Pheasants, both adult birds and chicks, were speckled on the edge of a harvested wheat field.
Nearly 40 birds were counted in a matter of seconds.
“That’s a really good group,” said Travis Runia, upland game biologist for South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish & Parks. “There’s about six broods right there.”
The broods of pheasants, aka family groups of chicks, then began to scatter into the cattails and tall grasses. That field accounted for nearly one-third of the pheasants Runia logged Tuesday southeast of Huron during one of the state’s 109 pheasant brood survey routes.
The routes, which span 30 miles, are spread across South Dakota and are surveyed annually from late-July through mid-August. Seventy GF&P observers collect the route’s data and send them to Runia to assemble for a report that’s published prior to Labor Day.
“It paints a really nice picture as far as what to expect for the hunting season in any given fall,” Runia said.
On Tuesday, starting at 6:22 a.m. sunrise, Runia started his route eight miles south and seven miles east of Huron. In total, he saw 14 broods, which average six chicks per brood, along with 22 hens and 24 roosters. That equaled a pheasant per mile (PPM) index of 4.33, which was slightly above Huron’s regional pheasant per mile index of 4.02 from 2015 and 2.92 in 2014.
But it’s only one of the 17 routes in the Huron region, which spans an eight-county area. The 10-year average for the region is 6.82 pheasants per mile.
There are 13 regions in South Dakota for the annual pheasant brood survey, with the Chamberlain area as the top-producing pheasant area in the state in the past 10 years with an average of 13.32 pheasants per mile. Pierre (9.03) is second in 10-year average, Winner (7.01) is third and the Mitchell region is seventh at 5.58 PPM.
“We have data that goes back until 1949, so at this point we want to keep it as similar as possible,” said Runia, who explained that about 30 routes were added to the survey in 1993.
Andy Petersen, GF&P conservation officer in Mitchell, said Tuesday his region has seen significantly dry weather this year, which may not be good news for the pheasant chicks. He said it’s too early to tell whether there are more or fewer pheasants near Mitchell.
Last year, the statewide pheasant per mile index was at 3.8, showing an increase in bird numbers of 42 percent compared to 2013. The Mitchell region had a pheasant per mile index of 4.55, down from the 10-year average.
Route observers, Runia explained, look for days when the weather has clear skies and calm winds, and when the dew is heavy on the grass.
“That way, the birds want to move into the ditch and onto the roads to dry their feathers off,” he said.
Many routes are driven twice, with the main period running through Aug. 1-15. The highest number of the two surveys is used in the statewide survey. The same route Runia drove Tuesday produced significantly higher in July at 24 broods. That’s likely because cloud cover blanketed much the region for much of the morning, and the dew wasn’t ideal.
And, Runia acknowledges he hears several people each year discredit the survey by saying it is always boosted to help South Dakota’s economy, which, according to GF&P data, had $170 million spent on pheasant hunting in 2015.
“I respond the same way I do every year. I invite those people to get up with me at 6 in the morning and ride along,” he said. “I don’t get very many takers.”
The statewide pheasant season this year opens Oct. 15 and runs through Jan. 1, 2017, on public and private land, with permission. The three-day, resident-only season, held only on public lands, begins Oct. 8.
Runia is expecting a season similar to or slightly better than last year, when 1.256 million pheasants were harvested.