Gary Engberg: Favorite time to hunt, fish on horizon

September 28, 2018

The Wisconsin pheasant hunting season opens at 9 a.m. on Oct. 20.

This is my favorite time of the year with both great hunting and fishing.

Imagine walking along the edge of a harvested corn field, suddenly your hunting dog gets “hot”, and a magnificently colored rooster pheasant flushes in shooting range which you hit and your Labrador retrieves the bird on a nice sunny October morning. What could be better for a pheasant hunter and their dog?

The main problem is that pheasant numbers have dropped significantly over much of the country including the major pheasant states of Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska.

The spring was colder and wetter in most states than normal, but the rest of the year nesting season was good for most of the prime pheasant states that had had drought conditions the year before. One of the main problems the past few years in wildlife conservation has been that one of the government’s main programs (the Conservation Reserve Program) that for more than 20 years has provided habitat for pheasants and many other kinds of birds and wildlife has lost many of its enrollees due to high commodity prices and in Iowa the corn was needed for making ethanol fuel. Farmers can make more money with crops than signing up for the federal government CRP program which doesn’t pay the farmers as much money.

Wisconsin has lost much of its CRP land and that means fewer pheasants. The Rural Mail Carrier Survey the state runs has shown a decline in the pheasants counted, but the rearing was good.

Wisconsin postmasters in the 32 “pheasant” counties are sent forms to distribute to their rural mail carriers. Statistics that are kept and recorded include route number, distance driven, and the number and sex of the pheasants that are see. The survey is done in the third week of April and showed that pheasant numbers declined per 100 miles driven were down in the number of broods and the size of the broods from last year.

The DNR also does a survey of spring pheasant crowing counts which was virtually unchanged from 2017. But the survey showed some large variations in project areas with declines and also increases in observed pheasants. The number of acres enrolled in the CRP program peaked in the mid 1990s with more than 700,000 acres in the program. Now, with high grain prices the CRP enrollment is less than 250,000 acres and losing more acreage every year. The CRP had given pheasants the most important thing that they need which is habitat and that is dwindling fast and the land available for pheasants and all wildlife is dwindling. The future doesn’t look bright either with more and more CRP acres being returned to row crops every year. There is little doubt that this loss of permanent cover has affected pheasant populations and other grassland wildlife.

Hunters that want to find native pheasants will have to do their homework and some serious scouting. Look for cattail marshes, shelterbelts, and a mixture of landscapes with some thick cover for the birds during a normal Wisconsin winter. Look for idle grassland that would be good locations for raising a brood of pheasants. There still are scattered areas that have wild pheasants, but like I said you have to do your scouting and talk to locals and knock on some farmer’s doors for hunting permission or if they see any pheasants in the area.

The other alternative for the pheasant hunter is to hunt public hunting grounds where stocked pheasants are released before and during the season. There are 32 counties where the Wisconsin DNR stocks pheasants that are raised at the State Game Farm in Poynette.

This year, the state hopes to stock 75,000 birds on the numerous public hunting lands throughout the southern third of the state. The public lands where pheasants are stocked and any other pheasant information can be found on dnr.wi.gov and go to the pheasant page. Pheasants are stocked before the season opener, twice a week the first few weeks of the season and then once a week till the beginning of December. The season is open until Jan. 6, 2019 and some of the best hunting can be late in the season when most hunters are home watching football games.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the 2018 Small Game Regulations because there are a few special regulations like the hunting grounds where you can shoot both roosters and hens if you pick up the free leg tags at a state outlet. There also are some public hunting lands where hunting pheasants closes at 2 p.m. the first few weeks of the season. Hunters must have a valid small game license and a pheasant habit stamp.

Opening weekend, a hunter may shoot one cock pheasant with a possession limit of two pheasants. After opening weekend, the daily limit is two cocks a day with a possession limit of four birds.

For the purist or someone who doesn’t like public hunting grounds, there still are native pheasants scattered all over the southern third of the state. Do some research and scouting in some of the good counties for “wild birds’ like Dane, Green, Rock, Iowa, Sauk, and Lafayette counties. Pheasants are tough and hardy birds and if given a fair chance and some decent habitat will hold their own and hopefully increase their numbers in the future.

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