Best Pheasant Shot Ever

It was a great couple days at Mayberry. Fishing was good and I was getting some pretty good photos as Lola and I walked around the property.

Working some thick cover in a location where we often find pheasant, Lola was red hot. I could hardly keep up with her. She ran out in front to about 100 yards and turned to work here way back, nose to the ground – going in and out of sight in the cover. The rooster rose quickly from about 50 yards in front of me and passed me at about 30 yards. I swung the Nikon and snapped a shot. What were the chances?

To fully appreciate, click on the photo to enlarge it.

It was a direct hit with good light and he was cackling all the way.

It was a direct hit with good light and he was cackling all the way.

Pheasants on the Public Areas

lola-is-fired-up-about-pheasants-cropped

I’ve never believed that the public huntng areas were a great pheasant hunting resource. However, the records do show that many public areas have been a reliable source of pheasants. Gray Lodge, Sacramento Wildlife Refuge, Delevan and Colusa to name a few.

The most enjoyable pheasant hunting I can recall on a public area was at Lower Klamath – yes I did bag one there.

Grizzley Island can produce well. I’ve jumped a lot of roosters while duck hunting there. I’ve also been frustrated attempting to duck hunt surrounded by pheasant hunters on the berms.

In the south, San Luis NWR has occasionally held enough pheasants for a few good hunts. Most of the successful pheasant hunters I know, have good or inside information about the location of pheasants on the refuges.

On good years there are other opportunities at many of the marginal refuges. A friend of mine claims to have killed a pheasant at Spenceville WA.

Although I’ve hunted pheasants at Gray Lodge, Delevan and San Luis, I remember killing one pheasant at Gray Lodge and shooting at a handful, but the hunting has been interesting and challenging.

I’ve heard some interesting stories about hunting the closed zones at Gray Lodge and Sacramento refuges – in fact at times the hunting can be so good that it’s dangerous.

Coming up with a good explaination why the pheasant population isn’t better on the public areas would be about like explaining the problems of the big three auto makers. However, I do have a little insight – some first hand and some is second hand, but from reliable sources.

Managing for pheasants on purpose is expensive. Most successful pheasant management in the past has been by accident – a byproduct of other activites that just happened to produce pheasants.

The brood strip progam I mentioned in pevious posts is labor intensive. On private land it just means you spend more time on pheasants. On public land it means you need more money and that’s the big problem. Not everybody believes it’s the way to go.

California has no money and the USFWS has no interest in making pheasants. Believe it or not, public land is not  in short supply, but money for management of public land is. Seldom do managers of public land put the energy and effort into properly managing for pheasants. Managment for waterfowl is much easier and there is dedicated money from duck stamps.

Another factor is that managers at the various refuges are semi autonomous in their decision making and if the refuge manager is interested in pheasants you’ll get some – on the other hand, if he’s not –  you’ll have none.

And, not all biologists agree on how to manage for pheasants anyway. Combine that with the other factors especially that pheasants are a non-native species that doesn’t do well in the dry California weather and you have a problem.

All this is exacerbated by the fact the the number of pheasant hunters is in serious decline. Who, other than pheasant hunters, cares about pheasants?!!

More on the California Pheasant Crash

Ed Smith has a long history with pheasants and he is one of the most knowledgeable people in the country when it comes to producing pheasants. We spoke by phone today and he commented on the current pheasant decline.

According to Ed, the spring of 2008 was the driest on record and the record goes back to 1919. With no recordable rainfall after March 1, 2008 the lack of moisture assured that all pheasant nesting failed, unless aided by irrigation. 

At Little Dry Creek, Ed and the refuge staff managed several brood strips and they were productive, but brood strips are labor intensive and therefore cost prohibitive on public lands on a large scale.

Ed’s method of creating brood strips is very effective. He has worked with land managers in other states (Montana for one) as well with clear success. We have modified his program on our farm to fit our limitations.

In a nutshell, the brood strip is created by clearing annual grasses (disking, flooding or spraying herbicides) and then creating a method to irrigate the strip to promote insect life. The pheasants nest near the strips and the chicks live along the strip during the first critical months of their life cycle. During this time frame they are dependent upon insects for food and overhead cover from broad leaf plants to minimize predation by birds of prey.

For more detailed information about creating brood strips give Ed a call. He will be very happy to hear from you. His number is (530)868-1313.

The Pheasant Crash

A comment on my post about the weekend hunting asked my opinion on why there are no pheasants in the Central Valley. The question is very appropriate and to say that the pheasant population has declined dramatically is an understatement.

Pheasants are survivors. They live in diverse habitats and under good conditions they thrive in California farm lands. However, they require habitat. At one time, corn and rice farms provided habitat for pheasants. As farming became more efficient, ground was occasionally set aside for wildlife and pheasants could nest successfully.

Farming is now so efficient that almost no ground is left unfarmed. Roundup ready corn can take direct application of herbicides that kill all other plants. No habitat exists between the corn stocks.

I don’t have as much experience with rice, but with rice and corn prices skyrocketing last spring, farmers stepped up their efforts to plant every square inch of land.  As hunter landowners, we take steps to promote habitat. Our fields are nearly 100% natural and we manage for maximum wildlife habitat. Therefore we should have large numbers of pheasants -right?

The answer is no we don’t. We are somewhat confused by the lack of pheasant production on our 300 acres, but at least we have enough pheasants to make hunting reasonably worthwhile.

Why don’t we have more pheasants? The weather in California can make things difficult for pheasant chicks to survive and survival of pheasant chicks is probably the most critical link in the life cycle of pheasants. Chicks need to be able to maneuver through the field in search of bugs. Bugs are critical nourishment for the birds during the first few months of their development.

Bugs only live in ground that has moisture. Once the ground drys up, the bugs go away and the chicks starve. However, cover is also important. If the chicks don’t have cover over their heads, they fall prey to avian predators – like the marsh hawk.

Therefore the critical link in springtime is to have habitat with moisture and leafy upland plants to hide the birds from predators. This annual grasses don’t do the job. If the annual grasses take over, that will also break the cycle and reduce the number of successful broods.

Therefore, management of pheasant habitat is critical to optimum success. Farming does contribute, primarily by disking or otherwise killing annual grasses and making a place for br0ad-leaf plants to grow. Farming also can irrigate areas to create insect life that is critical. Where farming may have once been a net positive for pheasants, it now almost a total negative.

The reduction in the number of pheasant hunters is also a problem. The loss of hunters reduces pressure on farmers and landowners to manage the ground with pheasant in mind. We’re losing on all fronts.

What can we do? I believe that hunters should own more ground and manage with hunting and wildlife in mind as a viable by product of good land management.

Education of landowners and people who like to see pheasants is very important.

The California Department of Fish and Game is aware of this issue and can be responsive if querried. Ed Smith, retired from Fish and Game is an expert on this subject. Since his retirement a few years ago, he has spent many days afield with landowners and pheasant hunters educating them about this isse. He is the source of much of my knowledge on this subject.

Ed’s approach is to clear a path to remove annual grasses. Then create a way to irrigate the path such as making a ditch line. Then water is run down the ditch on a weekly basis to provide moisture for chicks. Once the annual grasses are prevented from taking over, the warm spring weather will allow broad leaf plants to grow along the ditch providing cover for the pheasant chicks.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, but it does work. That’s why we still have some pheasants on our property. I’ll post Ed’s phone number once I locate it. When his process is managed carefully, it can produce a boat load of pheasants.