By Ben Beaman, MI State Coordinator for Pheasants Forever
As the Michigan State Coordinator for Pheasants Forever, I spend a good deal of time around upland hunters here in the mitten state and chasing Michigan wild pheasants. And as you can imagine, the topic of conversation in those circles tends to center around bird hunting. Dogs, shotguns, habitat, the birds themselves — ours is a habit with many facets and an even more significant number of opinions among the addicted. Unsurprisingly, most die-hard upland hunters here spend much of their time chasing ruffed grouse. I devote a considerable chunk of my hunting time looking for grouse and their fly-by-night, temporary cohabitants — the woodcock — on state and national forests up North, especially in October.
But I am routinely surprised when MI upland hunters I’m talking with, particularly those in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, don’t spend any time chasing wild pheasants here in their home state. Their answer is usually either “no birds” or “nowhere to go” when I ask why. My answer to both is an unequivocal, “False.”
Concerning bird numbers, it’s no secret that the mitten is not the pheasant hunting destination it was in the mid-20th century when hunters here consistently harvested north of one million pheasants a year. The landscape changes we’ve experienced over the last 50 years came at the expense of widespread, robust pheasant populations. But “less” does not equal “none.” Wild pheasants remain, with strong, albeit isolated, populations where pockets of good habitat still exist on the landscape. Private agricultural lands enrolled in USDA farm bill programs like CRP are some of the best examples of how productive pheasants can be in MI when given the habitat they require to thrive.
I’m fortunate to have access to several such parcels, and on years with good nesting conditions, my flush rates on these properties rival those I experience on good private land in South Dakota. Now, I’m perfectly aware of how fortunate I am to be able to hunt these gems and that not every upland hunter is in that same position, which brings me to the next reason hunters give for not hunting wild pheasants in Michigan: access.
Despite my good fortune where access is concerned, I haven’t secured permission on nearly enough private land to satisfy my pheasant hunting problem. So, I do much of my wild pheasant hunting — far more than half — on public land. It’s tougher hunting; no one should be under any illusion when you are vying for pressured birds with more people. The pheasants on these properties receive plenty of hunting pressure, and they figure out very quickly how to avoid getting shot or even flushed, for that matter.
I work hard for my public land roosters, but I fully embrace it’s a worthwhile challenge. They’re out there, on the property we all have access to, and they CAN be outwitted if you’re willing to burn a bit of boot leather.
And for those of us at the southern end of the state, they’re closer to home than where we have to drive to find grouse reliably.
Pheasants Forever, the Michigan DNR and our many partners on the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative (MPRI) have been working hard to create and enhance pheasant habitat on public land throughout the central and southern reaches of the state for years. Pheasants Forever has raised over $1 million in the last five years through our MI Adopt-A-Game Area Program to restore and enhance over 2,000 acres of grasslands — all on public land open to hunting. The list of properties where this work takes place isn’t a big secret. The MI PF and MI DNR websites have tons of content about the MPRI and Adopt-A-Game Area Program to point folks in the right direction.
If you need more convincing, drive to one of these properties this spring, find a place near the tall grass to watch the sunrise, and listen for crowing roosters. Then head back this fall during the pheasant season with a shotgun and a dog, if you have one. That’s where I’ll be.