By Tom Carpenter
It’s South Dakota’s 100th pheasant hunting season this fall. With a good hatch occurring pretty much statewide in 2018, there are simply more pheasants on the ground. And more habitat too: Without a summer drought, emergency haying wasn’t necessary on key grasslands.
More birds, more acres to hunt … the combination should be good for a century-mark season in South Dakota. While pheasant counts are still below the 10-year average, 2018’s move was in the right direction.
WEATHER AND CONDITIONS
“It was an eventful spring in SD to say the least!” reports Travis Runia, Senior Upland Game Biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (SDGFP). “April featured record cold temperatures and unprecedented snow, especially in the Southeast. Very fortunately, May was the fifth warmest on record, which kept pheasant phenology on track.”
“The pheasant nesting season peaks in May,” says Runia. “Relatively warm and dry conditions without drought are ideal for nesting and that is what most of the primary pheasant range experienced this year. Favorable conditions extended into the critical early brood-rearing period of June for most of the state. Even though our southeastern 7 counties experienced very high rainfall in June, survey results there still showed an increase in pheasants.”
HATCH AND BROODS
That’s all good news for pheasant hunters. “Most of the state saw a very healthy increase from last year, which was a tough year for South Dakota standards,” says Runia. “Overall, roadside survey results indicate a 47% increase in pheasant abundance. The 2018 pheasants-per-mile index is 2.47, up from the 2017 index of 1.68.”
“All areas of the state recorded an increase in pheasants except western South Dakota,” says Runia. “The largest increases occurred in the eastern and southeastern portions of the state where several local areas doubled from last year. Still, pheasant abundance is highest in the Missouri River corridor followed by the James River Valley farther to the east.”
Bottom line, pheasant populations moved the right direction.
HABITAT AND PROGRAMS
“Due to drought relief this year, hunters will find far fewer hayed CRP and CREP fields in 2018 versus 2017. This will result in more areas to hunt,” says Runia. “This is particularly good news for hunters who target Walk-in Areas (WIA) for pheasant hunting. Approximately 20% of the state’s CRP lands are enrolled in the popular WIA program, with an additional 39,000 acres added this year.”
South Dakota is replete with productive public lands for the pheasant hunter willing to drive, scout and get out and walk. “In fact, there are 1.1 million acres in all in the heart of South Dakota’s pheasant range,” says Runia. Go to https://gfp.sd.gov/hunting-areas
to explore all the public hunting opportunities on a web-based interactive map, and explore the atlas or order a paper copy of it for your truck.
“Although not all areas have rebounded back to 2016’s pheasant levels, hunters should have improved hunting overall in 2018,” says Runia. “The combination of higher bird numbers and more undisturbed habitat should improve hunting opportunity across the state.”
It’s South Dakota. You really can’t pick a bad spot to go. The Huron and Mitchell areas clearly saw robust increases in birds. Don’t ignore the entire James River Valley, all the way up to Aberdeen, where PPM counts increased 30% but anecdotal observations of late-hatch broods are encouraging. Northeastern South Dakota – the Prairie Coteau – rebounded nicely from last year as well.
“Opening weekend is a very popular period to pheasant hunt in South Dakota,” says Runia. “Many friends and family treat opening weekend as a holiday and make it a point not to miss the ‘opener.” And that’s good.”
“However, as crop harvest progresses hunters can experience higher success rates later in the season,” he adds. “As hunting pressure slowly declines, and it just does, opportunity for high-quality hunting extends well into the season. Hunters should consider hunting high-quality habitat adjacent to recently harvested grain fields for a strategic mid-season hunt.” Head toward frozen cattail sloughs in late season and you’ll have the countryside – and the birds – all to yourself.
Bottom line, you can head to South Dakota after the crowds of the first couple weeks have subsided, and still have a great hunt. There will be birds to be had, and plenty of land on which to chase them.
Study up the entire South Dakota Brood Survey Report 2018 here.