It’s not the good ol’ days by any means, but old-timers have verified that Washington pheasant hunters will reap the rewards of a good hatch when the 2018 general season opens Oct. 20.
Participants in the so-called Geezer Hunt – the Sept. 24-28 pheasant season for hunters age 65 and older – are the first widespread field observers, state biologists say. Their reports from the southeastern portion of the state have been encouraging, said Brian Gaston, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife habitat biologist.
“Overall, we’ve been seeing a lot of (upland) birds flying around,” he said. “The 65-and-older hunters have been stopping in and saying they were pleased with the numbers of birds they saw and harvested.”
While tramping several farms in Spokane and Whitman counties during the Geezer Hunt, I found areas with that good habitat sometimes – not always – had big numbers of pheasants.
Although quail and partridge were not open for hunting at that time, the coveys we flushed tended to be large. Quail and partridge seasons opened Saturday in Eastern Washington.
“I’ve never seen so many pheasants in this one spot,” said Jack Worden of Spokane after running his English setter through a Whitman County farm he’s had permission to hunt for years. Many of the September season flushes included young roosters that weren’t fully feathered out, indicating a good spring hatch.
All of the roosters that got away from the Geezers will be colorful adults – and they’ll be a little bit more educated – when the general season opens.
Geezer observations jibe with the prospects report by WDFW biologists Mike Atamian and Carrie Lowe. Despite a tough winter on upland birds, they said the spring rains were generally well-timed for minimal mortality on hatchlings.
Harvest trends throughout Lincoln, Spokane and Whitman counties show an overall decline in pheasant numbers over the past four years, although there have been some signs of stabilization, the biologists report.
“The majority of pheasant hunting occurs in Whitman County, which has about three times the harvest and about two times more hunters than Lincoln or Spokane counties,” they said.
Like other areas of the state and the West, most biologists agree that declines of upland birds in agricultural areas can generally be associated with the spread of clean farming practices and larger implements that increase crop coverage and production at the expense of year-round cover and other wildlife needs.
Croplands idled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program and planted with permanent cover can be good destinations for hunters seeking pheasants, especially when they’re adjacent to water and harvested grain fields.
“CRP has helped bring back bird numbers in some areas,” Gaston said. “It gives the birds a safe place to go as they’re bounced from one property to another by hunters and other disturbance, or as they avoid predators when moving from food sources.”
A requirement that CRP lands be maintained halfway through their 15-year enrollment can temporarily affect their suitability for hunting. Sportsmen might find some of their choice CRP hunting spots mowed or otherwise manipulated to rejuvenate the habitat quality for coming years.
Washington has 241,000 acres enrolled in CRP this season, about one-third of the acreage enrolled in pheasant-rich South Dakota.
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