GRAND FORKS — Ask RJ Gross about North Dakota’s pheasant prospects, and the upland game biologist for the state Game and Fish Department will say there’s plenty of reason for optimism.

North Dakota’s pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 12.

“It should be pretty good, especially if the grouse and partridge hunting so far is any indication,” Gross said. “People have been saying they’ve been finding really good numbers, and I’ve seen quite a few grouse out there for sure. A lot of young ones, too.”

North Dakota hunters last year bagged about 327,000 roosters, according to Game and Fish Department statistics, an increase of nearly 18,000 birds from 2017 but well below numbers from 2014 through 2016, when hunters took more than 500,000 pheasants, including 590,000 in 2015.

There’s potential for hunters to shoot more birds than last year, Gross says, but widespread wet conditions that have delayed harvest and left farmers with standing crops could be the wild card.

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“If it stops raining every other day and people can get their crops off, we should have a better harvest than last year; we should be at 400,000 birds again,” he said. “But I don’t know if farmers are going to get crops off. There’s a lot of wheat, there’s canola, and beans aren’t even close.

“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of birds that are in corn, sunflowers or beans that people just can’t get to. That’s going to be the limiting factor, and I think people might be upset that they can’t find the birds because they’re all in the corn and the sunflowers.”

As with any outdoor activity, hunters will have to play the cards they’re dealt and hope for the best.

“People prayed for rain two years ago,” Gross said. “Well, we’ve got it now.”

Summer counts increase

Results from annual Game and Fish summer roadside surveys also offer reason for optimism. Total pheasants observed per 100 miles were up 10% from last year, and broods per 100 miles were up 17% while average brood size was down 5%.

The numbers are based on 275 survey runs made along 101 brood routes across the state.

“We had basically ideal conditions for spring,” Gross said. “This is really the first year we had residual cover” for nesting since 2016.

Among the bright spots is southeast North Dakota, where summer roadside surveys tallied six broods and 51 birds per 100 miles. Total pheasant numbers were up 32%, and brood numbers increased 27%, with an average brood size of six chicks.

Land still enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and a focus on private land in the department’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program have helped drive the increase in the southeast, Gross said.

“That’s the most they’ve had in quite awhile,” he said. “I’m pleasantly surprised. I’m not completely blown away, but it makes sense that pheasants are coming back there very well.”

Pheasant counts also took a healthy jump in northwest North Dakota, where bird numbers were up 49% from last year and brood counts rose 75%. Observers counted five broods and 39 pheasants per 100 miles, and the average brood size was six.

“The northwest and southeast had their second year of good production, with brood sizes of six and above, so people in those areas are going to be pretty surprised, I think, with the amount of young roosters that will be out in the field this year,” Gross said.

Southwest counts lag

Numbers continue to lag in southwest North Dakota, which traditionally offers some of the state’s prime pheasant hunting. According to Game and Fish, the roadside survey showed a 7% decline in total pheasants but a 2% increase in brood counts. Observers counted six broods and 41 pheasants per 100 miles, and the average brood size was five chicks.

Drought in 2017 and a series of severe weather events in 2018 that hampered production continue to pressure pheasant numbers in the southwest, Gross said.

Still, it’s not all gloom and doom, he says; there were areas in the southwest where observers counted good numbers of birds during the summer roadside survey.

They just weren’t enough to offset the areas where pheasant counts lagged.

“They did have spots where (observers) saw a lot of broods and bigger broods,” he said. “I don’t want to say the numbers are misleading, but when you have a lot of routes where people don’t see a bird, that really brings down your average.

“Some of that could be because the cover was so lush and green, but most of that, I’m attributing to they had basically two years where they didn’t have production” to replace older birds.

Season reminders

With the widespread wet conditions, hunters will need to stay off prairie trails and section lines that appear wet and muddy, said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck.

Normally, the department puts out a news release about dry conditions and wildfire danger leading up to pheasant season; this year is just the opposite.

“People need to pay attention to those conditions and not travel down certain two-track trails or section lines that are just one big muddy mess, which we know usually doesn’t end well as far as sportsmen-landowner relationships,” Williams said.

As in previous years, nonresidents can’t hunt Game and Fish PLOTS lands or wildlife management areas from opening day through Friday, Oct. 18.

Meanwhile, excitement continues to build for one of North Dakota’s most anticipated hunting seasons. The potential for a good hunt certainly is there, Gross says.

“I think people should be fairly happy with the results,” he said.

N.D. pheasant season

  • Youth season: Saturday, Oct. 5-Sunday, Oct. 6.

  • Regular season: Saturday, Oct. 12-Sunday, Jan. 15.

  • Bag limit: 3 daily, 12 in possession.

  • Shooting hours: Half hour before sunrise to sunset.

  • Of note: Nonresidents are not allowed to hunt Game and Fish wildlife management areas or conservation PLOTS areas from Oct. 12 through Oct. 18.

  • More info: gf.nd.gov.

N.D. pheasant harvest since 2014

  • 2014: 587,000.

  • 2015: 590,000.

  • 2016: 501,100.

  • 2017: 309,400.

  • 2018: 327,000.

  • Record: 2.45 million in 1944 and 1945.

N.D. pheasant hunters since 2014

  • 2014: 84,584.

  • 2015: 85,500.

  • 2016: 76,600.

  • 2017: 58,300.

  • 2018: 58,200.

— N.D. Game and Fish Department