GRAND FORKS -- As an upland game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, RJ Gross knows a thing or two about numbers, whether it’s tallying springtime pheasant crowing counts or results from summer roadside surveys sampling pheasant broods, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge.
One number Gross is well familiar with this time of year is the amount of time he spends on the phone answering questions from hunters – and inquisitive reporters – wondering about pheasant hunting prospects.
North Dakota’s regular pheasant season opens Saturday, Oct. 10, and a two-day youth season opens Saturday, Oct. 3.
“That’s 90% of my job” before pheasant season, Gross said one morning earlier this week. “Even today, if I counted them, I’m sure I’ve gotten nine or 10 calls already.”
Cause for optimism
There’s plenty of cause for optimism as pheasant season approaches. As Game and Fish reported in mid-September, results from summer roadside surveys showed total pheasants observed per 100 miles are up 38% from last year and brood numbers per 100 miles are up 30%.
Driven by a relatively tame winter and favorable spring nesting conditions, the pheasant numbers are based on 275 survey routes Game and Fish Department personnel made along 100 brood routes across North Dakota.
Despite the increase, numbers lag below 10-year averages, and populations across most of North Dakota’s prime pheasant range are still below the “good old days” and years such as 2007, when hunters shot an estimated 907,434 roosters.
By comparison, hunters in North Dakota last year shot an estimated 256,800 pheasants, Game and Fish Department statistics show.
“People still remember the good old days before 2017,” a year when severe drought drastically hampered production across most of North Dakota’s pheasant range, Gross said. “Most places are halfway back, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”
The favorable winter and abundant residual cover this past spring provided a perfect combination for this year’s pheasant rally, Gross said.
“Three quarters of the state really didn’t have winter,” he said. “That’s great. Hens come through the winter in much better body condition, and that’s more energy they’re going to have to lay those larger egg clutches.”
Extreme wet conditions last fall also left hay standing in fields that normally would have been cut, Gross said, providing even more nesting cover.
“A lot of that stuff probably didn’t get hayed, so there were extra places for them to nest,” he said. “And we had good weather during nesting.”
Whether it’s the northwest, southwest or southeast parts of the state, all of North Dakota’s prime pheasant hunting areas offer fair to good potential this year, Gross said.
The northwest leads the pack with a roadside count of 12 broods and 91 pheasants per 100 miles and an average brood size of six, up from five broods and 39 pheasants per 100 miles in 2019.
The southeast produced five broods and 41 pheasants per 100 miles with an average brood size of five, down from six broods and 51 pheasants in 2019.
“They were down a little bit, but not as bad as it could have been,” Gross said.
The survey in southwestern North Dakota tallied eight broods and 70 pheasants per 100 miles with an average brood size of six, up from six broods and 41 pheasants in 2019.
The northeast district, generally containing secondary pheasant habitat with lower pheasant numbers than the rest of the state, showed three broods and 22 pheasants per 100 miles with an average brood size of four, compared with three broods and 15 pheasants last year.
“Hunters should find pheasants everywhere, but that northwest part of the state will have better pockets,” Gross said. “It’s still not going to be everywhere you go you’re going to find pheasants, but that northwest area, they’re three-fourths of the way back to what they were before the 2017 drought.”
The southeast part of the state traditionally is a popular spot for pheasant hunters in the Red River Valley because of its proximity. And despite declines from last year, the amount of prevented planting acreage on the landscape because of spring conditions that were too wet to plant could have resulted in birds being missed during the roadside survey, Gross said.
That’s only speculation, but it’s certainly possible, Gross said, based on what he saw while driving the southeast part of the state during the department’s fall wetland survey, conducted before waterfowl season.
“There was a lot of summer fallow, so maybe the pheasants didn't have to come to the road,” he said. “There could be more than the surveys counted. I know there were a few places right along the (South Dakota) state line and south of Ellendale that had quite a few broods.
“So I think it’s probably just a lot more localized down there this year.”
Based on the calls he’s receiving, Gross says he expects North Dakota will see more nonresident hunters this fall than in recent years.
The ongoing closure of the Canadian border to nonessential travel is driving the trend, he said, adding game wardens were seeing more out-of-state hunters than usual during the early Canada goose season.
“As far as upland hunting goes, a lot of people are coming here to hunt partridge because you can’t go to Canada,” Gross said. “And a lot of people I’ve talked to, they’re going to come here duck hunting because Canada’s closed and (they’re thinking), ‘As long as I’m here, I might as well go pheasant hunting.’
“Duck hunting’s probably going to be wild and crazy, I would imagine. There’s going to be a lot of people here.”
North Dakota’s regular pheasant season continues through Sunday, Jan. 3. Shooting hours are one-half hour before sunrise until sunset, and limits are 3 daily, 12 in possession.
N.D. pheasant harvest since 2015
Record: 2.45 million in 1944 and 1945.
N.D. pheasant hunters since 2015
2019: Nearly 50,000.
-- N.D. Game and Fish Department