These sharp-tailed grouse were videoed on their mating lek in late last April at the 1,285-acre property purchased last year by Pheasants Forever and the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society with the help of a grant from the Outdoor Heritage Fund (recommended by Minnesota’s Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council). The Kanabec County parcel is now permanently protected habitat for wildlife and open to the public as a Minnesota Wildlife Management Area. Read more about this project.
If you’d like to reserve a viewing blind this spring, contact the Minnesota DNR’s Cambridge Area Wildlife at 763-689-7108 or via email.
Videography by Pheasants Forever’s Andrew Vavra and Rehan Nana
Jeff Smith and his son, P.J., first spotted this white rooster pheasant near Jeff’s home in rural Zumbrota on opening day of Minnesota’s 2012 pheasant hunting season. The bird flushed a few hundreds ahead of their hunting group, and with its mostly white color, they figured the bird would be too visible to predators and wouldn’t last long in the wild.
But this rooster had a knack for avoiding danger, Jeff and P.J. included. “He eluded our guns all season,” Jeff said, “The bird always jumped 50 yards ahead of the dogs’ initial points and flew around a brushy hillside near a river bottom. The bird would flush wild again upon our second approach.”
On December 28th, they tried a different strategy, with P.J. staying at the top of the hill while one of his friends circled the river bottom. When P.J.’s setters, “Bella,” a 9-year-old tri-color and “Penny,” a 10-year old lemon and white, when on point, the white rooster once again moved and busted out 150 yards ahead. This time, P.J. was right where he needed to be. “The bird made the mistake of flying over my son on the top of the hill,” Jeff said, “It was a good passing shot.”
Jeff and P.J. regularly hunt and train dogs in Goodhue County, frequently visiting publicly accessible wildlife management areas that the local Goodhue County Pheasants Forever chapter has contributed dollars and efforts to. But they’d never seen anything like this once-in-a-lifetime longtail. Other than a few black specks on the neck and breast, the bird is snow white, including the tail and legs. To commemorate the hunt, P.J. had the bird mounted in flight. “This is the only white pheasant I’ve seen in 50 years of pheasant hunting,” Jeff said, “It is a magnificent bird!”
Snow was already falling in western Minnesota. And with a blizzard just 24 hours away, the window to hunt pheasants in the year’s first snowfall would mean eight hours in a vehicle for a couple hours of hunting.
It’d been a couple years since I’d hunted in any white stuff (a mild winter last year), let alone a fresh cover. And I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d hunted immediately after the very first snowfall of the winter – SNOpening Day. Pheasant hunters can occasionally be lucky this way, receiving the equivalent of two openers in one season.
What makes hunting pheasants in the first snow of the year so magical? Consider:
Birds Group. Focus on the winter cover, cattails and shelterbelts, as that’s where pheasants will consolidate. When the fluff gives way to three-pronged tracks, you know you’re in business. Keep your eyes peeled for a “sweeper,” where a rooster’s tail fans and leaves a print.
Birds Hold. The average lifespan of a pheasant is less than one year, so this will be their first and last earliest snow. This bird that’s predisposed to run can’t do it as well, defaulting to the next-best-defense, which is to hunker down and hide. And that’s where the dogs come in…
Perfect for Dogs. If you have a pheasant dog, you almost owe it to them to hunt the first snow. Prime scenting conditions will send your pup into overdrive. Flusher or pointer, tight-holding hens will give them plenty of good work while you sift through for the legal ones. Bird in bag or not, you’ll have an all-access pass to uninhibited, four-legged hunting joy.
Stealth Mode. Provided you can make it out of the parking spot without a racket, then proceed into the wind, the fresh layer should help conceal your presence.
Limited Hunting Pressure. Many pheasant hunters have already hung it up for the year, dissuaded by the cold, the wind chill, holiday shopping, etc. Enjoy having a place all to yourself.
All these held true on my first-snow hunt. Add to this the climax of a trophy, plumed-out rooster launching himself mere inches from your dog’s nose, a flying box of crayons against a giant sheet of white paper, and you may find the season’s second opening day even better than the first.
To say anticipation was high for this past weekend’s Minnesota pheasant hunting opener is like saying an old rooster pheasant will run. With the state’s ringneck population having rebounded 68 percent, and the second annual Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunt centering out of Marshall – an event coordinated in large part by the local Lyon County Pheasants Forever chapter – the southern quarter of the state took on a much more festive atmosphere than last year.
Pheasants Forever has an extensive network of biologists and national employees in Minnesota, to go along with its 75 resident PF chapters and 25,000 members. Here’s a compilation of their reports:
Dry (tough for dogs). Crops are largely out and fall field work nearly complete. Generally better than last year. Four roosters in the bag in the first two hours in Redwood County our group. - Matt Holland, Senior Field Coordinator, Pheasants Forever
I hunted near Marshall and the public lands are in terrific shape out there. Most of the crops are out and the field work is also mostly done. Hunters in the area moved birds and were able to put some in the bag. It is extremely dry with tough scenting conditions. - Chad Bloom, Southern Minnesota Regional Representative, Pheasants Forever
I would say that hunting in southwest Minnesota was excellent. Most groups I talked to either shot their limit or had enough opportunities to do so. Of course the hunting report could be misleading as far as actual population goes as many of the birds were concentrated in the remaining cover of CRP and other habitat areas with most of the crops being already harvested. This left many roosters more vulnerable than previous opening weekends. The dry habitat conditions allowed many wetlands that are normally full of water to be readily hunted. - Jordan Croatt, Farm Bill Biologist, Pheasants Forever
Most of my opening weekend’s hunting was focused on public Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) in Minnesota’s Stearns & Pope Counties. It’s obvious we are in dire need of some rain as all the cattail sloughs were really dry and walkable. In general though, the grass was in relatively good condition despite the drought. There seems to have been enough localized and early season moisture to grow some pretty decent cover. Also, most of the corn & beans have been harvested. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a ton of birds. This region was one of Minnesota’s few bright spots during the 2011 season as it boasts some excellent thermal cover, which was important for the birds during the severe winter of 2010/2011. However, as the Minnesota roadside counts indicated this August, the numbers are noticeably down in this region from a year ago. Our group of seven hunters and nine dogs bagged 6 roosters on opening day, which was down from 13 roosters on the 2011 opener. The birds we did find were either along the edges of picked corn fields or along the edges of cattails. - Bob St.Pierre, Vice President of Marketing, Pheasants Forever
I hunted with my 6-year-old daughter and a friend on a Wildlife Management Area in Stearns County. We shot three roosters in about an hour of hunting. My daughter was too tired to continue after that, but it was great to have her out. I would say we saw numbers similar to last year on the WMA we hunted. Most of the crops are out completely and appears habitat is decreasing fairly significantly in this area. Heard mixed reports from hunters ranging from really good to worse than last year. - Eran Sandquist, Regional Wildlife Biologist, Pheasants Forever
The question of the day in west central Minnesota wasn’t whether or not there were birds – it was “Can we get to them?” My party of 5 hunters and three dogs hunted public property in west central Minnesota and flushed roughly 12 hens and dropped 3 roosters on Saturday. A majority of the birds we found were in extremely thick cover due to the fact all of the crops are out and the birds had to find other secure areas to safely spend their afternoon. - Andrew Vavra, Marketing Specialist, Pheasants Forever
After a successfully creeping up our limit Saturday in west central Minnesota, “Annie” (new pup) had her first experience with the infamous cattail sloughs in Minnesota’s Kandiyohi County, hunting WPA’s on Sunday. Poor (dry) scenting conditions and the thick cover proved too much for the inexperienced dog. Two of the four birds within gun range Saturday were very young and were hanging on the soft edges of crop/grassland or cattail/grasslands. Hunting the same property for opening bell, bird numbers seemed to be up. These numbers may be artificially propped up given crops were all out concentrating birds. - Rehan Nana, Public Relations Specialist, Pheasants Forever
Overview: While the drought of 2012 will make its impact felt on pheasant populations in the central Great Plains (portions of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska), pheasant hunters in the Upper Midwest (the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota) can expect bird numbers to be much improved from last year. Unfortunately, upland hunters will note a rapidly changing landscape in these states as habitat is converted to row crops. With commodity prices at or near all-time highs, and federal crop insurance coverage buffering the risk of planting marginal lands, grasslands formerly enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and previously unbroken native prairie are being plowed up at an astounding rate. It should give pheasant hunters pause, and more reason than ever to get involved in the work of upland conservation.
Iowa – Numbers Finally Headed Back Up
Forecast – After five consecutive years of tough winters and wet springs, Iowa’s pheasant population is finally headed in the right direction, with the state’s August roadside survey increasing 16 percent from last year. Todd Bogenschutz, Upland Wildlife Research Biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says the increase may be even bigger, as heavy dews, which produce the best counting conditions, occurred less often because of the drought.
Pheasant counts trended higher in seven of Iowa’s nine survey regions, only declining in the southwest and west central regions (regions also home to some of the worst dew conditions for counting). Routes across the northern third of Iowa showed consistent increases in bird numbers, from 35-58 percent in 2012. In the Mahaska and Poweshiek County area - about an hour southeast of Des Moines – come reports of the most pheasant and quail broods seen in years. “A lot of the CRP acres enrolled in the past couple years has provided great nesting/brood rearing habitat that is definitely helping with improved nesting success,” says Eric Sytsma, a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist.
Iowa’s overall harvest this year is expected to be around 200,000 roosters. “While pheasant counts remain well below what the wildlife bureau and most hunters would like to see in Iowa – rest assured as long as Iowa has well-managed CRP habitat, the populations will bounce back. Iowa currently has 1.6 million acres of CRP and this level of habitat should support a 600,000-800,000 rooster harvest with 2-3 more years of good weather,” Bogenschutz says.
Although Iowa’s numbers appear to be headed in the right direction, there remains plenty of habitat work necessary to sustain a true pheasant rebound. Consequently, Pheasants Forever recently announced a new partnership with the Iowa DNR in which the state’s 105 PF & QF chapters will work in conjunction with DNR biologists and private landowners to create the quality habitat necessary on both public and private acres to accelerate population rebounds during times of ideal weather conditions and mitigate significant population declines during times of habitat loss and severe weather conditions.
Season Dates: October 27 through January 10, 2013
Daily Bag Limit: 3
Possession Limit: 12
Field Notes: The Iowa DNR has worked with private landowners to improve wildlife habitat on more than 7,000 acres of private lands in exchange for access for hunters through its Habitat Access Program…The Iowa DNR has identified more than 100 Wildlife Management Areas across Iowa that qualify for habitat management by a Pheasants Forever or Quail Forever chapter…Iowa’s bobwhite quail numbers increased 63 percent over 2011.
Kansas – Drought Deadly for Kansas Pheasant Crop
Forecast – Because of two consecutive years of extreme drought, this will be a below average year for Kansas pheasant harvest, reports Dave Dahlgren, Small Game Specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Following a season in which hunters harvested 475,000 roosters, the statewide spring crow index was down 50 percent. Then the drought intensified, and brood reports have been few and far between. “Insects are the main source of protein for pheasant chicks and lots of other birds,” says Mark Witecha, a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist who serves seven counties around Ness City. “Our abundance of insects depends on our abundance of those wildflowers. When wildflowers are severely impacted by drought, like they certainly were this year, it severely impacts the young chicks’ ability to find insect sustenance.”
Dahlgren says there will be some pockets of birds in northwest, north central, and central Kansas that offer decent pheasant hunting opportunities, but scouting will be crucial, as the entire state has been opened to emergency haying and grazing of CRP due to extreme drought conditions, so there is reduced cover on the landscape.
Season Dates: November 10 through January 31, 2013
Daily Bag Limit: 4
Possession Limit: 16
Field Notes: Kansas has used federal “Open Fields” funding to significantly increase habitat, primarily CRP, buffer strips and pivot corners, with Walk-In Hunting Access throughout the state.
Minnesota – Ringnecks Rebound, CRP Losses Loom
Forecast – A mild winter followed by a warm spring contributed to a 68 percent increase in Minnesota's pheasant count, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The highest pheasant counts were in the west central region, where observers reported 58 birds per 100 miles of survey driven. Hunters will find good harvest opportunities in portions of west central, east central and southwest Minnesota. Despite the increase, Kurt Haroldson, the DNR biologist who compiled the survey, says the importance of habitat can’t be understated. "The state's pheasant population is linked more closely to the quantity and quality of habitat than annual differences in weather," Haroldson said. And while Minnesota’s pheasant range experienced a net gain - through conservation program enrollments and public land acquisitions (many of which involved Pheasants Forever) - of 32,000 acres of protected habitat last year, during the next three years, contracts for 620,000 acres of CRP lands are scheduled to expire in the state. If not re-enrolled, this would reduce CRP acres in Minnesota by 42 percent.
Minnesota’s pheasant harvest this year is expected to be at approximately 300,000 roosters.
Season Dates: October 13 through January 1, 2013
Daily Bag Limit: 2; changes to 3 on December 1 through end of season
Possession Limit: 6; changes to 9 on December 1 through end of season
Field Notes: More than 15,000 acres of private property at 140 sites have been opened to public hunting through the state's Walk-In Access program…Following the season, National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic 2013 comes to the Minneapolis Convention Center in February.
Nebraska – Slight Dip, Still Top Destination
Forecast – Severe heat and drought has plagued much of the Nebraska this summer, which might have impacted pheasant production. The state’s July Rural Mail Carrier Survey indicated statewide decrease of 15 percent compared to 2011, Jeff Lusk, Upland Game Program Manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commissions, says survey conditions weren’t conducive to observing wildlife, so the decrease may not be as steep as the numbers would indicate.
Despite a slight drop, Nebraska continues to be among the top states in the Midwest for pheasant hunting. Based on the summer survey, the southwest region will once again offer the best hunting opportunities, particularly Red Willow, Hitchcock and Hayes Counties. Additionally, the eastern portion of the Panhandle region (where the survey indicated a 19 percent increase) and the Central region, namely Dawson, Sherman and Greeley Counties, should provide good pheasant hunting opportunities. Lusk points out that continued habitat loss in eastern Nebraska to irrigated corn agriculture has impacted all upland species in this region.
Last year, 46,200 hunters harvested an estimated 217,700 ringnecks in Nebraska.
Season Dates: October 27 through January 31, 2013
Daily Bag Limit: 3
Possession Limit: 12
Field Notes: Nebraska’s Conservation Reserve Program-Management Access Program (CRP-MAP), a long favorite of public land pheasant hunters, is being restructured and transitioned into the Open Fields and Waters Program. The merger simplifies programs and allows higher landowner payment rates to open up additional habitats, including wetlands and woodlands.
North Dakota – Pheasant Population Up 59 Percent
Forecast – North Dakota pheasant numbers will be improved over all portions of the state compared to the past few seasons, up 59 percent as indicated by the state's roadside survey count, reports Stan Kohn, Upland Game Management Supervisor with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department. Kohn says mild winter weather and good spring weather plus nesting habitat availability in the spring equated to better nesting success and brood survival. Last year, hunters bagged 683,563 roosters in North Dakota.
Statistics from southwestern North Dakota indicate the number of broods was up 37 percent and number of birds observed was up 30 percent from 2011. Observers counted 19 broods and 168 birds per 100 miles. The average brood size was 6.5. “Census numbers indicate this district will have the best pheasant numbers in the state this fall,” Kohn said. “A stronger breeding population this spring coupled with good production should provide hunters with plenty of birds and a good number of young birds this fall." Kohn says while the southwest portion of North Dakota will have the best numbers, wingshooters would be wise not to overlook the central part of the state.
Results from the southeast show the number of birds observed was up 134 percent from last year, and the number of broods was up 144 percent. Observers counted nine broods and 88 birds per 100 miles. The average brood size was 6.6. “Even though this district shows a large percentage increase, pheasant numbers were pretty low last year,” Kohn said. “With that said, hunters should see more pheasants than in 2011, especially after row crops are harvested.”
Statistics from the northwest indicated pheasants are up 258 percent from last year, with broods up 268 percent. Observers recorded nine broods and 79 birds per 100 miles. Average brood size was 6.3. “Similar to the southeast, hunters should temper expectations because numbers were low in this district last year,” Kohn said. “There will be some areas where pheasant hunting will be slow.”
Despite this year's rebound, North Dakota continues to lose upland habitat in the form of Conservation Reserve Program acres leaving the program. Approximately 650,000 acres of CRP expired this year alone, and this mass exodus is also reducing the number of acres available to pheasant hunters through state’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen (P.L.O.T.S.) program. Without a reversal of these habitat losses, North Dakota’s pheasant numbers are most certainly prone to an upcoming plunge.
Season Dates: October 13 through January 6, 2013
Daily Bag Limit: 3
Possession Limit: 12
Field Notes: If you’re thinking about traveling to North Dakota, note that if you’re born after 1961, you must complete a certified hunter education course and show proof of certification when buying a license.
South Dakota – Pheasant Numbers Increase 18 Percent
Forecast: South Dakota’s annual pheasant brood count indicated an 18 percent increase to the state’s pheasant population, according to Travis Runia, Senior Upland Game Biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. Last year, South Dakota pheasant hunters were able to put 1.55 million roosters in their game bags, once again tops in the nation.
“The highest pheasant abundance as indicated by our roadside counts are the regions surrounding Chamberlain, Mobridge, Pierre, and Winner,” Runia says, “The James River Valley from Aberdeen to Mitchell will again boast very respectable pheasant numbers with fewer birds in the far east.” In fact, pheasant numbers from the James River Valley and east increased anywhere from 40 to 70 percent, including the Aberdeen area (up 51 percent from last year).
Hunters heading to South Dakota should be aware that emergency haying and grazing of CRP lands has occurred this year due to drought conditions. Many fields of CRP including those open for public hunting have been partially hayed or grazed. Pheasants (and hunting pressure) may be more concentrated since less huntable habitat exists.
Mike Stephenson, Pheasants Forever’s Regional Representative is based near Mitchell, a region where pheasant numbers improved nearly 40 percent. “There will be an abundance of birds in the central part of the state,” Stephenson says, “But the real challenges lie ahead. We’ll be losing 224,000 acres of CRP at the end of September and are fighting to supply adequate winter cover and good spring nesting cover for birds in the future.”
Season Dates: October 20 through January 6, 2013
Daily Bag Limit: 3
Possession Limit: 15
Field Notes: With 700,000 acres of public hunting land within the heart of SD’s pheasant range, opportunities again exist for quality pheasant hunting. As enrollment for the James River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program has now reached 70,000 acres – all enrollment done by Pheasants Forever South Dakota Farm Bill Wildlife Biologists - hunters will find additional CRP lands available for public hunting this fall in east-central SD.