Illinois Outdoors

Interest in upland hunting low

September 16, 2007 at 06:00 AM

Veteran upland hunters still recall the late 1970s with horror. Back-to-back harsh winters in 1977 and 1978 took a terrible toll on quail and pheasants, leaving birds dying in the snow.

Given that backdrop, last winter’s extended grip of ice and snow left many uplanders worrying. In parts of the state, quail appeared to suffer fairly significant setbacks. But rabbits and pheasants came through relatively unscathed.

But harvest and participation levels for all three hit all-time lows in 2006-07 and show little sign of improving soon. Here’s a look at prospects for this fall.

Rabbits

Once upon a time, rabbit hunting was a pursuit for the masses. As recently as 1990, more than 160,000 hunters toted home 1.2 million bunnies.

These days cottontails are much safer. Despite modest population gains the past few years, harvest and hunter participation rates have steadily dwindled.

Last season’s harvest of 267,000 rabbits is an all-time low as is the hunter total of 49,350.

That’s despite road-kill indexes showing rabbit numbers are on the rise statewide.

“It’s kind of like squirrel hunting. It’s a sport that has dropped out of popularity,” Illinois upland game biologist John Cole said.

Also, while there may be more cottontails, there are fewer places to chase them because of dramatic increases in the amount of land leased by deer hunters.

With that in mind, the state is giving serious thought to extending rabbit hunting season until Jan. 31.

“Because of the decline of hunting pressure we’re probably OK to do something like that,” Cole said.

Pheasants

While pheasant numbers have remained steady for the past seven years, harvest and participation levels dipped again last year. Illinois saw a record-low harvest of 118,763 roosters in 2006-07 and just 38,000 hunters.

Given that, it’s hard to believe that in 1973 a total of 230,000 hunters shot more than 1 million roosters in Illinois.

Harder still for some to believe is that there’s still excellent hunting in this state. But that’s true. In those limited areas blessed with good habitat, birds are flourishing.

Cole sites an example of a Livingston County landowner who last year shot 35 roosters on a 160-acre farm with 26 acres of field borders and filter strips.

That lucky landowner will probably enjoy similar success this fall since spring call counts remained virtually unchanged statewide (down 4 percent in northern Illinois and up 3 percent in central Illinois).

If you can can find farms with decent stands of grass in central or northern Illinois, you should be able to find pheasants.

That includes farms with grassy field borders. Cole said a fair number of acres have been enrolled in the CP-33 program in Vermilion, Champaign, McLean, Livingston and LaSalle counties.

Quail

Bobwhites were hit hardest last winter. In west-central Illinois and far southern Illinois, spring counts of singing males declined by 22 percent.

That’s significant enough that Cole thinks harvest will likely be down in those areas traditionally among the state’s best.

That could pave the way for yet another poor harvest to follow on the heels of last year’s all-time low of 198,000 quail. Hunter numbers dipped to 24,918, also a record low even though average daily bag was up from the previous year.

“It looks like we’re going to run out of hunters before we run out of quail,” Cole said, noting that 84,989 hunters chased quail as recently as 1990.

Those quail hunters still in the chase may want to consider a trip to the following counties: Clay, Effingham, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lawrence, Richland and Wayne. Cole said quail call counts were up substantially in that part of the state.

Why? Possibly because those counties have a higher percentage of acres enrolled in the federal CP-33 program. Since 2005, Illinois landowners have planted 27,500 acres in the field-border program, designed mainly to benefit quail.