Pheasant hunters will have to work harder to put birds in the bag
GRAND FORKS -- The rush is in the flush, and this year, there likely will be fewer flushes and fewer rushes. That's the outlook facing hunters for Saturday's North Dakota pheasant opener. There are birds to be had, but hunters are going to have t...
GRAND FORKS -- The rush is in the flush, and this year, there likely will be fewer flushes and fewer rushes.
That's the outlook facing hunters for Saturday's North Dakota pheasant opener. There are birds to be had, but hunters are going to have to work for them.
"It's going to be a bit tougher out there," said Matt Olson of Forman Pheasants Forever's new regional representative for North Dakota. "Pretty much across the board, numbers are down."
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department last month announced that results from late-summer brood count surveys indicated a 30 percent drop in total pheasant numbers, along with a 29 percent decline in brood sightings.
The culprit, Olson said, was a late, wet spring that hampered production.
"There's still great cover out there, some good opportunities for adult birds," Olson said. "They didn't get much nesting in this year."
Nowhere, perhaps, was that more apparent than in southeast North Dakota, where Olson lives.
"We got hammered by those two, 5-inch rains, and I think that really took care of that first hatch," Olson said. Some hens re-nested, he said, and that means hunters early on could encounter some immature roosters with very little color to discern them from hens, which can't be hunted.
"Some birds now are just starting to get into color," Olson said. "I don't know how ready they'll be come opener, but later, they'll be colored up fully."
Cover means birds
Olson said the key this year will be to find larger blocks of contiguous cover, perhaps a couple of connected quarter sections; a quarter covers 160 acres.
"As always in North Dakota, those heavy, deep sloughs always have a bunch of birds; it's just not very fun walking," Olson said. "Those have always been where you have the most luck. They're harder to hunt and you have to have a good group of guys to be able to hunt that stuff right.
"The days of taking a nice, easy walk and getting your roosters are probably over."
Olson said habitat continues to erode as acreage enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program expires and more grasslands are broken up for farming. CRP acreage in North Dakota, which peaked at about 3.4 million acres in 2007, today is down to about 1.7 million acres, Olson said.
It's no coincidence, perhaps, that North Dakota's highest pheasant harvest since the 1940s occurred in 2007, when hunters shot an estimated 907,434 roosters. The all-time records occurred in 1944 and 1945, when hunters took some 2.45 million roosters.
"We've taken a pretty hard hit on what is out there compared to back in the great days of pheasant hunting," Olson said. "It's definitely in decline and on top of that, we're really starting to see a lot of pastures, some of those not being fully utilized, they're going to crop production, as well.
"We're losing permanent cover at a pretty bad rate right now."
Before taking his new job as North Dakota regional representative for Pheasants Forever, Olson was one of the conservation group's farm bill biologists in the state, working with farmers and other landowners to educate them about the various conservation programs available to keep habitat on the landscape.
A lifelong pheasant hunter and North Dakota native, Olson said it is important to continue conservation measures in the state.
"Upland hunting is too important in this state, both recreationally and economically, not to be more proactive in the conservation of the habitat that makes it all possible," he said.
No doubt the interest is there. North Dakota has 27 Pheasants Forever chapters and more than 4,000 members across the state.
The mission today, as always, is to work on behalf of pheasants and pheasant hunting in North Dakota and across the country. Hunters might have to spend more time afield this year, but the rush of the flush never gets old.
"It's a great feeling when you're coming onto an area where you get that gut feeling, 'This is pretty good,' and the dog starts getting a little birdy," Olson said. "You get that excitement, that adrenaline rush that it's going to be there.
"And when the flush comes, that's just great."