Opening morning last year dawned into a beautiful sunrise and as my group of hunters and dogs spread out in the tall prairie grass, shotguns began popping away in some distant fields, flooding me with some very fond memories. Pheasant season in the Thumb had finally arrived, and it is a very special timeframe for me.
I can remember October 20th as being a date when all the local schools in the Thumb closed, because the vast majority of residents as well as countless visiting hunters would be out for the pheasant hunting opener that started at 10 am in those days (to allow local farmers to have their milking chores done and be able to join in, and most of our neighbors had cows back then). Our farmyard would resemble a carnival atmosphere with all the parked cars and visiting hunters, and also with a multitude of barking birddogs of every description. It was a bit of a thrilling bedlam I grew to love right away. (In those days, pheasant hunters outnumbered deer hunters).
Hunter orange wasn’t required back then and most visiting hunters were wearing tough, brown duck canvas clothing. The farmers of course were clad in whatever chore clothes they were wearing that morning. I can remember my mother making sure I was wearing a bright red-hooded sweatshirt that was two sizes too big over my blue denim work clothes. Of course she wore her own red-hooded sweatshirt, because she wouldn’t miss opening day with her full-choked single-shot Iver Johnson 20ga in hand, and my father generally used a single-shot 12ga.
Quite a few of the visiting pheasant hunters were autoworkers from the Detroit area, and they had a distinct southern accent. They had migrated from the southern states shortly after Word War II to find work in the automobile industry blossoming in the Detroit area. Many were World War II veterans as well, and they were true gentlemen that were very knowledgeable of shotguns and hunting dogs and a real delight for a young kid to share the field with. A lot of the techniques that I employ today for hunting pheasants, such as working flushing dogs with pointing dogs, I learned from them.
The shotgun shell hulls back then were constructed of waxed paper, and didn’t have plastic shot-cups, just wads. That is why tighter chokes in shotguns tended to be more popular for giving a little more reach when required for fast flushing wild roosters. The paper shells were pretty dependable, but tended to swell and jamb in actions if they ever became damp (been there, done that).
October 20th wasn’t always the pheasant opener in Michigan. It was originally October 15th, until 1952, when it officially became the 20th, to allow resident farmers a little more time to complete the fall harvest, and thus be able to participate on opening morning. Actually, in its heyday, the pheasant hunting found in Michigan’s Thumb area was ranked as the best hunting in the country and even better than the Dakotas further west. Of course the change in farming techniques and larger equipment which began in the 1960’s that required more land and dissolved brushy fencerows and farm lanes, and cleaned up ditch banks, all of which removed a lot of pheasant habitat. Herbicides made for cleaner cornfields as well, with everything (including some severe winters occurring right at the same timeframe as the loss of habitat) drastically changing the pheasant hunting atmosphere almost overnight. I can readily remember when the Thumb schools decided not to close for the opening day of pheasant season (which forced me to play hooky and go pheasant hunting anyway). And the visiting hunters became fewer, and fewer, until they stopped coming altogether.
Actually, I never gave up on pheasant hunting in the Thumb. There were years that I literally worked hard for each and every rooster (I can remember estimating that it required a couple miles of hiking and working likely spots, which were a ways apart, to bag each rooster). I began calling pheasants “political birds” because whenever I saw a government program that allowed farmland to become idle, if only for a year or two, I immediately saw pheasant numbers blossom.
I can remember hitting one likely spot (entailing 40 acres of tall sweet clover) for an afternoon hunt and my Brittany went on point right away. Two roosters flushed and I downed both, ending my hunt right then and there, and perplexing my dog to no end as he was just getting warmed up and we were calling it quits already. I returned home with a sulking dog and carrying my limit of rooster pheasants many folks assumed were as extinct as dinosaurs. I must admit that I rarely, if ever, saw another pheasant hunter in those days.
It was during the 1980’s when a wonderful program called “CRP” came into being, and a large quantity of croplands in the Thumb were set aside and planted to grass. Suddenly pheasant numbers started to noticeably blossom. Some folks naturally assumed this was a result of the DNR planting pen-reared “black-necked” pheasants from China. Although planting these birds certainly didn’t hurt, it was the resident wild birds responding to the blessing of new and preferred habitat that were making the main showing. But then Michigan’s wild pheasant is like that. Offer what it requires in nesting and roosting cover, (for protection not only from predators, but the ravages of weather as well) and throw in some winter food sources, and the wild pheasants will readily respond.
What also occurred in the 1980’s was a conservation group called “Pheasants Forever” (PF), that has worked diligently with private landowners towards creating constructive pheasant habitat. This group has proven to be one of the best friends the wild Michigan pheasant has ever had, along with the government programs of CRP and CREP.
In 2011, the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative was created to assist neighboring landowners in forming cooperatives to develop and enhance pheasant habitat on a wider basis (For more information go to www.michigan.gov/pheasant).
The recent spring and summer provided an excellent nesting and rearing atmosphere for wild hens and I noticed a good first hatch, which is critical as to whether you will have a good fall pheasant hunt (80 to 90 percent of the roosters harvested in a given year, are young birds hatched that summer). In my opinion, weather plays a very critical role in wild pheasant numbers, despite good habitat. Having a good pheasant hunting season or not can be like a roll of dice, depending upon the weather, especially during the key timeframe when wild hens are trying to hatch and rear their broods.
Hunting surplus roosters has never been an equation in annual pheasant reproduction, and hunting local pheasants is not only a time-steeped tradition for me, but is an actual part of my being.
I knew our opening morning hunt last year would be brief at best, with standing corn and soybeans bordering the cover. Today’s wild Thumb roosters head for such safe havens the minute shotguns start booming away, and they rarely cackle when they flush as well. It is a different bird than I hunted as a kid and I firmly believe hunting has genetically engineered Thumb roosters into a fast running and highly elusive game bird that is a pure delight and challenge to hunt. You definitely earn each and every rooster in the bag.
We had a fine morning that day by flushing 33 hens, 14 roosters, and a whole bunch of young pheasants we couldn’t sex on the wing (one flock was so young they resembled quail taking off due their small size). There is no doubt in my mind a majority of roosters in the prairie grass beat-feet to the corn and beans without ever taking wing, as this is their nature these days.
For me at least, pheasant hunting in Michigan’s Thumb has always been alive and well and I’m looking forward to Tuesday morning, October 20.
by Tom Lounsbury.