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A Tradition Teeters
California Pheasant Hunting Almost A Thing Of The Past

Tuesday, November 18, 2008
by John Johnson

I live in California, but I don't like to surf or eat tofu. I hate shopping malls, I don't vote for the most liberal candidate in every election and I really couldn't care less what the stars of the entertainment industry are up to down at the other end of my state.

What I like to do more than just about anything is hunt pheasants. And believe it or not, this used to be a pretty decent place to do that. It's never been one of the "destination states" for ringnecks like the Dakotas or Nebraska, but there was a time not all that long ago when a guy could go out on a November afternoon and expect his bird dog to at least rustle up a rooster or two.

But due to a variety of environmental factors, that's not the case anymore. The hunting has gotten progressively worse over the past decade or so, and it's just about bottomed out. Wild roosters aren't quite as rare as the gold nuggets that made this state famous a century and a half ago, but they're fast-approaching that status.

Photo: Julie Johnson
It's now a rare day that a California pheasant hunter can go out with his or her dog and encounter a couple of wild roosters.

I've hunted for a total of about 16 hours this season, which opened 10 days ago. I've come across a single cockbird, and I feel a little bit guilty for having killed it.

There's still more than 4 weeks left in the season, and I'd be really depressed right now if I hadn't taken a neighbor kid to a junior hunt over the weekend. It's held at one of the local state-run wildlife areas, back in the "closed zone," where the birds experience hunting pressure on only that one day of the year. What I saw there was inspiring.

There were roosters lots of them. Zeke, my yellow Labrador retriever, flushed 13 in just a little over 2 hours, and we spent that whole time in an area no larger than 50 acres. There were a bunch of hens, too. It was like going into a time warp, perhaps back to the 1950s, when the northern Sacramento Valley was the pheasant mecca of the West Coast.

I did a little research the other night on the California Department of Fish and Game website if there's one thing our DFG excels at, it's tracking numbers. I discovered that during the 1963 season, which occurred just a few months before I was born, about 210,000 people hunted pheasants in this state and bagged a total of just under 818,000 wild roosters. In 2006 the most recent year for which numbers are available, only about 30,000 people pursued wild birds, and the total take was less than 100,000.

It's totally unrealistic to think that we'll ever again have enough wild pheasants to produce numbers like those compiled in '63. Too many things have changed primarily farming practices.

Can we ever get halfway back? Maybe not, but it's a worthwhile goal. If the birds could somehow rebound, then so would the number of hunters. And the revived interest in pheasant hunting would lead to more favorable conditions being created all across the region for the hearty transplants from Southeast Asia.

I plan to get some like-minded people together to work with Pheasants Forever, and we'll just see what happens. Maybe the hunting will never get significantly better than it is right now, but at this point we have nothing to lose.

If it gets any worse, it'll cease to exist. And if that happens before I've done everything I could to prevent it, I'll eventually leave this world with at least one major regret.

That's not a pleasant thought, and I just can't let it happen.

John Johnson is ShotgunFan's editor.

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