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Dentry: If left to judge by the cover, best guess is, it's a mystery
July 13, 2004

Not to hurry summer along, but the weeds are growing out on the plains. That should lead an upland hunter's consciousness streaming to images of pheasant chicks shuttling through the undergrowth. They, too, must be growing.

When it all comes together - Nov. 20 is the opening day of pheasant- and quail-hunting seasons - the husks of those weeds will be "cover" in


hedgerows and wheat stubble, and the chicks will be full-fledged ring-necked pheasants. Predicting just how many takes some educated guesswork.

Counting elusive game birds is less than a perfect science, but farmland observers on the eastern plains can deduce much from weather patterns, crop and weed growth. The best guess this early in the game is the 2004-05 pheasant- and quail- hunting seasons should be at least as promising as last season.

"We're cautiously optimistic right now," said Ed Gorman, small-game coordinator for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Gorman was cautiously optimistic last year and his optimism was rewarded with vastly improved pheasant numbers from parched 2002.

"We're certainly better off than 2002 and probably equivalent to 2003," Gorman said from his office near Sterling, where bobwhite quail were whistling outside. "Last year was a pretty good year. Good cover, good bird numbers."

Wildlife commissioners have set the hunting dates for pheasants at Nov. 20-Jan. 16 east of Interstate 25 and Nov. 20-Jan. 2 west of I-25. Quail seasons will be Nov. 20-Jan. 2 in northeastern Colorado and west of I-25, Nov. 20-Jan. 16 in the southeast.

Like last year, hunters probably will face a potpourri of conditions, ranging from drought-ridden fields to lush oases.

"What people are going to see is real patchy, certainly not widespread excellent habitat conditions," Gorman said.

Those patchy conditions come compliments of scattered storms that watered some farming communities and shunned others. In

places, it's wet and green. Gorman says other areas are "brutally dry."

He counts the area around Yuma as some of the best potential pheasant cover. But travel only 15 to 20 miles north and the brutal dryness sets in. It's dry in the southeast, too, though not as bad as in other years.

Pheasant spies driving back roads on annual crowing counts found more strutting roosters than last summer along each of 10 routes in the northeast. In the southeast, the counts along six routes produced about the same results as last summer.

The crowing counts are a rough measure of the breeding population but don't reveal anything about hatching or poult survival. Gorman said hail, which kills many young pheasants, has not been a problem, except in two areas. Hailstorms shredded crops and pheasant cover from Iliff nearly to Crook and from Amherst to Venango, Neb.

Of greater concern are the unknown effects of a cold, rainy spell that lingered across the northeast in late June. Most pheasant chicks hatch the first week in June, so the delicate chicks would have been only 2 weeks old when the dismal weather closed in. There was no freeze, however.

Gorman said wheat stubble is starting to dry out, and weeds, indeed, are growing. Some wheat fields are so weedy they might remain uncut, which is excellent for pheasants. Elsewhere, wheat stubble is short, which is not so good. Overall, however, Gorman describes pheasant cover as "good."

Bobwhite quail hunters have even more to celebrate thanks to generous rains in June.

"Cover in the river bottoms is unbelievable," Gorman said.

Results of the early summer quail whistle counts aren't in, but he believes numbers will be up a bit from last year.

Better information about pheasants will be forthcoming as district wildlife managers inspect habitat and enroll fields in the division's Walk-In Access program. The popular private-land, public-access program has a goal of 160,000 acres, about the same as last year.

Hunters can expect to find the same type of cover as in 2003-04 on the Walk-In properties. Division representatives choose that cover primarily for pheasant hunting, so the Walk-Ins will open Nov. 20. They are not open for dove hunting, which begins Sept. 1, except to hunters who have landowner permission.

Walk-In Access enrollment will continue through late September. Gorman said the program's atlas likely will be available in late October. Stamps allowing hunters to participate in the Walk-In Access program cost $20 and are expected to go on sale in a few weeks. or 303-892-5481

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