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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

S-R Hunting Outlook 2021: Bird hunters flush with anticipation

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

The trends make it easy to be pessimistic about upland bird hunting seasons in Eastern Washington. But a hunter with a bird dog has at least one compelling reason to go out. With some planning, foot work and luck – they’ll both be fulfilled, and perhaps pleasantly surprised.

Never mind that wildfires in the past 14 months alone have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres and nuked some favorite bird hunting haunts. For example, the 127,000 acres charred by the Whitney Fire in Lincoln County last September, including large portions of the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area and BLM’s Telford Recreation Area, has yet to recover its habitat potential.

This year’s record heat and drought have dried up water sources and hunting potential in many other areas.

Farmers who keep improving their efficiency at producing more food to feed the world are leaving less habitat for birds. There’s no shelter or safety net for homeless pheasant or quail without year-round cover.

It’s safe to say the heydays of wingshooting have come and gone, but it’s also important to keep what’s left in perspective. It’s not all bad out there.

Last year, relentless June rains did not fall favorably for early gamebird nesting. While many first-hatch chicks perished, however, the moisture prompted vegetation growth that likely boosted survival of second hatches of pheasants in July and even third hatches for quail in August.

This year, the opposite scenario unfolded. A mild winter allowed good carryover of birds where they had decent habitat. A dry spring provided good weather for nesting and hatching chicks. Unfortunately, the continuation of dry conditions thwarted growth of grasses and forbs in most areas, leaving many broods with fewer groceries and reduced cover for evading coyotes, hawks and other predators.

Brian Gaston, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife private lands biologist for Spokane and Whitman counties, said he’s seen a decent number of pheasant broods of two to nine chicks this summer, but they’re mostly from the first nesting period.

“We didn’t really see much for follow-up hatches as we might expect in a wetter year,” he said.

Nevertheless, many hunters are going to have some great hunts. Find habitat and you’re likely to find birds.

Last season, Lincoln, Spokane and Whitman counties produced the highest harvest numbers in the past 10 years. Some of that increase owes to the 15% bump in small game hunting license sales because of all the free time people had to invest into COVID-eluding outdoor activities.

Grant County has been the top pheasant producer in Eastern Washington in terms of harvest, with 8,822 pheasants taken in 2019 followed by Whitman County with 7,222, Walla Walla 3,890, Lincoln 2,997, Franklin 2,602, Garfield 2,499, Spokane 2,214 and Benton 2,117.

Don’t get too caught up in the overall numbers. Hunters who spend time scouting have found sweet spots for one species or another from Asotin to Oroville. Scouting involves long, sometimes unproductive walks on public land, and seeking permission to check out private land.

Yakima County is the state’s haven for hunting valley quail. Okanogan, Stevens and Ferry counties are best bets for mountain grouse. The steep, rocky canyon slopes of Asotin, Chelan, Douglas, Kittitas and Yakima counties hold the state’s chukar-hunting hot spots.

Valley quail, (aka California quail) are found in a broad area of habitats ranging from thorny thickets to sagebrush range. Orchard country often is rich with them.

Nirvana to a quail hunter with a good pointing dog is following a covey that has flushed and fanned out in huntable cover such as sagebrush. Scattered quail tend to hold tighter and flush in singles, doubles or triples while others seem to wait their turn to dodge your loads of 7½ shot.

Chukars thrive on rocky, cliffy, cheatgrass-covered slopes above the Snake, Grand Ronde, Yakima and Columbia rivers. These delicious partridge were imported from rugged areas of regions such as Pakistan, which is the first hint that chukar country is more vertical than horizontal – some of the toughest terrain upland bird hunters traverse.

Washington’s 2021-2022 chukar season was extended two weeks to the end of January because there simply aren’t that many hunters willing to wear out their boots in basalt scree. Chukar numbers seem to be holding fairly steady, biologists say.

Forest grouse – ruffed, spruce and dusky – are the easiest to access since the vast majority of them live on public land, especially on the millions of acres of national forests in Washington. They also have the longest season, which started Wednesday (a change from the traditional Sept. 1 opener) and runs until Jan. 15. Summer hiking/scouting in my favorite grouse haunts indicated that birds numbers are encouraging.

Pheasants in particular have ridden the coattails of American agriculture. The best pheasant and quail hunting is generally found in areas with permanent cover, usually associated with private farmland that includes creeks or shrubby habitats.

If you don’t have permission to hunt pheasants in good habitat on private land, spend some time on the private lands hunting pages on the WDFW website. “Feel free to hunt” areas are available, often on lands banked with cover through the federal Conservation Reserve Program. “Hunt by written permission” areas can be good if you can make positive contact with the landowner. “Reserve to hunt” areas also are available, but you must compete with other hunters for online sign-ups.

Keep in mind that while some of the private properties are worth the effort, others may not be wildly productive for upland birds.

Other hunting destination alternatives include the million acres of state wildlife lands, several hundred thousand acres managed in this region by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the 50,000 acres of habitat areas mostly along the Snake River managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Perhaps the surest bet for finding a pheasant on public land is at the 29 sites served by the WDFW Eastern Washington Pheasant Enhancement Program. Each year, about 3,500 pen-raised pheasants are released in the Spokane Region alone. The sites, which are listed and located on the department’s website, are found on selected state wildlife areas as well as federal land such as Fishtrap Lake Recreation Area and Corps of Engineers habitat areas along the Snake.

The release sites are open to licensed sportsmen without additional fees. Note that hunters must use nontoxic shot at these areas. If you plan to hunt another area before or after you hunt a pheasant release site, be sure you’re not packing any lead shot.

Pheasant stocking schedules are unannounced, but hunters can usually count on fresh releases before the September youth pheasant hunt, just before the October general pheasant season opener and in November around Thanksgiving.

The absolute surest way to find pheasants to hunt is at a private preserve, such as Miller Ranch and Double Barrel Ranch near Spokane. For a fee, the operators stock their fields with pen-raised birds and let you, your partners and your dogs hunt by reservation.

If you’re introducing wingshooting to new hunters, young or old, make sure they have hearing protection. Without ear plugs or some other sort of protection, a great day of hunting could ultimately take away the future delight of hearing the sound of partridge “chuckling” up the slope and the whir of wings on a flush.

Bird hunters should always be thinking ahead.