A sign at a game farm in Poynette. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
The Wisconsin ring-necked pheasant season opens this Saturday at noon. Iíve written recently how the wild or native pheasant in Wisconsin is becoming scarcer and scarcer as more prime habitat is lost to urbanization, development, and changing farming practices.
Pheasant hunting in Wisconsin has a long tradition which has many hunters looking forward to every October, November, and December. Wild pheasant flourished in the state in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s. But the native population of birds declined tremendously and it never has had the habitat to rebound and become the prized gamebird that hunters have always cherished.
Pheasant numbers rebounded during the 1980s with the creation of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and some great work by the Pheasants Forever conservation group who believes that habit is the key to having wild pheasants. But, the CRP program has declined tremendously due to higher grain prices and the production of ethanol. This has put land back into production.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources opened the Poynette Game Farm in the 1930s and is still in use today. The Game Farm in Poynette, Wisconsin incubates over 300,000 eggs annually with weekly hatches from early April to June. Every year about 250,000 chicks are hatched with many being raised on the Game Farm for stocking and some going to private conservation clubs that raise the day-old chicks for release. Hen chicks are also available for sale to the public.
The DNR originally raised pheasants for release on public hunting grounds to bolster the wild population and provide quality pheasant hunting opportunities for its hunters. But, research over time has shown that pen-raised pheasants do not have the survival instincts to evade predators or hunters long enough to add to the wild pheasant population. The current stocking efforts are now aimed at providing quality pheasant hunting chances on public hunting grounds for all hunters. There are areas in the state where there are still wild and native pheasants, but these locations are on mostly private lands and not open to public hunting.
Last year, the DNR raised and released about 54,000 pheasants which were released on 72 public hunting grounds. This year, the DNR is releasing 75,000 pheasants on 92 public hunting grounds. According to DNR Poynette Game Farm manager, Bob Nack, the ďadditional properties stocked this year will allow hunters to explore and find success on properties that they may not have hunted in the past.Ē The pheasant stocking program is largely supported by pheasant hunters with the purchase of pheasant stamps. The pheasant stamp was created in 1991 to provide funds for pheasant restoration and management.
Increasing pheasant stocking gives more recreational chances for the hunter that they didnít have in the past. The added properties that are stocked are all in the south-east part of the state which is the traditional pheasant range and areas that have been stocked in the past will now see an increase in the number of birds that they receive this season. The new properties were picked because they can support the birds and be more accessible to urban residents. The new stocking information can be found on the DNR website, wi.dnr.gov, and use the keywords ďpheasant stocking.Ē
In the late 1970s and into the late 1980s, I farmed in south-west Wisconsin around the New Glarus and Mt. Horeb area. Even after moving to the Wisconsin River valley near Sauk City, I could go back to friendís farms and still see pheasants and always get a bird or two. But, as I said, those days are long gone and with the creep of development, urbanization, and loss of habitat has stopped most wild pheasant production in this area.
The CRP program which helped increase wild pheasants by restoring habitat has lost thousands and thousands of acres of prime cover and wetlands with farmers getting more money for crops than letting their land sit idle. This downfall of CRP has happened all across the Midwestís pheasant range and pheasant numbers are down as much as 65 % in South Dakota and other states.
This season should be a little better for wild pheasants with the Rural Mail Carrier Survey conducted by 735 carriers who saw 411 pheasants from April 16-18th in the survey period. This is a 25 % increase from 2012. The statistics are based on the number of pheasants seen per 100 miles driven. The DNR also does a pheasant survey in 29 counties that are considered the core of the Wisconsin pheasant range. The count was done from April 8th to May 3rd, 2013. This year, the number of pheasants seen and recorded was slightly below the 5-year average. But, it was still slightly higher than 2012.
Overall, I think that little has changed since last season by talking to DNR personnel and reading the studies that they have done on stocking pheasants. Youíll still be able to find wild birds in a few scattered areas, if you do some driving, scouting, and knocking on some farmerís door. You never know where you may find a hot spot! The best locations for pheasant hunting are still in the southern counties and a few counties in west-central Wisconsin (Dunn, Buffalo, Trempealeau, Jackson, and Monroe Counties.) These are the best areas for wild birds and also the counties where there are many stocked public hunting grounds to hunt.
This year the season opens at noon on Saturday. Hunters need a valid small game license and a pheasant stamp to help support the pheasant programs and management. You may harvest one rooster on opening weekend and the rest of the season the daily limit is two pheasants and the possession limit is four roosters. There also are a few public areas where you may also shoot hen pheasants if you have the tags and are in a hen hunting location. Check the DNR website and be sure to have a Small Game Hunting Regulations booklet.
Pheasants are usually stocked twice a week during the first month and then once a week till the birds are all released. Be sure to also check on public hunting grounds that close at 2 p.m. on weekdays from October 21 to November 3. If you can hunt during the week, youíll have fewer hunters and more room to hunt. There also are some private lands that are open to pheasant hunting. Call (608)-635-8120 and ask about these properties.
In the Madison area, there is the Mazomanie Public Hunting Grounds which is stocked and has plenty of good cover and habitat. The Lodi Public Hunting Grounds is another good spot. The DNR website will tell you where the 92 public hunting locations are and how many pheasants will be stocked at that location. But, be sure to check this out because it will help you in finding that spot to hunt.
Be safe, follow all regulations, and check out some of the locations that Iíve mentioned and you should find some birds. Some of the best hunting can be during deer season and later in December when there are few out hunting. The season opens this Saturday at noon and is open to December 31.
Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990ís and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.