Wolfe Publishing Group

    The Scout: 2021

    (Photo/Tim Flanigan) The health of the ruffed grouse population in New England varies from state to state.
    (Photo/Tim Flanigan) The health of the ruffed grouse population in New England varies from state to state.
    It’s time for our annual preseason look at the habitat conditions, state management programs, 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’s bird numbers, our crack team of reporters set out to scout 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 current information about the states you are interested in, please consult those states’ natural resources departments directly.

    Northeast and Mid-Atlantic
    Grouse: From “Good Numbers” to Closed Seasons
    Tim Flanigan

    Connecticut – Grouse and woodcock populations remain low but stable. Extensive cooperative young forest habitat management plans are ongoing between the state’s wildlife and forestry personnel and neighboring Massachusetts. Some youth pheasant hunts are planned.

    Delaware – Ruffed grouse season closed. The Division of Fish and Wildlife managed upland habitat, benefiting upland game birds on nearly 3,500 acres of state wildlife management areas (WMA).

    Maine – Hunters should encounter very good grouse populations again this fall. 2020’s grouse reproduction produced record-book high flush rates in northern Maine’s early successional hardwoods. Maine is an excellent woodcock hunting destination even when the population is considered fair. West Nile Virus samples from harvested grouse in the previous three seasons show a low (<6%) exposure rate to the virus.

    Maryland – Huntable numbers of grouse exist in western Maryland, with the highest densities in Garrett County. Hunters are encouraged to participate in the grouse hunter cooperator survey. Contact bob.long@maryland.gov. Woodcock flights frequent western Maryland in late October and November and the Eastern Shore Region throughout the winter. To promote upland bird hunting by junior hunters, pheasant stocking continues on various public hunting areas. See information online at dnr.maryland.gov.

    Massachusetts – Grouse and woodcock hunting are expected to be present in suitable habitats. Moderate grouse densities exist in the central and western portions of the state. MassWildlife also stocks 40,000 pheasants statewide and 3,000 bobwhite quail on select WMAs in the southeast part of the state.

    New Hampshire – Upland hunters should find excellent grouse and woodcock hunting on 2,000 acres of young forest habitat in the White Mountain Region owned by the Bayroot Timber Company and being managed with the goal of long-term habitat management for grouse, woodcock, hare, moose and bear. Access is via Wilderness Road in Bethlehem and Route 3 in Carroll. Grouse hunters can obtain wing and tail surveys from locations listed at the New Hampshire Fish and Game website, www.wildnh.com.

    New Jersey – New Jersey provides an important migration route for rails and woodcock. Fifty percent of the state’s harvest occurs in Sussex County – 25% percent in Cape May County. In early September, hunting opportunities abound for sora and clapper rails on public lands in tidal freshwater marshes, dominated by wild rice, along the Atlantic Coast. Grouse season is closed.

    New York – Grouse numbers are expected to be up slightly in 2021. Woodcock numbers have been relative stable, and good hunting is predicted throughout the state. Several “Young Forest Initiative” habitat management projects are ongoing on Department of Environmental Conservation lands. Three youth pheasant hunts are scheduled, for which game farm pheasants are provided for sponsored youth, women, veterans, disabled and novice hunters.

    Ohio – Ruffed grouse numbers remain near historic lows. The season length and bag limits were reduced in 2020. The DNR is creating young forests on public wildlife areas and state forests and made woodcock habitat improvements on wildlife areas throughout the state. Northern bobwhite quail populations are low and fragmented throughout 12 southern counties. The season is closed on public lands but remains open on private property.

    Pennsylvania – Grouse numbers are greatest in the northwest and north central regions. Statewide grouse flush counts increased 23% since 2018 in response to two years of low numbers of West Nile Virus cases. Woodcock are maintaining their decades-long stability. The agency anticipates stocking 229,000 pheasants. Two additional pheasant releases are planned for late December and January. New this year: Two Sundays, Nov. 14 and 21, will be open for hunting grouse, pheasant and quail only.

    Rhode Island – Grouse season closed, but upland gunners may enjoy woodcock and pheasant action from Oct. 17 through November and quail action through February. A total of 6,000 pheasants will be released via weekly allotments through December on 11 WMAs.

    Vermont – In 2020, grouse hunters reported one of the best flush rates in years. Woodcock season now opens on the last weekend in September. Prime hunting for both is found in the Northern Kingdom. Habitat management practices, to benefit both species, continue on 100 WMAs and numerous private lands. The Fish and Wildlife Department is participating in a woodcock survival and migration habitat use study and grouse West Nile virus serosurveillance research study.

    Virginia – Woodcock season is split: Nov. 11 to Dec. 8 and Dec. 27 to Jan. 12, 2022. Grouse flush rates are among the lowest recorded. Grouse season is closed east of I-95. Cooperators are needed to monitor the population and West Nile Virus. Register at dwrweb@dwr.virginia.gov with “grouse survey” in the subject line. To benefit grouse, the Department of Wildlife Resources has implemented habitat treatments on Highland, Little North Mountain and Gathright WMAs, creating hundreds of acres of young forests across western Virginia. Quail season is closed on all public lands west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

    West Virginia – The ruffed grouse population has shown a downward trend, but the Department of Natural Resources is moving forward with commercial and noncommercial habitat creation and enhancement, seeking to be further engaged in grouse habitat enhancement on our federal lands.

    Southeast and Lower Plains
    Quail, Woodcock, Grouse: Depends on the State
    John N. Felsher

    Florida produces some of the best snipe, gallinule and rail hunting in the country in the St. Johns River marshes near Geneva and around Lake Okeechobee. (Photo/courtesy of MyFWC.com)
    Florida produces some of the best snipe, gallinule and rail hunting in the country in the St. Johns River marshes near Geneva and around Lake Okeechobee. (Photo/courtesy of MyFWC.com)
    Alabama – Cotton State hunters enjoyed an average quail season in 2020-21, a good thing considering how bobwhite numbers have been plummeting for decades.

    “Quail cover quality was in good shape on most areas,” explained Steven Mitchell, an Alabama biologist.

    Quail hunters will probably enjoy their best chance of success at Boggy Hollow and the nearby Blue Spring WMAs. Blue Spring also offers good opportunities to bag woodcock. Mourning dove numbers remain high. In southern Alabama, sportsmen report increasing numbers of white-winged doves.

    Arkansas – Woodcock and dove numbers remain high throughout Arkansas, while quail numbers stay low.

    “In speaking with numerous hunters, bird harvests were similar to previous years, if not slightly up,” said Marcus Asher, a state biologist. “Several weeks of snowy, bitterly cold weather this past winter will more than likely cause some decline in the quail population.”

    For woodcock, hunt the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge bottomlands.

    Florida – The Sunshine State continues efforts to enhance quail habitat. For bobwhites, visit the Three Lakes and Babcock-Webb WMAs or hunt Panhandle pine savannas. Dove numbers remain high throughout the state.

    “Local dove numbers are good, but we have not seen the normal influx of migrant birds these past few winters,” detailed Andrew Fanning, a state biologist.

    Some of the best snipe, gallinule and rail hunting in the country occurs in the St. Johns River marshes near Geneva and around Lake Okeechobee.

    Georgia – The pine savannas of southwestern Georgia offer some of the best wild quail hunting in the Southeast, particularly on private plantations that conduct extensive habitat management. For public quail hunting, visit Di-Lane WMA. The state also offers excellent dove hunting with many managed fields on WMAs. In the marshes along the southeastern coast, Georgia sportsmen can find great opportunities to bag clapper rails, gallinules and snipe.

    Some of the best wild quail hunting in the Southeast can be found in southwestern Georgia on private plantations that conduct extensive habitat management. (Photo/John N. Felsher)
    Some of the best wild quail hunting in the Southeast can be found in southwestern Georgia on private plantations that conduct extensive habitat management. (Photo/John N. Felsher)

    Kentucky – Quail populations continue to struggle, but upland bird enthusiasts found good news last year.

    “Hunters flushed an average of 0.33 coveys per hour during the 2020-21 season,” explained Cody M. Rhoden a state biologist. “This was up 50 percent from the 2019-20 season. We expect the 2021-22 season to be even better.”

    At Peabody WMA, sportsmen might see two or three coveys a day. The state manages about 50 dove fields. Sportsmen can usually find woodcock in WMAs with good habitat. Low grouse populations occur in isolated areas. Sandhill crane numbers continue to rise.

    Louisiana – Much of the North American woodcock population winters in Louisiana, but hunting was sporadic during the 2020-21 season.

    “Alexander State Forest, Dewey Wills, Richard K. Yancey and Sherburne WMAs continue to be popular with woodcock hunters,” advised Jeffrey P. Duguay, a state biologist.

    For quail, head to the Kisatchie National Forest pine savannas in central Louisiana. In the vast southern marshes, sportsmen can bag snipe, rail and gallinules.

    Mississippi – As in most Southeastern states, Mississippi’s quail numbers remain very low but are possibly improving slightly.

    “Quail harvest data from our WMAs averaged about 115 quail per season during 2018 to 2020 seasons compared to about 73 quail per season during 2015 to 2017 seasons,” reported Rick Hamrick, a state biologist.

    Dove populations remain extremely high with more than a million birds harvested on average each season. Woodcock harvest numbers remain low, possibly because so few people hunt them. People might find woodcock on many public areas throughout the Magnolia State.

    North Carolina – Quail populations remain near all-time lows across most of the Tar Heel State, but birds are particularly scarce in the Piedmont and mountainous areas. Bad weather during the last breeding season didn’t help.

    “Quail populations suffered heavy mortality and this led to poor hunting,” remarked Christopher D. Kreh, a state biologist.

    Eastern North Carolina holds the most quail. In contrast, the western part of the state holds the most ruffed grouse, but populations remain low.

    Oklahoma – Although quail numbers have declined drastically for the past 50 years, the Sooner State still offers some of the best wild bobwhite action in the nation.

    “Overall, our 2020 season was slightly better than the 2019 season but still lower than the 10-year average,” commented Tell Judkins, an Oklahoma biologist. The best quail hunting occurs in northwestern Oklahoma. Sportsmen can also hunt scaled, or blue quail, woodcock and pheasant. For pheasant, go to Oklahoma Land Access Program properties. Also, said Judkins, “We extended the pheasant hunting range to include all of Osage County.”

    South Carolina – “In 2020-21, doves were abundant in the early season,” recalled Michael Hook, a state biologist. “Late season hunters also took advantage of opportunities in late January and had some good hunts as well. It was also a good year for woodcock hunters who found the right habitat.”

    The state manages about 45 public dove fields. For woodcock, head to the national forests with seasonal bays, river bottomlands and other wetlands. Quail hunters reported seeing more coveys across the Palmetto State last season, but the bobwhite population remains low. The Low Country marshes hold good seasonal snipe and clapper rail populations.

    Tennessee – Like elsewhere, quail and grouse populations remain down. Sportsmen might find wild quail in some middle or west Tennessee WMAs. The state offers excellent dove hunting on leased fields and many WMAs. For grouse, head to the Cherokee National Forest in eastern Tennessee.

    Texas – Lone Star sportsmen can hunt three quail species, bobwhite, scaled and Gambel’s; sandhill cranes, woodcock and pheasant. Texas provides possibly the best action for both mourning and white-winged doves.

    “During the 2020-21 season, dove hunting was excellent in many parts of the state,” said Robert Perez, a Texas biologist. “On average, more than 300,000 hunters bagged more than five million doves.” The best bobwhite hunting occurs in south Texas. For scaled quail, head to the Trans-Pecos and hunt Black Gap and Elephant Mountain WMAs. Go to the Panhandle for pheasant.

    Great Lakes and Upper Plains
    Easy Winter Elevates Hope for Fall
    Jeff Nedwick

    Illinois – Pheasant remains the most sought-after game bird in Illinois. Try the Sibley and Saybrook Habitat areas in the east central portion of the state.

    The best quail hunting is on private land in the southeast part of the state and along the Mississippi River south of St. Louis, Missouri. Ten Mile Creek and Pyramid State Parks in the southeast provide decent public land hunting opportunities.

    Indiana – The Indiana Private Lands Access program offers walk-in hunting opportunities for pheasant and quail to successful applicants.

    The Kingsbury and LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Areas in northwest Indiana offer public land hunting for pheasant.

    Although quail populations are classified as a “species of special concern” because of declining habitat, good numbers of birds remain in the Goose Pond or Glendale Fish and Wildlife Areas.

    Iowa – A strong pheasant population and more hunters afield because of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a pheasant harvest approaching 500,000 birds, making it one of the best seasons in a decade. Unfortunately, a tough winter has biologists tempering their expectations slightly for this season.

    Good pheasant hunting can be found on public land in Dickinson, Emmet, Clay and Palo Alto counties in the northwest portion of the state.

    The outlook is not as rosy for quail. Severe cold, ice and snow in the southeast and south central parts of the state are expected to have taken a significant toll on quail populations.

    Kansas – Pheasant numbers are running average to slightly below average. The best hunting is in the north central and eastern counties of the northwest corner of the state.

    Dry late-winter weather improved quail habitat going into the nesting season, which should bode well for quail hunters. Good quail hunting can be found in the eastern part of the state on private land accessible through the Walk-in Hunter Access program.

    Prairie chickens are an overlooked game bird but offer a unique challenge in scenic landscapes.

    Michigan – Ruffed grouse populations are near their 10-year peak. So, hunters should find lots of birds this fall. Try one of the Grouse Enhancement Management Sites (GEMS) in the northern Lower Peninsula or Upper Peninsula.

    Woodcock populations are stable, and great hunting should be available throughout the state. The 2021 season now opens on Sept. 15 to coincide with the ruffed grouse opener.

    After a one-year pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan will resume pheasant stocking. A new, separate pheasant hunting license is now required for hunting pheasant on public land.

    This fall most hunters will need to purchase an additional license to legally pursue pheasants in Michigan. (Photo/ courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources)
    This fall most hunters will need to purchase an additional license to legally pursue pheasants in Michigan. (Photo/ courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

    Minnesota – A lack of snow limited snow roosting for ruffed grouse, but above average temperatures ensured good overwinter survival. Populations are on the backside of their 10-year cycle, but plenty of birds should still be available in grouse strongholds in the northeast part of the state.

    Woodcock populations are stable, and great hunting is expected to continue – especially on county forestlands in the northeast part of the state.

    The low snowfall benefitted pheasants, and biologists expect hunting to be good this year. Try WMAs in the southwest portion of the state.

    Missouri – Heavy snow covering much of northern Missouri’s prime quail habitat for most of January was followed by an extended period of frigid cold in February. This double whammy of winter weather threatens to reverse last year’s quail population increase.

    Missouri’s Quail Restoration Landscape program continues to expand. Some of the state’s best quail hunting can be found in the northwest, northeast and southeast parts of the state.

    Nebraska – Pheasant numbers were up slightly last year but continue to lag behind the five-year average, and dryer than normal weather last fall and this spring could keep numbers down slightly.

    The southwest and Panhandle regions are the top producing areas for pheasant, and both offer numerous public land hunting opportunities via the Open Fields and Lands Program.

    Bobwhite quail numbers were down last year, and an extended stretch of cold temperatures and deep snow in February could keep numbers lower. Jefferson and Thayer counties in the southeast part of the state continue to be good bets.

    Good prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse hunting can be found on Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands in the Sand Hills area.

    North Dakota – The state has added about 750,000 acres to its Private Land Open To Sportsmen (PLOTS) program. Over the past few years, the program has focused enrollment efforts on the southeast portion of the state, which will benefit pheasant hunters.

    Sharp-tailed grouse hunting is often overshadowed by the great pheasant hunting, but one-third of the country’s sharptail population is within North Dakota. Although sharptails can be found statewide, the best spots are on public land in the areas southwest of the Missouri River and southeast of the Little Missouri River.

    South Dakota – The mild winter bodes well for overwinter survival of pheasants, and hunters can expect to find good numbers in traditional James River Valley areas like Redfield, Aberdeen, Huron and Mitchell and west to Chamberlin and Winner.

    With a season that now runs to the end of January, hunters have plenty of opportunities to experience the best pheasant hunting in the country. Bird hunters can extend their season even more by hunting for prairie chicken or sharp-tailed grouse before the pheasant opener in the central and western regions of the state.

    Wisconsin – Wisconsin’s long-term decline in ruffed grouse populations continues, but with birds still near the peak of their 10-year population cycle, the state should remain one of the top three places in the country for ruffed grouse.

    Wisconsin is also a “top three” pick for woodcock hunting and benefits from many of the same initiatives targeted at habitat improvement for ruffed grouse. County forestlands in the north central portion of the state are a good place to start.

    Northwest and Southwest
    Drought Conditions Haunt Hunters
    Jeff Nedwick

    Arizona – A destination site for quail since the late 1970s. Despite drought conditions for the past several years, the state should have no trouble living up to that lofty reputation.

    Gambel’s quail are the most abundant and widely distributed of Arizona’s five quail species, and biologists are hopeful for a continuation of the rebound that began last year.

    Forest Service lands south of Interstate 10 remain good for Mearns’ quail, and Bureau of Land Management lands in the southeast are good for scaled quail.

    Hunters looking for a triple crown of Gambel’s, Mearns’ and scaled quail should try the Sulphur Springs Valley area in December and January.

    California – Dry conditions that contributed to last year’s wildfires are a key factor in the decline of Gambel’s quail numbers over the past 15 years.

    Hunters looking for California quail should be able find birds in areas not affected by wildfires. Mountain quail hunting is pretty good at lower elevations.

    Colorado – Pheasant populations continue to trend downward, but birds can still be found in the northeast and southeast areas of the state.

    Dry conditions have hurt bobwhite and scaled quail, but hunters should still find good numbers of bobwhite in the South Platte River valley area and scaled quail in the northeast and southeast.

    Prairie chickens do a little better in dry conditions; consequently, hunting for this overlooked upland game bird is expected to be strong. Try Kit Carson, Yuma and Washington counties.

    Idaho – All three species of forest grouse – ruffed, dusky and spruce – are available in the northern portions of the state with dusky and ruffed grouse also found in the southeast. An additional half-million acres of timberland is now open to public hunting in Benewah, Clearwater, Idaho, Latah and Shoshone counties.

    Chukar populations in southwest Idaho are doing well, as are California quail in the west.

    Gray partridge can be found in good numbers throughout the southern third of the state and farther north into Clearwater County.

    Montana – The mild winter should help pheasant and sharp-tailed grouse populations in the eastern third of the state despite declining CRP acreage.

    Gray partridge populations haven’t fared as well, but good hunting can still be found on private land available through the Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters program.

    An additional 3,000 acres has been added to the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program.

    Nevada – “Pretty drastic” is how biologists describe the current drought, which threatens most game bird species and may require changes to season and bag limits.

    Riparian areas are drying up, which is bad news for California and Gambel’s quail, and although chukar numbers in the central part of the state showed a slight uptick last year, the drought is making that look like an anomaly.

    New Mexico – The drought that started last summer plus a late-winter blast of arctic air could spell trouble for scaled quail in the southeastern part of the state. Federal land in this region is a good place to try.

    Gambel’s quail along the Arizona border are doing well, and bobwhite can be found on state trust land and Bureau of Land Management land in the southeast part of the state.

    An overlooked upland game bird is Montezuma quail. National forest land in the southwest corner of the state is a good place to find them.

    Oregon – Exceptional chukar hunting continues in Oregon, especially along the Deschutes and John Day rivers.

    Pheasant hunting turned out to be better than expected last year, and the population is holding its own. A new tract of land along the Deschutes River, part of the Upland Cooperative Access Program, and the Mid-Columbia National Wildlife Refuge are good places to find them.

    Despite the tough terrain, Oregon’s mountain quail hunting is a hidden gem. The Roseburg and Medford areas in the western part of the state are top locations.

    Utah – Drought conditions threaten to undo the benefits of a mild winter, which ensured good overwinter survival of chukar, the most popular and widespread of Utah’s many game birds. They are found throughout the state, but the northeast – especially the Cedar Mountains – is a good place to focus.

    Chukar can be found alongside Gambel’s quail in the southeast part of the state, providing a combination hunt opportunity.

    Dusky and ruffed grouse hunting is improving with the best hunting available on public land through the state’s midsection as far south as Sanpete County.

    Washington – Despite long-term declining populations, forest grouse – dusky, sooty, ruffed and spruce – remain Washington’s most popular game birds. Plenty of birds can still be found in Clallam, Okanogan and Stevens counties.

    Pheasant continue to be popular with bird hunters in Washington despite declining populations. The best areas are the Snake River and Columbia River basins.

    Although not widely pursued, chukar are doing very well. Asotin, Chelan, Douglas, Kittitas and Yakima counties are good places to find them.

    Wyoming – Although numbers are expected to be down slightly this year, Wyoming still features the best sage grouse hunting in the country. Good numbers of birds can be found on public land in the southwest portion of the state.

    Hunters who successfully bag their two-bird sage grouse limit can extend their hunt by targeting dusky grouse in the Wind River, Wyoming, Salt River and Snake River ranges, as well as the Targhee National Forest on the west side of the Tetons.

    Sharp-tailed grouse don’t get a lot of attention in Wyoming, and biologists reported seeing more birds on leks in the southeast part of the state, which should translate to good hunting.

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