By Nick Simonson
The firearms deer season serves as the often spectacle-filled halftime show for the upland season in which wingshooters trade in their shotguns for rifles or exchange their #5 shot for slug ammunition. Like the midpoint of a football game, the switch to deer season also gives those in the know a moment to lay out how things went in the first half in the region’s uplands and what can be expected in the second half. Throughout North and South Dakota, struggles with weather and conditions in the early portion of the upland seasons for sharptailed grouse and pheasants were notable, but the second half sets out some great opportunities for hunters venturing out after their venison has been turned into the processor.
“It would be a tough halftime, I’d say we’re playing more like the Cincinnati Bengals than we should be and probably in a recovering year” said North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Upland Game Management Supervisor Jesse Kolar, “the one thing we didn’t expect was perhaps some of the difficulty with the abnormal weather this year,” he continued, citing access issues due to flooded roads and moisture delaying harvest.
A blizzard dropping 30 inches of snow over portions of eastern North Dakota, and more than a foot over south central and southeastern areas of the state hampered hunter efforts in getting out after birds on the most-hunted days of the year. With many hunters cancelling their plans for traditional opening hunts, Kolar expects the season long harvest numbers to still even things out, despite a decrease in hunters on the landscape and for total pheasants taken to be at or above last year when it was roughly 327,000 roosters. While that heavy snow and the subsequent melt added to flooding conditions in sloughs and lowlands which often harbor pheasants, there is an upside to the abundant moisture, according to Kolar.
“I hate to say that when I know how much difficulty the moisture has caused for other people, but for grass it’s definitely a good thing,” Kolar stated, adding “it’ll definitely be nice next summer to have grass on the ground and we look forward to a good growing season.”
A similar moisture situation in the spring helped with a rebound of sharptailed grouse populations in North Dakota, as thicker, well-watered grass stands helped with recruitment of these prairie birds. Kolar noted a strong upturn in areas east of the Missouri River, where hunters are finding not only big coveys, but lots of them. With the cold weather settling in, uplanders are finding the birds bunched together a bit earlier than normal. While grouse, simply by their far-flushing late season nature, will be tougher to come by, Kolar suggests that pheasant hunters have much to be optimistic about in their late season efforts when sloughs freeze over and bunches of birds can be pursued in deep cover, or multiple-row shelterbelts.
Those wet conditions which have plagued upland hunters in North Dakota extend to the south as well but good opportunities can be had and pressure is notably down, as South Dakota Game Fish & Parks (GFP) Senior Upland Game Biologist Travis Runia details.
“It’s been pretty decent, somewhat spotty, we’ve had some challenging conditions out there I think that are independent of the bird numbers,” Runia relayed, “specifically we’ve had a really delayed corn harvest which has provided a lot of refuge for the pheasants out there, so the hunting’s been a bit tougher and more concentrated in the evening hours as the birds come out of the corn,” he continued, stressing that wet conditions have hampered hunter travel to those places where birds can be found in the Mount Rushmore State.
While brood count numbers were off 17 percent over last spring overall in South Dakota, Runia has found that this has opened up more public lands to the hardcore freelance hunters as the more casual sportsmen opt to stay home or not go out as much. As result, those who are getting out after birds are finding good results and often more opportunities than in previous pheasant seasons. It is a trend he expects to continue on a larger scale as the colder late season conditions further weed out hunters.
“Hunting pressure is pretty low out there right now, so if you’re a person that likes to hunt public land, you can pretty much go most places in the state and not find a crowd,” Runia said, “the late season hunting is going to be really good once this corn comes out here in the next few weeks or so,” he concluded.
While Runia expects license sales to be off some from previous years due to the lower brood count numbers, he suggests that even a tougher year like 2019 has been still is better in the state than anywhere else. In total, the GFP expects more than 850,000 on up to 900,000 rooster pheasants to be harvested this year, off only slightly from 2018’s total estimate of 950,000 and up from the approximately 828,000 taken in 2017.
While sharptailed grouse hunting tapers off in the late season as they bunch up and flush farther and earlier making for a bigger challenge, the first half of the season showed good recruitment and a lot of early-season upland opportunities for hunters. Excellent spring conditions also spurred good grass growth which helped with grouse nesting in many areas of South Dakota.
“A lot of our early season sharptail hunting reports were pretty good, and looking at some of our wing data that we get in that kind of tells us how the production was for the year, looking at the age ratio of the birds in the bag, we had some areas that had really good production over this past year, Runia commented, “I think that the habitat conditions are good out there with the wet year we had this year, so the grasses out on the rangelands where those grouse live are in really good shape,” he concluded.
The challenge facing South Dakota’s upland species is dwindling habitat, as more and more Conservation Reserve Program acres come out of the ground. Runia is hopeful for the enrollment process under the current Farm Bill to be finalized and for more marginal lands to be retired back into habitat that will benefit pheasants, grouse and other wildlife in 2020, helping to bring annual rooster harvest numbers back over the million bird mark in the near future.
Featured Photo: Late season upland hunting can provide some of the best outings of the year for pheasants, as long-tailed roosters in full color can make for explosive flushes in winter conditions. Simonson Photo.