying conditions this year in the Buckeye State. While numbers may not be as high as they were at their peaks of the last decades, there is plenty of reason to be excited for the season ahead.
Weather and Conditions
Pheasants were tested during the winter of 2020-2021, but the birds seemed to have persevered through the toughest stretches so far.
“The month of February was especially harsh, with a deep cold that coincided with snow and ice that stuck around for most of the month,” says Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s Ohio State Coordinator, Cody Grasser. “These conditions make foraging for food and hiding from predators difficult and are particularly concerning because they were prolonged. Despite some loss I heard lots of anecdotal reports of pheasants being encountered in the field this spring.”
Despite the difficult conditions through the winter months, Joseph Lautenbach, wildlife biologist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), painted an optimistic picture for pheasants heading into summer.
“Spring crow count surveys seem to indicate populations were similar to the spring of 2020, likely indicating that pheasant survival did not significantly impact populations,” says Lautenbach. “Other than some heavy rains in late April and early May, spring and summer conditions were very conducive for the nesting and brood-rearing season in Ohio. There have been many positive reports of nests and broods throughout the pheasant range.”
Being one of the few states unaffected by the drought this summer, Ohio saw more precipitation than most of the pheasant range. Grasser mentioned that late nesters and brood-rearing were more at risk within certain areas of the state where there were some heavy rainfall events, but there’s still reason for a positive outlook for pheasants this fall.
“Most of Ohio has experienced near average rainfall, with only a few locations being abnormally dry,” Lautenbach says. “The summer of 2021 had few extremes from a precipitation perspective. As a result, we expect that conditions for reproduction were excellent.
Habitat, Broods and Counts
According to Lautenbach, upland habitat on public wildlife areas with wild pheasant populations looks excellent going into fall.
“Division of Wildlife staff members have been working to control invasive species, remove woody plants encroaching into grassland habitats, conducted prescribed fire, and have been working to increase diversity of grasslands by planting native forbs into many of our warm-season grass fields. Reports from staff seem to indicate those areas experienced excellent reproduction,” he says.
Still, the importance of CRP and the impact it has on the states wild pheasant populations can’t be overlooked.
“Ohio's pheasant population is highly reliant on acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP),” says Grasser. “When properly maintained, CRP acres provide good, quality habitat for pheasants and other grassland dependent wildlife. We have a great team of PF Farm Bill biologists in Ohio that work with landowners to ensure their CRP is properly established and managed.”
Ohio currently has almost 230,000 acres enrolled in CRP and a lot of it can be found throughout the current pheasant range.
“In general, Ohio has seen a decrease in land enrolled in CRP,” says Lautenbach. “However, Ohio's most successful conservation program, the Scioto River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), was renewed in 2020 and is currently reenrolling and signing up new landowners, which is great news for pheasants and pheasant hunters in Ohio. This program provides over 70,000 acres of grassland habitat in central Ohio. Many of the wild pheasants in Ohio occur within the Scioto River CREP corridor.”
With quality habitat on the landscape, upland birds were able to ride out the rollercoaster that Mother Nature provided. Even though populations are still down compared to past decades, Lautenbach is confident that there are pockets of great habitat that will yield high-quality hunts.
“Ohio's spring crow counts indicated that the spring population was similar to last year's population index,” Lautenbach adds. “There have been reports of broods from our Wildlife Areas with wild pheasants and I have heard some nice reports of broods from landowners enrolled in the Scioto River CREP.”
For pheasant hunters in Ohio, Lautenbach and Grasser both recommend starting in the Scioto River corridor and checking out Ross, Pickaway, Madison and Fayette counties. There you can easily access public and private land opportunities (be sure to obtain written permission from landowners). They also agree that Williams County, specifically Lake La Su An Wildlife Area in northwest Ohio, holds a lot of potential for those on that end of the state.
Lautenbach also has a few specific wildlife areas you may want to drop a pin on.
“Visiting Deer Creek Wildlife Area and nearby Wildlife Production Areas in south-central Ohio can be very productive,” he says. “Big Island Wildlife Area in Marion County is also a popular destination for pheasant hunters in Ohio, providing large blocks of grassland habitat, surrounded by landowners enrolled in CRP.”
“I would also encourage hunters to look into Ohio Division of Wildlife's new Ohio Landowner/Hunter Access Partnership Program
, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, for opportunities to access private land where enrolled in the program,” Grasser adds.
Visit the Ohio Division of Wildlife website to find public land hunting opportunities.
If you plan to hit the field and chase longtails this fall, Grasser and Lautenbach provided a few tips for successful pheasant hunts in Ohio this fall.
“Take your time when working large tracts of CRP or other upland habitat and you will find some birds,” says Grasser. “Look for native grassland habitat, and woody cover late in the season when cold weather and snow sets in.”
“If you prefer to hunt public lands, going during the week often results in fewer hunters and can improve the quality of the hunt,” says Lautenbach. “With a little bit of effort, folks can find some of the less visited portions of the Wildlife Areas, even during the busy weekends. Another strategy to avoid crowds would be securing permission to hunt on private lands with CRP or CREP in central Ohio. While there are excellent opportunities on our Wildlife Areas and Wildlife Production Areas, the private lands typically get a lot less pressure.”
Ohio’s Pheasant season runs from November 5 – January 9. Lautenbach also wants to remind hunters that the small game season, including pheasants, no longer closes during the deer gun season, but all hunters must where orange during that timeframe (November 29 – December 5).