MITCHELL, S.D. -- Before the drought set in across South Dakota earlier this summer, the fall pheasant hunting season was shaping up to be “one for the record books.”

That’s how Matt Morlock, the state’s Pheasants Forever coordinator, characterized the way the 2021 pheasant hunting season was looking at the start of the summer. But then came the drought, which Morlock said will certainly impact the pheasant population come fall. However, recent bouts of rain have him optimistic that there will be plenty of roosters in the fields to make for an above-average season.

“We were set up to have a season for the record books. We came off a light winter with the hens in really good shape,” Morlock said. “But with the drought, we’re definitely going to see some impacts on chick survival. I’ve been talking to a lot of farmers I know around the state, and they’ve said they are still seeing a lot of chicks, so I’m still optimistic.”

Despite the potential effects of the drought, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks officials are anticipating a “fantastic” pheasant hunting season this year, mostly due to the mild winter the state experienced.

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The Game, Fish & Parks' 2021 Ringneck Outlook that was recently released reported South Dakotans have been “seeing birds in record numbers,” which would set the stage for a great season.

“Because of a mild winter, enhanced efforts on habitat management and intense predator control through the nest predator bounty program if the weather patterns hold, we should expect fantastic bird numbers for the 2021 pheasant season,” said Kevin Robling, GF&P secretary.

While GF&P officials are predicting a great season is in store for hunters, projecting rooster numbers isn’t as clear. For the past 70 years, the state’s pheasant brood survey provided an in-depth look at the estimated rooster population that hunters anxiously awaited to dissect. The brood survey shared scientific data and compared a pheasant-per-mile index for multiple regions throughout South Dakota and provided a statewide snapshot of the bird population.

But after the GF&P Commission decided last year to discontinue the survey, the upcoming 2021 pheasant hunting season will mark the first without the data of the expected rooster numbers. With the discontinuation of the brood survey report that was released around Labor Day each year prior to the start of the pheasant hunting season, the 2021 Ringneck Outlook will serve as a substitute for now.

Looking back at the 2020 pheasant hunting season, GF&P officials deemed it an “incredible” one for the state. According to the 2021 Ringneck Outlook, hunters harvested over 1.1 million birds in 2020. The ringneck outlook report predicts the upcoming pheasant hunting season, which spans from Oct. 16 to Jan. 31, is “shaping up to be even better” than last year’s season.

While the ringneck outlook didn’t include any pheasant-per-mile index data, it says early season reports on rooster numbers have been positive. However, peak pheasant hatching takes place in the middle of June, and the drought has affected the process, Morlock said.

“We probably will see some decreases in chick survival since we were in the heat of that drought in June when they were hatching. The impact of the drought creates a lack of bug production, and the chicks have to have bugs to survive,” Morlock said, noting insects are the primary food source for chicks.

However, Morlock said the recent shots of rain southeastern South Dakota received in the past few weeks will make a significant difference in chick survival rates, as the moisture will help the insect population thrive.

“We’ve got some more moisture now, so that will help survival a bit. What chicks we have on the ground will do well,” he said.

With a couple months of summer left, there is still more opportunity for moisture. Although Morlock said the dry conditions to start the summer will likely stifle what could have been “a season for the record books,” he’s confident it will be a great one come fall.

“I don’t think it will be what it could have been, but it will still be great,” Morlock said.

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