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Michigan's Pheasant Hunting Heritage - Past_ Present and Future

Tom Lounsbury

Mon, 31 Jul 2017 11:39:48 EDT


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   Michigan's Pheasant Hunting Heritage - Past, Present and Future
By Tom Lounsbury
Nobody I'm aware of can truly see accurately into the future. Certain facts and ongoing events can certainly lead to conjectures and conclusions of how something may turn out. Such is the case today with Michigan's distinct pheasant hunting heritage, which due to the dramatic crash of wild pheasant numbers that began in the 1960's, doesnít have the amount of dedicated pheasant hunters going afield it once had.
This year actually is the 100th anniversary of when pheasants were first released in southern Michigan (including the Thumb) by the Michigan Conservation Department in 1917. The pheasants being released were pen-reared birds of mixed blood (realistically known as "ring-necks") that owe their origins to eastern U.S. game farms who in turn had gotten their original eggs from game farms in England. Those first birds were released into an ideal environment quite unlike what we have today and they would readily adapt and propagate. The first official Michigan pheasant hunting season occurred in 1925 and it would be the beginning of a highly popular annual event. It became so popular that small game hunters far outnumbered big game hunters in the state. Michigan was also the top pheasant hunting state in the nation during its heyday (and the Thumb was a particular hotspot).
My late father was born in 1913 and grew up on a Thumb farm and would become a farmer on the same land himself. He could remember when the first pheasants were released and also how during the 8 years that the pheasants could not be hunted in order for them to become established, the flourishing number of birds became nuisances at times. This included eating seed that was freshly planted and busting limbs off fruit trees in the orchard due to too many pheasants roosting on them at night. My father would also take part in the first pheasant season and it would be his main hunting pastime until the wild pheasant population crash of the 1960's. He was of the generation who witnessed the heyday of Michigan pheasant hunting from the very beginning.
Being the fourth generation to own the family (centennial) farm, I grew up in the annual pheasant hunting atmosphere starting in 1952 (this was the first year it opened on the 20th as prior to that it opened on the 15th of October) at age 3 when I was my motherís "pooch" while she downed roosters with her single-shot Iver Johnson 20 ga (a shotgun I now own and still use). Needless to say pheasant hunting is deeply entrenched in my being and I feel blessed to have witnessed those days in the 1950's when schools were closed for the pheasant hunting opener and the local economy truly flourished due to the sudden arrival of a lot of avid pheasant hunters, many from an urban setting.
I can readily remember our farmyard looking like the parking lot of the county fair and the numerous hunting dogs yapping and excited to be in the field. A majority of hunters I met were factory workers from the big cities and this was an annual holiday they looked forward to each year. Many were World War II veterans who were from the South but had moved north to Michigan to find employment, and they knew all about hunting dogs and how to shoot. They were great gentlemen for a kid to share the field with and much of what I know about pheasant hunting techniques, dogs and guns, I learned from them.
I also can remember when wild pheasant numbers suddenly dropped, and with it so did the number of pheasant hunters coming to the Thumb annually (which didn't help the local economy any). I also remember when schools didnít close for the pheasant opener, much to my dismay and forcing me to play hooky. I never did ever give up on local pheasant hunting in the Thumb and October 20th remains a treasured day for me still. Despite six decades of avid pheasant hunting, I've never hunted wild pheasants any further than two miles from my family farm (I never took part in the "put and take" of the early 1970's either), nor have I ever gone pheasant hunting out of state.
Because the pheasants I hunted were only found in smaller pockets of habitat that allowed them to survive and propagate in limited (but huntable) numbers, I began to refer to them as "pocket birds". "Pocket roosters" are extremely challenging to hunt and they have evolved into a unique bird that is quite unlike the roosters I learned to hunt in my youth. The pocket roosters that I'm familiar with will run and zig-zag around with the speed of a roadrunner and flush and fly only as a last resort and rarely cackle when they do so. Since they rarely hold long for a pointing dog I use flushing dogs (typically beagles and Labrador retrievers) with my pointing dogs (typically Brittanies) and it is actually a particular technique I learned from those visiting (urban) hunters when I was a kid (it is very similar to a quail hunting technique used in southern states).
I saw pheasant numbers begin to blossom in the 1980's when CRP came into being and put croplands into grasslands, which is the pheasant's preferred and required habitat, and I've seen pheasant numbers dramatically drop when rising commodity prices puts grasslands back into crop production. Properly maintained grassland is the key element to promoting and propagating wild pheasants and it is why I have devoted the majority of my farm to this process. I also fully support Pheasants Forever (PF), as well as the presently ongoing Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative (MPRI) and both put a priority on proper habitat. However, with today's intense agricultural practices that include very effective herbicides and insecticides as well as fall plowing, the atmosphere of the heyday of pheasant hunting and its widespread environment I remember as a kid, is only a fond memory of the past, but I've always believed in maintaining the pheasant hunting heritage in any way feasibly possible.
Attitudes have also changed in regards to gaining hunting access to private lands. There was a time when a simple knock on the door and a polite approach would usually gain ready access, but that has become more and more difficult these days, although fortunately not impossible to still do (it never hurts to ask). Deer hunting is now at the top in regards to the number of participants and small game hunting is at the bottom as well as properties are being managed more with deer hunting in mind these days. It seems if the average hunter doesnít own the ground, lease it or belong to a club that owns or leases it, he or she has the only option of hunting public land. Fortunately Michigan is blessed (in my opinion) with plenty of public land, including here in the Thumb (some of which is managed for pheasants). I also feel personally blessed to have my own ground for my family and me to hunt, and I'm fully aware that a whole lot of folks don't have that advantage, many from an urban setting.
I must admit I was a bit skeptical when I first heard about the "Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative" (MPHI) over a year ago, which has been started as a grassroots effort by devoted pheasant hunter Ken Dalton of Lapeer. I did some research on the statements Dalton had made publicly and was enlightened by what I discovered, and found he was stating some facts I was not aware of. The eye opener for me was that South Dakota, the number one pheasant hunting state, releases over six hundred thousand pen-reared pheasants annually to bolster bird numbers. Certainly South Dakota has great pheasant habitat and a great number of wild birds, but it seems with so many visiting hunters from other states, which certainly helps the state's local economy, that demand might exceed what the wild can provide (however South Dakota officials state that wild birds still make up the greater number of birds annually harvested). I know a whole lot of Michigan folks who travel to South Dakota to annually pheasant hunt and spend money there while doing it. There is no question that South Dakota looks upon pheasant hunting as being economically important (to the tune of over 230 million dollars annually).
I recently sat down with Ken Dalton and devoted MPHI supporter Dan McPhail and discussed what the goals were and how funding would be obtained and used.
According to Dalton 19 states release pen-reared birds for pheasant hunting on an annual basis. Wisconsin for instance has a $10 Pheasant Stamp which is required to hunt pheasants there and the funding created is used for hatching and rearing the birds (over 100,000 annually), and Pennsylvania has a $25 Pheasant Stamp and releases over 200,000 pheasants annually. In Michiganís case MPHI would like to see a $25 Pheasant Stamp to cover costs. Quality pheasants (with natural vim and vigor) would then be purchased from reputable Michigan game bird producers and released on public lands open to hunting with the cooperation and guidance of the MDNR. The goal is "bringing Michigan pheasant hunters back to the fields" and boosting local economies during the process.
Dalton points out that stocking fish in Michigan waters (such as lake trout and walleyes for example) have brought certain species back to the delight of anglers (and local economies) and the same effort could apply to pheasants as well. Needless to say I couldn't argue his point. MUCC also recently passed a resolution to support the Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative and plans on bringing it before the NRC this fall. According to Ken Dalton the rooster pheasant is the king of small game and bringing back an interest in Michigan pheasant hunting will give a great boost to small game hunting in general. He and I both agreed that small game hunting is a great way to get kids interested into hunting and getting kids interested is very integral to the future of hunting.
I can relate to the fact pheasant hunting drew me right in to doing hunting of all sorts from then on. And to the very end, I'll be a devoted Michigan pheasant hunter (in the Thumb of course).
For more information about the Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative go to or call Ken Dalton (he goes by "Mr. Pheasident") at 810-358-9372.

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   Which Opening day (October 20) wild Thumb rooster has the longest tailfeathers?    Wild pheasants are still out here if proper habitat is available, but in the Thumb, agricultural practices can affect bird numbers from year to year.

click on the picture to enlarge

   Dan McPhail (left) and Ken Dalton (right) of the Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative (MPHI).



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