There’s a reason pheasants are the most sought after and coveted upland gamebird in the United States. They are gaudy and their raucous flush out of heavy cover is startling no matter how many times it has happened to you before.
Today marks the opening of Utah’s pheasant season. Idaho’s season has been open for a couple weeks. Neither Utah nor Idaho are the best states to hunt pheasant, as this distinction falls to South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa or Nebraska.
If you’re in the right place at the right time, however, the Great Basin and Snake River Plain can still provide great hunts. The difficultly in our region is being able to find high densities of birds from one patch of habitat to the next.
Pheasants took hold in the U.S. over a century ago and are strongly aligned with farm fields, especially corn. The conversion of sagebrush to farms displaced sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse but provided habitat for these colorful imports. Pheasants are now losing ground in the West to housing developments. Pen raised and released birds have picked up some of the slack caused by the loss of habitat. Utah will stock around 12,000 pheasant this year.
Pursuing these birds cost nothing more than having a license and enduring a field filled with other hunters. Idaho also has a pheasant stocking program that will release 37,000 pheasants across 23 areas. To harvest these birds, you have to pay $28.75 as a resident and $56.75 as a non-resident for a permit that allows you to kill six birds (two per day). While pen raised birds are not the same challenge as wild birds, they’re great targets for hunters for the month of November.
To understand how changes in agriculture have affected pheasant populations, all you have to do is track the harvest of ringnecks in Utah. In the 1950s and 1960s, the annual harvest averaged around 250,000 birds. Given how little agricultural land there is in Utah, these harvest rates per acre of plowed land were on par with the best hunting in the Midwest.
During the early 1980s, hunters still harvested 200,000 birds a year.
Then came the rapid decline, which bottomed out around 2010 when only 35,000 birds were shot. Pheasant harvest has climbed back to around 50,000 a year but much of this gain has been due to the harvest of stocked birds.
Successful pheasant hunters almost always use dogs. It can be a pointer, flusher, or even a mutt that simply likes to chase scent. A dog that covers lots of ground while remaining under control will greatly increase the number of shots a hunter gets. Keeping a young dog from flushing birds can be difficult after it gets a whiff of a running ringneck. Over time, experience and training will result not only in more opportunities to harvest birds but greater enjoyment as working with a dog will become an important part of the outing.
There are few situations in the West where using a group of hunters to drive pheasants will be successful in pursuing wild birds. In most locations, the best strategy will be for you and your dog to quietly and quickly hunt heavy cover.
As most pheasant are on private lands, you will find more opportunities for success if you can get permission to hunt these areas. This is especially true if they have a creek bottom or other forms of heavier vegetative cover and the owner doesn’t allow many other hunters.
Both Utah and Idaho require permission to hunt planted fields but making a mistake in Idaho is more costly. If you wander onto private farmlands in Utah without permission you can get a ticket for trespassing. In Idaho you can get the same ticket and possibly lose the right to hunt for a year.
All serious upland gamebird hunters should someday plan a trip to hunt pheasants in a state such as Montana, South Dakota, or Nebraska. Each of these states have public lands or public access to private lands. A little online work can make planning a relatively cheap do-it-yourself trip simple, especially if you don’t mind camping. While you can make out-of-state trips to hunt birds on a preserve, there are plenty of those opportunities in Utah and Idaho.
A real pheasant hunting road trip consists of sleeping under the stars and traveling from one parcel of public land to the next in search of locations with hundreds of birds. While not every stop will be productive, there will always be a couple places where multiple cackling roosters will flush at your feet and be forever etched in your memory.