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Hunting for the elusive rooster is getting tougher as the years go by

| December 18, 2020 1:00 AM

By John Kruse

Washington Outdoors Report

“How the mighty have fallen.” That might be a good epitaph to pheasant hunting in Washington state. In theory, you can still bag a limit of three rooster pheasants in Eastern Washington between mid-October and mid-January, but unless you are hunting at a private ranch where the birds are released just for your party, you’ll be hard pressed to do so in 2020.

Pheasant hunting in Washington hasn’t always been this way. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the duck and pheasant opener occurred on the same day, and hotels and campgrounds across Eastern Washington were full of hunters going after both species. Pheasant populations were abundant, and in 1985, 600,000 roosters were harvested in the Evergreen State. Fast forward to 2019, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s harvest data shows an almost 90% drop, with only 64,362 pheasants harvested. Worse, many of these are birds the state released at state wildlife areas specifically for hunters to target.

What has caused this change? A combination of habitat loss and changing agricultural practices. Development has certainly cut into the areas pheasants once roamed in our state but modern farming has really put a damper on wild pheasant populations. Back in the 1970s, farmers might only cut an alfalfa field once, whereas now it is cut several times over the spring, summer and fall, which impacts pheasant chick survivability. Likewise, certain crops like sugar beets, favored by pheasants for the cover provided in the fields where they grow, are no longer being planted due to a lack of demand. Finally, farmers are making the most of their acreage. In the old days there were areas along ditches and fence rows and the corners of property that retained cover for birds to hide in after the main fields were harvested. Today, farmers are able to use more of the ground they possess to grow crops and these corner, ditch and fence cover areas have disappeared.

You’ll find wild pheasant populations are a shadow of what they used to be. That’s why only some 15,500 hunters went after these big, colorful birds last year compared to 109,000 hunters in 1979. As to where you should go for a wild rooster, Sara Garrison and Ciera Strickland with WDFW say the majority of pheasant harvest occurs in the Snake River Basin (Asotin, Garfield, Columbia, Walla Walla and Whitman counties) and the Columbia River Basin (Adams, Douglas, Franklin, Grant and Lincoln counties). Combined, these two areas made up 77% of Eastern Washington pheasant harvest in 2019.

What about pen-raised roosters? Since 1997, WDFW has used dedicated funds from small-game licenses to release pheasants throughout the state. Unfortunately, these releases have declined in Eastern Washington from a high of nearly 25,000 in 2007 to 9,600 in 2020. Chris White, the Pheasant Release Specialist for WDFW, says these birds were released at 28 publicly accessible areas in Eastern Washington this year. Although release dates vary, birds are generally put out before the youth and general season openers and no more than six days prior to Thanksgiving.

Looking at the feedback I received from readers about a lack of pheasant at state wildlife areas around Thanksgiving, that could be a result of the number of birds released. For example, only 80 to 90 roosters were released at the Swakane Wildlife Area in the week prior to Thanksgiving. If you make the assumption that coyotes, hawks and other predators killed half of them prior to the holiday, that leaves only 45 or so left for dozens of hunters pursuing these pheasants over the course of a week. This explains why the number of birds harvested by individual hunters was so low.

The bottom line? If you really want a shot at a limit, your best bet this year is one of the private pheasant hunting ranches in Central and Eastern Washington. They include the Miller Ranch near Sprague, the Cooke Canyon Hunt Club near Ellensburg, Limits Game Farm by Mesa and the Double Barrel Ranch south of Spokane Valley.