Compared to even only 10 or 15 years ago, it amazes me how much the opening of upland game seasons has changed in impact and meaning in Illinois.
Packed scenes like that above, from opening morning last year, have become very rare.
Hunting in Illinois for cock pheasant, bobwhite quail, partridge and rabbits opens Saturday. The second dove season also reopens Saturday and runs through Nov. 14.
Here's some observations, numbers and a brief Q&A with Michael Wefer, the new ag and grassland wildlife program manager.
Shucked corn tells the biggest story about 2010-11 vs 2009-10.
Even the most urban person can see the change from the near-record slow harvest last year. Crop harvest is virtually complete statewide.
Simply put, fields are picked. By Sunday, corn harvest in Illinois was 98 percent complete, compared to 18 percent last year; soybeans 99, compared to 35.
That's going to make for a far easier hunting for dogs and humans. Next year I will be curious to see what that does for the numbers for both effort and success.
Other than for rabbits, the key numbers from the 2009-20 seasons were not encouraging.
Pheasant harvest dropped dramatically last year (down 37 percent to only 64,292 cocks), at least in part because of the standing corn. Click here for the IDNR pheasant preview.
Quail harvest dropped 18 percent last year, but those who hunted had better success rates (up 13 percent per trip). I'm not sure if that is an encouraging number or not. It may simply mean the people who continued to quail hunt were doing it on good private land. Click here for the IDNR quail preview.
Rabbit hunters had the surprising uptick: hunters went up 11 percent (44,312) and rabbits killed up 23 percent (189,254). I will also be curious if those numbers were just a statistical anomaly or an indication of an upward trend, a return to basics. I hope it is the later. Click here for the IDNR rabbit preview.
Here's a brief Q & A with Wefer (if I have an aside response, it is in italics):
1) Where are a few spots on public land hunters from NE Illinois could try? (I know and suggest a few, but thought maybe you could add ideas)
1) With the kind of pressure they receive, most of the NE sites are in the controlled hunting program. You may want to query Terry Musser on the controlled hunting side of things.
(Wefer's right, most sites near NE Illinois are in the controlled hunting program. For myself, the closest good one I have found for regular upland hunting is Middle Fork SFWA.)
2) Anything new on basic public hunting for upland game? Anything new coming in terms of PHA or QHA?
2) Pheasants Forever is in the process of acquiring property in Knox County ( I think Jeff Lampe did a write-up on it). You may also want to contact Aaron Kuehl from PF. For those fortunate enough to have already drawn a free upland permit (odds were about 2 in 5 this year), Saybrook and Sibley PHAs seem to be boasting good pheasant populations this year. On the quail side, the Coffeen Upland Unit and the Pyramid Units are looking good. Both of those sites also require free upland permits.
(Those free upland permits are the coolest hunting program in Illinois. Wish there could be more. I feel very lucky to finally draw one again this year.)
3) Is there any thing that gives real hope that there might be a change for the better in terms of hunter participation and populations?
3) Even though population projections are a bit down this year, a lot more crops have been harvested in comparison with this time last year. This may mean that even though there may be fewer birds out there, hunters may have a better chance at them. Rabbits appear to be continuing their upward trend in the northern half of the state. The State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement Program (SAFE) through the Farm Bill is beginning to show success in some areas. The McLean, Livingston, Tazewell, and Montgomery County SAFE areas are receiving decent sign ups. Illinois' program is focused on township sized areas. When they get good enrollment, there is a noticeable response from grassland birds including pheasants and quail.
I haven't seen the county breakdowns yet, but my impression is that Illinois came out alright this year in the General CRP signup. That is good news, especially in the quail range.