TURTLE LAKE - Pheasant season may mean different things to different people, but there's no doubt hunting the large birds is the reason thousands of hunters enter the fields of North Dakota each October. Pheasant season opened last weekend.
A very windy and soggy opening day across the state was followed by remarkably beautiful autumn weather on Day 2. The change to more agreeable weather was a perfect invitation for hunters to take to the fields. They responded in the hope of spending some quality time outdoors and perhaps putting a rooster or two in the game bag.
Pheasant season in North Dakota has long had only one rival in terms of the number of hunters participating - deer season. This year may be different though. With deer permits cut to their lowest level since 1983, the number of potential pheasant hunters has drawn very close to - if not exceeded - the number of hunters that will participate in the November deer gun opener.
Pheasant hunting is a family affair. Back row, left to right: Gordy Nelson, Turtle Lake; Melissa and Mike Nelson, New Salem. Front row, left to right: Mavrick, Maksim and Makynna Nelson, all from New Salem.
Although there is no way to precisely determine participation in either season, it is known that 59,500 deer gun permits have been issued. By comparison, 117,000 deer gun permits were issued for the 2010 season. Of the 59,500 deer gun permits issued this year, 14,600 are gratis tags for landowners as required by law. That means 44,900 deer gun permits were available in the public lottery.
According to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the total sale of resident combination licenses and resident small game stamps recently was approaching 49,000. Combination licenses include fishing and small game. For sportsmen not wishing to purchase a combination license, general licenses and small game stamps are required for upland game hunting.
The number of non-resident small game licenses sold pushes the total of potential pheasant hunters over 59,000, virtually equaling the number of deer gun permits issued. More license sales can be expected as the season continues. However, because some combination license holders may not hunt pheasants, it is impossible to determine the exact number of pheasant hunters based solely on license sales. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the gap between the number of deer gun hunters and pheasant hunters has closed dramatically.
First time for pheasants
The number of hunters participating in the pheasant season generally coincides with the number of birds in the field. If survey numbers and initial hunter success is high, more sportsmen will respond by actively participating. When bird numbers grow so does the number of hunters and the number of days devoted to hunting.
Not to be overlooked is another group of sportsmen who constitute a growing percentage of pheasant hunters, those who appreciate the outdoors regardless of the amount of game encountered. Further bolstering pheasant hunter numbers are first-year hunters. The number of women participating in pheasant hunting has been increasing, too.
Nycole Burton of Minot passed her required hunter education program and was in the field in search of pheasants opening weekend. It was her first hunt.
"I was never interested in hunting growing up," said Burton. "I just enjoyed spending time with my mom and grandma when my dad and my brother went hunting. Now that I'm an adult and a mom, I want to take my son out hunting and my daughters when they are older. I think it will be a good family activity in which to participate."
Pheasant hunting usually results in walks that take lots of twists and turns as hunters and dogs attempt to outmaneuver birds running or hiding in heavy cover. It can be challenging for veterans in the field, even more so for newcomers in the field trying to anticipate where or when a rooster will suddenly rise into the air.
"I had a lot of fun actually," said Burton following her first pheasant hunt. "It was really a lot of fun to be up close and to be able to walk the terrain and get a feel for it, just being outdoors. I really liked it."
Newcomers in the field have a lot of things to think about. Safety comes first. Muzzle control is paramount. So, too, is leaving the shotgun's safety in the on position and the finger out of the trigger guard until a bird is in the air. While those important safety procedures come naturally to most hunters, new hunters are necessarily much more conscious of their actions. Burton's hunter education training was evident, a big plus for others in the field.
Another part of the learning process for new hunters is bird identification. Only rooster pheasants can be harvested. Despite their colorful appearance and long tails that distinguish them from hens, immediate identification is not always possible. For new hunters that sometimes means a bit longer response time before taking aim.
Working behind a trio of dogs last Sunday, two of which were on point in tall grass, Burton strode toward the lead dog. She was surprised by a hen that got up virtually under her feet and responded with a short yell. It was her feathery welcome to pheasant hunting. You never know when a pheasant will take flight.
A moment later a rooster pheasant rose into the sky behind her. It had taken a different path of escape than the hen, avoiding both hunters and dogs that were frantically searching for the trail. Burton had similar experiences throughout the day and began to expect the unexpected. She did not put a rooster on the ground but enjoyed her first hunt.
"It definitely is not going to stop me from hunting. It was a beautiful day, perfect weather and I can't wait to get back out there and actually shoot a bird," said Burton.
Back in the field
Minoter Jeff Bliss went pheasant hunting opening weekend. He had not been hunting since the late 1980s and was eager to put himself and a new shotgun to the test.
"You get busy with family and if you don't do things, pretty soon you get out of the habit of doing them. Now that I'm old I have a little more time to get back and hunt again," said Bliss with a laugh. "It's time to do some of the things that I loved when I was young."
Bliss had some chances but, in the end, it was the roosters that carried the day. Pheasant hunting can do that to the best of hunters. However, the "shakedown" cruise for Bliss proved beneficial in getting him acquainted with his new shotgun and renewed his enthusiasm for the hunt.
"It is a good day when you can get out and walk around and get a few shots. We had good visits with other hunters," said Bliss. "Everybody was kind of saying the same thing, not a lot of birds around. We worked hard for the ones we did get a look at anyway."
Bliss is a native of Scranton, an area well within the state's prime pheasant range. Now that he is hunting again, a visit back home with shotgun in hand is planned.
"I'll get to God's country in southwest North Dakota later in the month and see how many birds survived the snow and rain down there," remarked Bliss.
Elsewhere in the opener
North Dakota Game and Fish Department analysis of pheasant numbers revealed that hunters could expect to see about 30 percent fewer pheasants than a year earlier. Based on initial reports from the field from opening weekend, the prognostication proved to be correct.
"It was really slow for an opener overall," said Doug Olson, NDG&F southwestern warden supervisor. "I was all though the countryside from Watford City over to Lake Audubon. Success varied, but it definitely wasn't all that good."
The number of opening day hunters was less than usual, primarily due to wet conditions, high winds and a much more promising forecast for Day 2.
"If you were in the lucky group that walked the right place, you did OK," said Robert Timian, NDG&F chief game warden. "This year it seemed those groups were a lot fewer and farther in between. We also saw more hunters out on Sunday than for Saturday's opener."
Timian said a series of adverse winters, cool and wet nesting seasons and loss of habitat all deserve some responsibility for the recent decline in pheasant numbers. Another factor affecting the number of birds seen by hunters, said Timian, is this year's delayed harvest due to wet conditions. Many row crops remained standing opening weekend, providing pheasants with additional cover in which to hide. State law prohibits hunting in unharvested cropland.
"I would say that with habitat loss, CRP going out, row crops rather than small grains, it looks like the pheasant range is starting to shrink a little bit," said Timian. "When it comes to pheasants the issue is habitat. With a decent winter and a favorable spring nesting season they can bounce back."
While a bird or two in hand at the end of the day makes for a nice hunt, it is not the sole standard for many pheasant hunters who get great enjoyment out of spending time outdoors. Quite often a pheasant hunt is a family affair. Such was the case for the Nelsons, who were hunting in the Turtle Lake area.
The group consisted of Gordy Nelson, Turtle Lake; and Mike and Melissa of New Salem, and their children; Makynna, Maksim and Mavrick Nelson. At mid-morning last Sunday they were still searching for roosters.
"We've been all over the place," said Mike Nelson.
A few miles away, Tim and Nancy Krause of Bismarck were waiting to be picked up alongside a gravel road after a lengthy walk in pheasant cover. The husband and wife team had hunted opening day too, coping with a very strong wind that kept many hunters at home.
"That was fun!" said Tim Krause with a hint of sarcasm. "Today has been pretty quiet with not a lot of birds around. The numbers must be really down but it beats working!"
Nancy Krause, with her over-and-under shotgun resting on her shoulder, explained that cellphone text messages to the vehicle they were waiting for were not being answered. They suspected a daughter had fallen asleep, a situation that later proved to be true. It was all part of the experience of pheasant hunting and no cause to get upset.
"I haven't hunted in like 20 years," said Nancy Krause. "I didn't get anything but it's great to be out."
Heavy snow fell along the border with South Dakota prior to the pheasant opener. The storm was responsible for killing an unknown number of cattle. It may been both good and bad for wildlife.
"Parts of the southwest lost some birds in the heart of pheasant country. We know that snowstorm did kill some pheasants," said Timian.
It may not be known for several days or weeks just how extensive the loss of pheasants is. Ranchers have been busy assessing cattle losses. Few hunters, another source of information, were in the region on opening weekend.
The storm struck in an area where a growing number of white-tailed deer were dying due to epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD. The disease is transferred from animal to animal by the bite of a small midge. NDG&F is hopeful that the snowfall and following freezes have killed the midges and brought an end to the outbreak.
"It might be safe to say the insect kill has been pretty significant," said Jeb Williams, NDG&F wildlife division assistant chief.