Pheasant hunting season begins Saturday, but the number of available birds on public hunting grounds has been reduced by the coronavirus pandemic. DNR statistics indicate upland game hunters harvested 291,400 pheasants last year, with 40,831 hunters participating.

Pheasant season opens Saturday across Wisconsin, with COVID-19 a major consideration in hunter success this year.

The disease forced spring birds surveys to gauge over-winter survival to be canceled. Fallout from the pandemic also curtailed pheasant raising efforts at the Poynette game farm, dropping pheasant release numbers from 70,000 ringnecks down to about 50,000 this year.

“Essentially we’re looking at 2013 numbers for pheasant release,” DNR wildlife biologist Jason Cotter said.

“Over-winter habitat conditions weren’t that severe, but indicators on how the wild bird population fared are limited due to COVID-19,” he said.

“This means the number of birds released on public hunting grounds statewide will be down about 800 birds per property between now and the final release before the traditional firearm deer season just before Thanksgiving.”

Cotter said juggling bird numbers between popular and lesser used PHGs will minimize impact on overall hunter success on the Poynette birds, which represent a substantial number of ringnecks harvested in Wisconsin’s “pheasant belt” of Dane, Green and Rock counties.

Corn harvest has a major impact on hunter success, especially for those chasing birds on private lands. Wisconsin corn harvest overall is at 12%, which is considerably better than the 2% level hunters had to contend with during last year’s opening weekend, but slightly below the 15% statewide average.

DNR statistics indicate upland game hunters harvested 291,400 pheasants last year, with 40,831 hunters participating. If heavy recreational boat traffic this past summer—due to impact on other sports because of coronavirus—is any indication of hunter participation this year, you certainly won’t be alone on the Evansville-Footville PHG tomorrow.

Due to a longstanding tradition of celebrating opening day, daily bag limit on roosters is one bird through opening weekend, with two birds allowed daily after that. The possession limit is three times the daily limit.

According to Cotter, both the PHGs and Poynette game farm birds are in “excellent shape” as hunters get ready for the opener, which kicks off at 9 a.m. Saturday.

For those who want to enjoy the outdoors but avoid crowds, social distancing by boat is a terrific option. Water temperatures across southern Wisconsin are generally hovering in the upper 50s ahead of fall turnover.

Other notes

  • Bass fishing is on fire on the Madison chain, which has also been producing muskies at or above 50 inches, in the “fish of a lifetime” range. With Canada still closed and northern lakes going through fall turnover, a No. 5 Mepps Giant Killer bucktail with purple hair is the perpetual favorite for hooking up with a substantial toother on the Mad-city lakes.
  • Smallmouth bass fishing here on the Rock River is overlooked, with those chasing smalljaws as tight-lipped as the bronzebacks they are chasing. The general response from the few folks cashing in on this bonanza is, “There is no good smallmouth bass fishing in Rock River to speak of.”
  • Southern Wisconsin woodlands are at peak fall color right now, just one stiff breeze away from the realization that bare limbs mean winter is right around the corner.
  • A substantial number of mourning doves has moved into the area over the past several days, providing a solid option for shotgunners who don’t want to fight weekend warriors in pursuit of multi-colored birds.
  • When the inevitable northwest wind begins to howl, it will be much easier for bowhunters to see deer sneaking through the woods. Peak rut is only about three weeks away, as is the presidential election.

Those who refuse to indulge in football this weekend have many outdoor options beyond raking leaves this time of year. Raking leaves is a lot like Christmas lights under the eaves: Let it be.

Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at