Thursday, February 22, 2007

Pheasant hunting at Fern Ridge

Here is the last of the articles I wrote for the now defunct Springfield News last fall.

Last chance for Fern Ridge pheasant this weekend

This is the last week of the Western Oregon Fee Pheasant Hunt Program at Fern Ridge, and hunters are getting a little frantic. I haven’t filled my tag, and neither have plenty of others.

Tuesday afternoon I met 21 year-old Josh Dunn of Eugene at the check station on the West Coyote Unit on Cantrell Road. Dunn was filling out his hunting permit at the same time I was and he invited me to join him and his two year-old German Shorthair, Doc.

I jumped on the invitation. I’d been walking Fern Ridge without a dog for weeks and was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to be the one diving into the burrs this time.

But a dog wouldn’t guarantee birds, according to Dunn. He said last season he probably shot 20 birds, but this year he hadn’t filled his first tag.

Hunters can buy as many tags for the Fee Pheasant Hunt program as they can fill. Each tag costs $11.50 and allows a hunter to take two rooster pheasants at Fern Ridge or other participating wildlife area, such as the E.E. Wilson Wildlife Area north of Corvallis.

Chinese Ring-Necked pheasant are an exotic species, first transplanted to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1881. The birds flourish in the dry cropland regions, but Western Oregon is too wet for them to sustain a population. So ODFW brings in farm-raised birds for hunters in the area.

The 2005-2006 hunt was a big success with dry conditions and an extended season that lasted to the end of October. A total of 1,444 birds were released and 1,074 birds were taken according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Hunters had a success rate of just under 40% for the year.

Dunn has been hunting Fern Ridge regularly, coming in the mornings after getting off graveyard shift, and hunting some afternoons. He said he flushed some birds this season, but the corn and other crops had grown so high, it was hard to follow up with a decent shot.

It didn’t take long to understand exactly what he was experiencing. Dunn and I worked the perimeter of the West Coyote Unit for about an hour before we dove into the corn. The stalks towered over us, easily two feet over our heads.

About 20 yards into the row, a rooster flushed straight up in front of us and started over the field. Dunn scrambled to get into position for a shot, but the corn was too high, too thick. He took a shot anyway, but the bird was long gone.

We jumped another bird in the same stretch of corn ten minutes later, but the results were the same.

Wayne Morrow, Wildlife Biologist at Fern Ridge explained that no crops had been planted last year at all because water levels at Fern Ridge Lake had been drawn down to work on a dam project. This year the corn and millet are absolutely exploding, but Morrow pointed out that the cropland accounts for less than 10% of the hunting area.

Despite tougher conditions, Morrow said hunters are satisfied with the birds, which come from Mortenson’s Purple Sage game farm in Caldwell, Idaho.

“These birds aren’t that far out of the wild gene pool,” Morrow said. “They run if they can and fly if they have to. They’re big, beautiful birds.”

ODFW planted 70 pheasants across Fern Ridge on Wednesday night. It will plant 75 more this evening at 5:00 pm. The season runs through Sunday, October 8.

Pack your blaze orange and get there early, legal shooting starts at 6:51 am. I’ll see you out there -- I’ve still got a tag to fill.

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