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    The Scout: 2020

    It’s time for our annual preseason look at the habitat conditions, weather phenomena and bird populations across the Lower 48 states that will probably play a major role in the situations you face when you step into your favorite upland bird hunting spot this autumn. And please remember: Instead of only asking state-level game bird biologists to gaze into crystal balls during early spring and make astounding predictions for autumn, our crack team of reporters sought information and evaluations of the situations one can expect to encounter in each state. So here, over the next few pages, you’ll see their “scout,” their reports on what they’ve learned about bird hunting possibilities as we approach our favorite opening days.

    As always, please remember that our deadline forces us to gather this info a few months in advance of publication. For updated and more complete information about the states you are interested in, please check out their websites.

    Also, this year, you might notice that contrary to tradition, a few of the lower 48 states do not have entries. These states did not respond to requests for information; we figure that with the pandemic to deal with, officials there had other things on their minds and more important work to deal with. We hope next year we can be back to normal with “The Scout.”

    Northeast and Mid-Atlantic
    Tough Year for Grouse Along Atlantic Seaboard

    Tim Flanigan

    Connecticut – No major changes to upland game bird or migratory bird hunting regulations or licensing. Several woodcock habitat management projects are ongoing. All breeding surveys were suspended in 2020, and species recruitment dynamics are unknown.

    Maine – The grouse resource is good, and hunters should find good flushing rates this fall. Grouse season now opens on the last Saturday in September. Woodcock hunting has been fair to good in recent years as populations remain stable or slightly decrease, and continued hunting success is predicted. Among the 101 grouse that hunters turned in for sampling in the fall of 2019, only two indicated an exposure to and the antibodies of West Nile Virus.

    Maryland – Grouse numbers have declined, but fair hunting is available in the western-most Garrett County. Good flights of woodcock frequent western Maryland in October/November and throughout the winter in the Eastern Region. The pheasant hunting program on various public hunting areas has been expanded.

    Massachusetts – The central and western districts offer fair to good grouse hunting, and habitat enhancement is benefiting grouse and woodcock. Expect good gunning for both in the pitch pine/scrub oak ecosystems of southeastern state forests.

    Forty thousand pheasants will be released on 41 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs).

    New Hampshire – Grouse and woodcock are most abundant in the north, and both may be found in suitable cover throughout. Habitat management beneficial to grouse and woodcock exists in the Cardigan Mountain and Joy state forests and on the Upper Ammonoosuc, Stark and Bofinger, Leonard, Bellamy and Musquash Swamp WMAs.

    New Jersey – Grouse season is closed.

    Quail season is closed, except for stocked birds on licensed commercial shooting preserves and two state WMAs.

    Good woodcock action is available in the upper Delaware River area of Sussex and Warren counties and the Delaware Bay Shore area of Cape May and Cumberland counties.

    New York – Grouse numbers may be down from last year’s lows. Ongoing habitat management on WMAs aims to reverse that decline. Woodcock numbers remain stable, and success should be found in suitable habitat throughout.

    Ohio – Grouse flushing rates remain near historic lows, but some birds persist within large contiguous forest tracts containing young forest habitat. A shortened grouse season with a reduced bag limit was proposed. Please check season listings. Woodcock opportunities remain good throughout, with flush rates peaking in the last week of October and early November. Hunters should find fair numbers of wild pheasants in suitable habitat mostly on private lands and on Big Island, Deer Creek and Lake La Su An wildlife areas and many of the Wildlife Production Areas in central Ohio. Surveys show that 7,500 to12,500 quail remain in south central and southwest Ohio. The populations are small and highly fragmented. Mourning dove populations are strong throughout the state.

    Pennsylvania – Grouse numbers remain low statewide, but hunting prospects are best in the north central counties. A slight increase in flush rates is possible this fall. Woodcock numbers will likely remain stable throughout. The state plans to release 222,000 pheasants on public lands. Both sexes may be taken. A stamp is required. A Northern Bobwhite Quail restoration project continues in the Letterkenny Army Depot near Chambersburg.

    Vermont – Grouse occur nearly statewide with the best hunting opportunities found in the central and northern portions of the state and on the many public lands where wildlife habitat is the principal focus of management. Information about more than 100 Wildlife Management Areas is on the website. Recent surveys indicate relatively stable populations of woodcock throughout the state.

    Virginia – The grouse breeding population has again declined, this time by 1%, and hunter-submitted feather samples suggest “very poor” recruitment of young birds. Virginia’s quail population continues to decline but remains stable in managed habitats. The numbers of breeding male woodcock have declined 5.3% annually, but wing samples indicate a slight increase in reproduction success last year.

    West Virginia – The grouse situation is bleak. Surveys from 2019 recorded the lowest numbers ever. A shortened grouse season is being considered. The best bet for grouse hunting success exists in even-aged forest, managed private lands along the eastern central Appalachians. Woodcock still provide ample action in suitable habitat. A quail restoration project is underway in the Tomblin WMA.

    Southeast and Lower Plains
    Bobwhite Outlook — Fair to Middling

    John N. Felsher

    Throughout the country, the ruffed grouse population ranks from “so bad the season is closed” in New Jersey to “approaching the 10-year cycle peak” in Michigan. (Photo/Tim C. Flanigan)
    Throughout the country, the ruffed grouse population ranks from “so bad the season is closed” in New Jersey to “approaching the 10-year cycle peak” in Michigan. (Photo/Tim C. Flanigan)
    Alabama – “Our first sandhill crane season went well,” reports Seth Maddox, a state biologist. “Of the 400 hunters drawn, 138 harvested 291 cranes.” Doves remain plentiful. Sportsmen in southern Alabama might spot some wing-wings. Alabama and the Eastern Woodcock Migration Research Cooperative put GPS transmitters on woodcock to track their migrations. The state also continues efforts to boost quail population in the Conecuh National Forest, especially in the Boggy Hollow Wildlife Management Area.

    Arkansas – “The bobwhite population is stable to slightly declining,” says Marcus Asher, an Arkansas biologist. “With the mild winter, I expect a decent carryover for the breeding population in 2020.” Many people hunt U.S. Forest Service land in western and north central Arkansas or the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Natural State sportsmen can also hunt doves, woodcock, rails and gallinules.

    Florida – An unseasonably warm winter helped maintain abundant quail cover across the Sunshine State. “A mild winter and quality habitat management should result in birds being well positioned entering the nesting season,” states Greg Hagan, a Florida biologist. Dove numbers remain very good locally. With abundant wetlands, particularly along the upper St. Johns River, bird hunters might want to pursue snipe and gallinules.

    Georgia – The pine savannas of southwestern Georgia still offer some of the best quail hunting in the Southeast. Many plantations perform extensive habitat management to benefit birds. The state also offers excellent dove hunting. In the coastal marshes, rail and snipe hunting remains a tradition. “Improvements on our coastal waterfowl impoundments should help improve snipe habitat in the near future,” advises Greg Balkcom, a Georgia biologist.

    Kentucky – Quail and grouse continue to struggle, but a mild winter possibly helped. “The eight- to 10-year cycle for quail should be heading up this season given favorable breeding conditions,” confirms John J. Morgan, a Kentucky biologist. Forts Knox and Campbell both offer bobwhite hunting opportunities. Many bird hunters also head to Peabody WMA or Daniel Boone National Forest. Kentucky hunters can also shoot doves and woodcock.

    In Alabama, researchers have fitted a number of American woodcock with transmitters in order to track their migration routes. (Photo/Courtesy of Bill Pope, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)
    In Alabama, researchers have fitted a number of American woodcock with transmitters in order to track their migration routes. (Photo/Courtesy of Bill Pope, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

    Louisiana – Conditions were very favorable for woodcock last year in both the bottomland hardwood forests and upland pines. “Alexander State Forest, Dewey Wills, Richard K. Yancey and Sherburne WMAs are popular woodcock areas,” recommends Jeffrey P. Duguay, a state biologist. “Kisatchie National Forest offers the best option for quail.” Each year, the state leases numerous public dove fields.

    Mississippi – Quail numbers remain low, but some pockets still offer fair hunting. “Observational reports suggest a relatively good quail hatch last summer despite high amounts of rainfall persisting into the peak hatching period,” explains Rick Hamrick, a Mississippi biologist. “Another mild winter may have allowed a good carryover of birds.” For doves, visit fields in Deviney, Muscadine and Black Prairie WMAs. The state also hosts good numbers of migratory woodcock and snipe.

    North Carolina – Tarheel hunters saw heavy rains and sloppy conditions during the previous quail season. “Quail populations remain near all-time lows in most of the state,” remarks Christopher D. Kreh, a state biologist. “They are particularly scarce in the Piedmont and the mountains.” Quail hunters should focus on the eastern half of the state. Ruffed grouse populations also remain low.

    Oklahoma – Quail populations remain below the 10-year average. Northwestern Oklahoma offers the best chance for bobs. Besides bobwhites, Sooner State hunters can also find scaled quail and pheasant in some parts of Oklahoma. “The Oklahoma Land Access Program offers some of the best pheasant hunting in the state,” recommends Tell Judkins, an Oklahoma biologist. “We extended the pheasant hunting range to include all of Osage County.”

    South Carolina – “During the last season, quail hunters had fairly good success on some public lands,” recalls Michael Hook, a state biologist. “Good public land access is available statewide for woodcock.” Dove populations remain good statewide. Look for snipe, rails and gallinules in the coastal wetlands. A few grouse inhabit northwestern South Carolina.

    Tennessee – A wet spring hampered prescribed burning and flooded many low quail nesting areas. Sportsmen can see the new five-year quail plan on the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website, reports Roger Applegate, a Tennessee biologist. The state offers excellent dove hunting on leased fields and many WMAs. For grouse, head to the Cherokee National Forest in eastern Tennessee.

    Texas – From coastal marshes to deserts, Texas offers incredible habitat and wildlife diversity. “Bobwhite hunting was good across parts of South Texas last season,” details Robert Perez, a Texas biologist. “Scaled quail hunting in the Trans-Pecos was above average.” In the Panhandle, Lone Star sportsmen can hunt pheasant. In South Texas, sportsmen can find excellent white-wing and mourning dove action. For both species, try the Las Palomas complexes.

    Great Lakes and Upper Plains
    Easy Winter Elevates Hope for Fall

    Jeff Nedwick

    Illinois – Pheasant harvests have been trending up for the past three years. The recent mild winter plus an additional 100,000 CRP acres suggest that trend will continue for 2020.

    Planted birds are available through the Controlled Pheasant Hunting Program. Hunters looking for wild birds should try private land in the east and central portions of the state available through the Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP).

    Indiana – Portions of northern Indiana experienced light snowfall this winter, which likely resulted in higher overwinter survival and healthier surviving birds.

    The generally mild winter of 2020 throughout much of the country bodes well for many upland game bird species, like this pheasant, in several spots. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)
    The generally mild winter of 2020 throughout much of the country bodes well for many upland game bird species, like this pheasant, in several spots. (Photo/Tailfeather Communications, LLC)

    Fish and Wildlife Areas in the northwest part of the state provide the best public land pheasant hunting. (A permit to hunt these areas must be obtained online first.) The Goose Pond or Glendale Fish and Wildlife areas are good for quail.

    Iowa – Thanks to a mild winter, the overwinter survival of pheasants was good, and indications are that hunters should see plenty of birds this fall — especially in the central to northwest parts of the state.

    The hard winter that hit the traditional quail range in the southern part of the state in 2018-19 is a distant memory. The winter of 2020 was much milder, and biologists are hoping for a rebound.

    Kansas – After several years of improving bobwhite quail hunting, populations seem to have plateaued. However, great hunting can still be found between the northern Flint Hills and the southern High Plains.

    Pheasant numbers are expected to be about average, but “about average” in Kansas is still very good. The north central part of the state is a great place to start.

    Pheasant hunters in north central Kansas might also consider greater prairie chickens — an often-overlooked upland game bird.

    Michigan – Ruffed grouse continue to be the primary target of upland bird hunters in Michigan. The state is still a couple of years from peak populations so hunters can expect the good hunting to continue. Try one of the Grouse Enhancement Management Sites (GEMS) in the northern third of the Lower Peninsula or the Upper Peninsula.

    Michigan’s woodcock hunting remains great throughout the state.

    Minnesota – Ruffed grouse populations reached their 10-year peak in 2017, and that may translate to a slight drop in harvest this fall. The best hunting continues to be in the northeast portion of the state.

    Great woodcock hunting continues in county forestlands in the northeast part of the state.

    Pheasant hunters can now hunt three new Wildlife Management Areas near the cities of Fairmont, Jackson and Worthington.

    Missouri – Quail populations declined by an average of 15% in most Missouri Conservation Areas last year. Fortunately, with last winter’s mild weather, biologists do not expect another such decline in 2020.

    Public and private lands in the northwest corner of the state would be a good place for hunters to target.

    Missouri continues to expand its Quail Restoration Landscapes.

    Nebraska – It is year four of Nebraska’s five-year Berggren Plan and to date, 112,000 acres of additional walk-in habitat have been made available for pheasant hunters. Hunters in the southwest and panhandle regions should find more birds and a bounce back from last year’s decline in pheasant numbers.

    Bobwhite quail should rebound slightly after the tough winter of 2018-19. For quail, hunters should focus on the southeast part of the state.

    North Dakota – Although pheasant populations in the southwest are still recovering from the 2016 drought, it is still the best region for hunters to target this fall. The northwest and southeast portions of the state have recovered faster, and the wet fall and mild winter across most of the state mean the stage is set for a good year.

    Hunters looking for sharp-tailed grouse should try Burleigh County.

    South Dakota – The drop in pheasant numbers in Pierre, Mobridge, Huron, Mitchell and Brookings last year could carry over into 2020. The Chamberlin area again provides the densest population of birds but less available public land.

    Unharvested crops and a variable but generally moderate winter mean more birds made it through winter; residual effects from last year’s flooding, though, could mean more water in cattail sloughs and standing corn.

    Wisconsin – Good snow and mild temperatures last winter were ideal for ruffed grouse. Birds should be near their population peak when hunters take to the woods in the north central portion of the state this fall.

    Good woodcock hunting is expected to continue in the north.

    Pheasant populations have been hit especially hard by habitat loss, but many birds can still be found in the south and portions of the northwest.

    Northwest and Southwest
    Wetter West Leaves Hunters Hopeful

    Jeff Nedwick

    Arizona – Arizona is known for its great quail hunting: Five species of quail can be found here.

    Biologists are particularly optimistic about Gambel’s quail hunting this fall because this past winter was the second consecutive year of above-average rainfall. Gambel’s quail are found statewide.

    Mearns’ quail populations south of Interstate 10 continue to be stable, as do scaled quail populations in the southeast part of the state.

    California – Biologists are cautiously optimistic that recent wet winter weather through most of California quail range — especially in the San Luis Obispo County area — will lead to a modest increase in birds harvested.

    Gambel’s quail populations are on the decline. Hunters looking for them should try Imperial and Riverside counties.

    Mountain quail populations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains are on the rise. California Department of Fish and Wildlife lands are often overlooked locations.

    Colorado – Pheasant populations are holding their own and a very mild, dry winter may result in more birds this fall. Hunters should check out one of the Corners for Conservation properties in the northeast.

    Bobwhite quail are down a bit after a couple of strong years, but hunters should still find good numbers of birds in the South Platte River valley area.

    Idaho – Another warm and wet winter should mean good hunting this fall.

    Ruffed, dusky and spruce grouse — collectively managed as “forest grouse” — can be found on public land throughout the northern and southeast portions of the state.

    California quail populations are stable across western Idaho.

    Chukar and gray partridge are doing well, and both can be found in the southern third and northwest portions of the state.

    Montana – Pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse and gray partridge are still recovering from the drought of 2017. Sharp-tailed grouse and pheasant seem to be further along in their recovery than gray partridge.

    All three can be found in the eastern two-thirds of the state on private lands open to the public through the Block Management program or the Open Fields for Game Bird Hunting program.

    Nevada – Despite a general downward population trend, biologists are hoping chukar get a boost from recent snowy, damp winters. Hunters should focus on steep, rocky areas in the central part of the state.

    California quail have somewhat made up for the chukar decline. Hunters can find birds on public land in the northwestern portion of the state.

    Gambel’s quail harvests in the southernmost portion of Nevada are near their all-time lows.

    New Mexico – This spring’s favorable weather should further establish New Mexico as a quail hunting hidden gem.

    Scaled quail numbers are down slightly from the boom years of 2015 and 2016 but can still be found. Federal land in the southeastern part of the state is usually the best.

    Gambel’s quail populations continue the downward trend that began 10 years ago, but decent numbers can still be found in the southwest part of the state.

    Oregon – Pheasant numbers continue to decline, but chukar are doing very well, prompting one biologist to proclaim, “Chukar is the new pheasant.” Abundant public land habitat and easy access to water thanks to the state’s early investment in guzzlers provide “unlimited opportunities” for bird hunters.

    There are multiple changes to game bird regulations this year, so hunters should check the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website before planning a trip (www.dfw.state.or.us).

    Utah – Chukar populations in the northeast Cedar Mountains are doing well but are heavily hunted. To avoid the crowds, try areas west of Interstate 15.

    Ruffed grouse do not get much attention, but plenty of birds can be found on public land along a diagonal line extending from the northeast corner of the state through Sanpete County in the southwest.

    A mild winter in key pheasant strongholds provides a glimmer of hope for otherwise declining pheasant populations.

    Washington – A new partnership with timber companies has opened up 627,000 acres of new land to hunters in western Washington this year.

    Thanks to a mild winter, hunters should find plenty of forest grouse (dusky, sooty and ruffed grouse) from Okanogan County east to Pend Oreille County.

    California quail harvests are above their 10-year average. The central portion of the state — especially Yakima County —is best.

    Try Asotin, Chelan, Douglas, Kittitas or Yakima counties for chukar.

    Wyoming – Wyoming is a destination hunt for sage grouse, one of the last places in the country where hunters have a reasonable shot at one of these iconic game birds.

    The best sage grouse locations are on public lands in the southwest portion of the state.

    Wolfe Publishing Group