Summer drought could make pheasant hunting more difficult when the season opens across Montana on Saturday, Oct. 7.
Pheasants Forever has compiled the following insights from Big Sky Country’s three top ring-necked pheasant regions. For information on other states, check out the group's website.
Region 6 (Northeast)
“Weather from early spring through summer was extremely dry and has left northeast Montana in exceptional drought status,” said Ken Plourde, Habitat Specialist with the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Region 6.
“Some localized areas received small amounts of rain in August that helped,” he added, “but it was mostly too little and too late. Brood success was lower across the region as the habitat capable of supporting broods was significantly limited due to the drought. Pheasant hunting in this area of Montana is likely to be below average this fall.”
“We conducted a few brood surveys in northeast Montana for pheasants,” Plourde said. “Final results are not yet published, but the number of broods observed was down significantly on all routes, with some areas doing a bit better than others. A lack of ideal survey conditions played a small role, but it is clear that pheasant production is down in this corner of Montana.”
Still, for an upland hunter willing to walk, there will be birds where habitat is good.
“Parts of Sheridan, Roosevelt, Richland, and Daniels counties form the core pheasant range in this portion of the state,” Plourde said. “There is good access to pheasant habitats in each of those counties available through Montana's Block Management Program and Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program.”
There is no shortage of places to hunt in Montana, and that’s always a plus.
“Access guides and other information are available on our website at fwp.mt.gov/hunting/hunterAccess or by calling the FWP office in the region you are planning on visiting,” he said.
“Due to the drought and habitat reductions due to CRP loss, hunters will have to be much more mobile and adaptable to find pheasants in this corner of Montana this year,” Plourde said. “Spots that have produced birds in the past may not this year, and moving around to find areas that are holding birds is a must. There are birds out there for those willing to look, but hunters should expect to cover more ground than in previous years with better conditions.”
One caution to hunters. “Even in early pheasant season there may still be fire danger concerns or restrictions,” Plourde said. “Hunters should check our website for more information about various restrictions and fire safe hunting practices.”
Region 7 (Southeast)
“The 2017 season was shaping up to be a great upland game bird year until the switch flipped in early June and shut off normal precipitation across most of the region,” said Justin Hughes, Upland Gamebird Habitat Specialist with FWP in Region 7.
The flies in the ointment after a relatively mild winter? Said Hughes: “A dry late spring and a drought-ridden summer have reduced the amounts of vegetation growth for pheasant cover, and impacted the insect and forb production that young chicks of all game bird species rely on for growth and survival.”
“During the first months of a chick’s life, a majority of their diet consists mainly of bugs, followed by various succulent forbs found on native range and ag lands,” Hughes said. “Drought hits both those resources hard.”
“No formal summer survey was done in Region 7,” Hughes said. “Field observations show that there is recruitment of chicks. However, it appears that the success of broods is localized and dependent on the local environmental conditions and resources that were available to chicks over the summer.”
“I believe that folks can still have success pheasant hunting in Region 7 if they put in the effort and time to locate suitable habitat that will hold birds,” he said.
“Pheasant hunting in Region 7 can take place in many different settings,” explained Hughes, “from dryland agricultural fields, to irrigated agricultural fields, to river bottoms, to CRP fields and to native grasslands.”
“Pheasants are found across the entire region,” he said, “with the higher densities of birds typically being found in the northeastern and eastern sides of the region.”
Hughes relays four important concepts for a successful pheasant hunt in Montana’s Region 7:
• “Hunters need to be aware of the drought that has encompassed the region. While in the field, carry some basic hand tools such as shovels, rakes and small backpack/weed sprayers to extinguish fire if one were to start.”
• “Do not park in tall vegetation. Your hot vehicle could start a grass fire.”
• ”Region 7 is extremely arid; be prepared with plenty of water not only for yourself, but also your dog.”
• “Check the Montana FWP website frequently to stay up to date on closures of block management areas due to the severe drought and fire dangers.”
Region 4 (North-central)
Montana Region 4 is traditionally a solid bet for Montana pheasants, and this year should be no different. It’s a brighter spot in the Big Sky pheasant picture.
“This region typically accounts for up to a third of the state’s total pheasant harvest,” said Jake Doggett, Upland Game Bird Habitat Specialist with FWP in Region 4. “For instance, in 2015, the last year for which data is available, 40,000 of the state’s 132,000-rooster harvest came out of Region 4.”
“It doesn’t seem like the drought conditions experienced farther east were as severe here to the west, in north-central Montana,” said Doggett. “There was not a big weather effect on the pheasant hatch and brood counts. Chick survival seemed strong. We had isolated events and storms, as with any summer, but overall, pheasant production was good.”
“The dry weather did hit here somewhat, but not until later in the summer,” he said. “So there were fewer impacts on our birds. It should be a normal year for pheasant hunting in Region 4.”
That means a hunter coming to the area for sharptails and Huns should add a day or two in the region’s pheasant country.
“Anecdotal evidence is good on young broods of all game birds,” Doggett said. “For pheasants, people are seeing birds.”
“That said, the recent dry conditions here have made for fire danger, so hunters should be aware of that and call ahead to find out what’s going on,” Doggett advised. “Some lands are closed to access now, but may open up again with moisture.”
To find birds, “I often suggest that hunters start their search for pheasants in the Conrad – Choteau – Fairfield area, the western portion of the Golden Triangle,” Doggett said. “The best areas for pheasant hunting are going to be districts with some agriculture on the landscape. Farmland is key, and that will often lead you to irrigation districts.”
Lewistown is a famous Region 4 pheasant hunting area, but you’ll have plenty of company.
“Creek bottoms and major river corridors offer important pheasant habitat in this part of the state,” Doggett said, especially when associated with small grain and hay land.
“We have good block management plan acreage in Region 4,” Doggett said. “But the parcels are spread out. You’ll have to do some driving between properties."