By Nick Simonson
With the youth pheasant weekend in just a few days on Sat. Oct. 1, and the general pheasant opener just a week later on Oct. 8, hunters are checking their boots, loading shells in their vests, and figuring out which parcels of their favorite hunting grounds they’ll hit when their opportunity opens and the first rooster flushes. According to North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) Upland Game Biologist RJ Gross, a general increase across the board in all four major pheasant categories – brood size, number of broods, age ratio of young to adult birds, and total birds observed – is a step in the right direction, albeit a small one, buoyed by a late hatch this summer.
“Hunters should expect a lot of young roosters in the bag this year out in the field, but a lot of them are going to be hard to tell that they are roosters, especially early in the season because there’s going to be a lot of those late hatch birds. That’s because in May when they were nesting there was either snow in some parts of the state from our spring snowstorms, or just the habitat was still very poor from the drought before,” Gross comments.
Looking across the four regions managed for pheasants in North Dakota, the northwest portion of the state, particularly the far northwest corner, faired the best in terms of numbers reported in the annual summer roadside brood counts for upland game conducted in July and August of this year. There, both pheasant broods observed per 100 miles (11.5) and total number of total pheasants observed per 100 miles (96.5) were at ten-year highs, representing increases of approximately one-third over last year’s numbers in the region. Conversely, in the southwest, pheasant numbers have declined, with brood size down to 4.9 broods seen per 100 miles and total birds per 100 miles tallied at 48.4. These totals represented a dip of 9.3 and 15.2 percent, respectively, from the 2021 totals in the roadside survey.
“It’s been the last probably four years now where the northwest, I think we can finally anoint it the new pheasant king of North Dakota; it’s taken over the southwest. A lot of that I attribute to the fact it is still old North Dakota. By that I mean the farming practices that used to be statewide – a lot of small grains, there’s still a decent number of fencerows, tree rows and cattail sloughs, things like that – still exist up there. To those pheasants, that’s vital for them to succeed, and that shows in our surveys. But it all had good production; the main part that had very good production was Divide County, up there by Crosby and Grenora, those data sheets that were coming in there were off the charts,” Gross details.
In the secondary pheasant range of the southeastern portion of the state, percentage jumps were up significantly after last year’s drought and a tough winter in 2021 for that area. However, these large numbers were somewhat inflationary in nature as broods seen per 100 miles jumped only to 4.5 from 3.0 in 2021 and total birds increased from 24.9 to 39.2. While any improvement is good in terms of numbers, Gross cites declining habitat and grassland in the area, along with significant row cropping, as making hunting in the region more difficult.
“The southeast it’s always kind of hard to hunt down there just because so much row crop conversion is going on. Basically, there’s no CRP left down in that area. I know we [NDG&F] shifted quite a bit of our PLOTS budget down there to try to combat that grassland loss. We’re making progress, slowly but surely,” Gross details, adding that habitat loss is the biggest hindrance to a sustained pheasant recovery, “I always talk about grasslands and CRP going down, some of that is good winter habitat and they have those cattail sloughs. You look on the landscape a lot of those are getting drained, getting burned up and getting tilled up,” he concludes.
All things considered, Gross estimates a 2022 hunter harvest could reach 350,000 rooster pheasants this fall. However, that number is couched in some biologist optimism and on sportsmen and sportswomen hitting those places where pheasants are plentiful. He stresses the drive to the northwest is well worth the price of gasoline and the extra road time, based on the numbers tallied in this year’s roadside pheasant counts. North Dakota’s youth pheasant hunting weekend is Oct. 1 and 2 and the general pheasant opener is Oct. 8 and the season runs through Jan. 1, 2023.
Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.
Featured Photo: To Be Young. Hunters can expect to find younger birds in the bag this fall, particularly in October when the season starts, as late nesting attempts produced the bulk of this year’s roosters. Many of those will exhibit partial coloring as a result of their late start, so hunters are advised to confirm their quarry before shooting. Simonson Photo.