Illinois hunting and fishing

Upland opener still matters

October 30, 2008 at 05:31 PM

Driving home on a recent Sunday afternoon I was jolted out of a daze when a rooster pheasant darted across the road.

Once upon a time, I’m told, such a sighting would barely have registered. Time was, pheasants were everywhere and Saturday’s season opener would have dominated hunting conversations across central Illinois.

Hard to imagine.

That rooster is the lone pheasant I’ve seen in Illinois this spring and summer. And I spend a fair amount of time driving gravel scanning ditches for signs of life.

The rare sighting illustrates an ongoing shift in our huntable critters. Because during all that country driving I’ve seen hundreds of deer, wild turkeys and Canada geese.

In the not-so-distant past deer, turkeys and geese would have been cause for a pause. The Nov. 4, 1958 Journal Star featured a story about 30 deer killed in Marshall and Putnam counties during the second modern shotgun season.

Compare that to last year when firearm deer hunters in those same counties shot 1,490 whitetails. Reading that made me wonder if deer outnumber pheasants in Illinois.

“If there are 800,000 deer (in Illinois), I would say there are more deer than pheasants,” said John Cole, state upland biologist. “Remember, pheasants only are present in 45 to 50 of Illinois’ 102 counties.

“In the pheasant range, there is probably no more than 250,000 acres of grassland suitable for producing pheasants. So their habitat base is very limited.”

Complicating matters is last year’s tough winter, which led to 29 percent declines in pheasant brood counts. As a result, there’s a good chance the state’s estimated 35,961 rooster boosters will fall short of last year’s harvest of 102,822 roosters.

All that said, prime habitat still holds birds. And while this opener is not circled on the calendar for many Illinois hunters, upland season remains a big deal for me.

Pheasants, quail and rabbits are fair game starting Saturday. Dove season also reopens Saturday through Nov. 16. Bag limits are as follows: two cock pheasants, four rabbits, eight quail and 15 doves. Hunting hours are sunrise to sunset, though I’d gladly rise earlier.

Watching a dog run with single-minded purpose is one reason I favor fall over all other seasons. That and Thanksgiving, the lone holiday still unblemished by commercialism.

As if on cue, my little setter Hawk has been going bonkers. Cooler weather always makes him crazy, as if he knows what’s coming. Right now the dog is chunky. That will change. Within weeks he won’t be able to replace the calories burned sprinting along hedgerows and through grassy ditches.

One of my resolutions this fall is to shoot a limit of wild quail in one morning. That’s not Mission Impossible no matter how many people tell you, “There are no quail anymore.”

Yes, bobwhites are less numerous. But my little dog has sniffed out a covey in every brushy piece he has searched. That bodes well for this fall. Contrary to popular opinion, so does a late harvest.

Through last Sunday only 46 percent of corn fields were combined, meaning there will still be more standing crops than usual.

No question, that will hamper hunting this weekend. But there will also be more birds around later in the season — stretching out what promises to be another memorable fall in the field.