For the last several years, I have associated pheasant hunting with snow. For one thing, a buddy and I have been going to South Dakota every year in December (not this year; the reports from South Dakota were abysmal) for about a decade now, and about half the time there’s been snow cover.
But December has become my preferred pheasant hunting season here, too. For one thing, most of the corn is down, so you don’t have to worry about the bird disappearing into the standing corn where you can’t get at them. And, truth is, after firearms deer season is finished, it’s a lot easier to get landowner permission than it is in October and November, when bow hunting is at its peak.
So when I met up with Brian Gross in mid-December for a morning of chasing the long-tails around, I was optimistic. There was about four inches of fresh, fluffy snow on the ground — enough that the birds might hunker down in it instead of putting on their track shoes and staying 50 yards ahead of us all the time.
We met up to hunt a couple of parcels of Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) land in Saginaw County. CREP is a refinement of the Conservation Reserves Program (CRP), a federal farm program that pays farmers to idle land and the Saginaw Bay Watershed is one of the high-priority areas for CREP in Michigan. CREP is designed to set aside land along waterways — ditches, drains, rivers, etc. — to help prevent erosion. CREP pays landowners to idle filter strips. The filter strips are narrow, but can be productive for pheasants, as I have learned over many years of pheasant hunting Out West that pheasants are often found along waterways.
The two parcels we had to hunt were filter strips along the ditches and drains around the field perimeter. Both were U-shaped parcels as there were along waterways around three borders of the fields. They were perfect for a couple of guys and a couple of dogs.
It didn’t take long before the dogs hit scent and in no time, Rub, my English setter, was frozen on point. I stepped forward and flushed a hen. Forty yards or so later, Rub locked up again and I flushed another hen. We made the turn and Belle, Gross’s veteran Brittany, froze. Rub honored her point. Gross stepped up and flushed a hen. Rub broke after the flush, but Belle moved up a just a few yards and pointed again. It was another hen.
An hour into it and we’d had four solid, productive points, but nothing to shoot at.
We went over to the second parcel with Gross switching out Belle for Ruby, his young (it was her second season) Brittany. The dogs went on point. A hen. As we moved along the dogs got birdy, moved up, pointed , moved up and three birds got up about 40 yards in front of us — two hens and a rooster. Gross dispatched a round at the fast-fleeing bird and it immediately started climbing straight up — a sure sign of a hit bird — and then tumbled down. Rub raced over there and pointed — he still isn’t quite sure when to point and when to retrieve — until the bird tried to escape and he was on it. Success.
“I figured it might be the only chance we had,” Gross said, commenting one his excellent shotgunning. “So I took the shot.”
We finished out our hunt with two more solid, productive points. Both hens. Sigh. (Ever wonder what the dog is thinking when a bird goes up right in front of its nose and you don’t shoot?)
For Gross it was a successful end to a better-than-anticipated season.
“It was better a season than I’ve had in the last two or three years,” Gross said. “I’ve seen a better hatch -- more birds -- than I’ve seen the last two years. It wasn’t necessarily a great season, but it was a good season.”
For Gross late-season pheasant hunting is either a chance at redemption or a training opportunity.
“If I have a decent early season I don’t hunt the late season unless I have a young dog,” he said. “Last year I hunted the late season quite a bit because I had a young dog and I didn’t have a good early season. But I did have a good late season.”
How good? Good enough that Gross has a deposit down on a puppy.
“I’m optimistic about the future because this season was good,” Gross said. “I’m concerned about the ice — you know that can’t be good — but if we have another good hatch next year, we could get back to where we were.”
Where we were, in recent years, is still nowhere close to where pheasant hunting was a decade or more ago. With commodity prices soaring since around 2005, a lot of set-aside land has gone back into production. But now that ethanol subsidies have evaporated, the price of corn has fallen to about half of peak. With Congress finally getting around to moving on the farm bill, there’s a chance that landowners will once again embrace CRP and CREP. There may be land going back into set asides.
Couple that with the Department of Natural Resources’ Pheasant Restoration Initiative, there’s reason to believe that there is a future for pheasant hunting in Michigan.
I saw a lot of hens this year. That keeps me hopeful. There’s always next year.