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Pheasant hunters who prefer the Walk-In option and don't mind paying the ticket to walk will have access to 162,000 acres of fields and brush on the eastern plains this year, about 2,000 acres more than last season.

Ed Gorman, the Division of Wildlife's small- game coordinator, tallied up the acreage at his office in Sterling on Tuesday as he prepared the 2004-05 atlas for the state's Walk-In Access Program.

The atlas will go to the printer Friday and will be on the racks late this month wherever licenses are sold. The $20 Walk-In stamps, which allow hunters to stroll onto the signed, seasonally leased private lands without having to ask landowner permission, already are on sale at license agents.

About to enter its fourth year, the popular program reinvents itself every late summer, with Gorman and district wildlife managers carefully tailoring the mix of cover they accept to current weather and crop patterns and signing up the best habitat, particularly for pheasants.

Last year, eastern Colorado showed overall recovery from drought. But habitat quality was variable, with some productive and some unproductive areas. Gorman said the drought recovery has continued. Pheasant numbers should be similar to 2003, which was a vast improvement over 2002.

It might take a little more footwork for hunters to push up roosters, though. Instead of concentrating in islands of prime cover while avoiding relatively barren areas, the birds will have more room to roam.

"This year, there are a lot more fields with average cover," Gorman said. "So the birds will be more spread out. Some hunters might perceive that as fewer birds. But when I've been out, I've seen about the same number of pheasants as last year."

A caveat lurks there, however. Pheasant broods this year appear somewhat smaller than average. In most years, juvenile pheasants greatly outnumber adults, but this year, the percentage of juveniles will be lower.

"We're not seeing 10 or 11 (chicks) in a brood," Gorman said. "Instead, it's more like seven."

That, of course, means a higher percentage of wise, old roosters that have played the game before - big runners that flee at the sound of dogs and slamming truck doors, birds that require more work and team strategy among hunters and their bird dogs.

Assuming the ringnecks will be more widespread and a little more difficult to find and flush, Gorman said the Walk-In signups this year focused in some areas on larger blocks of cover, "so you can go chase those pheasants that fly across the road. We'll see how it works."

He said the program also signed up smaller chunks of rich habitat, where they were available. That includes center-pivot field corners and a few dense parcels "that look a lot like jungles."

Generally, the mix of cover types will be about the same as last year, when Conservation Reserve Program fields and wheat stubble dominated. Barring any sudden winter storms, Gorman said, about half the roosters bagged on opening weekend will come from wheat stubble.

The Walk-In Access atlas maps highlight the properties by county, showing their location and type of cover - either grass, corn, wheat or "other." In the program's first three years, hunters complained about early season crowding on some of the lands but praised the convenience and quality of hunting, grading it on a curve of understanding when drought interfered with nature's bounty.

With six weeks to go before opening day, reports from enrolled landowners are mixed for pheasants in the northeast and southeast yet optimistic for vastly improved bobwhite and scaled quail numbers in the southeast.

Pheasant- and quail-hunting seasons open Nov. 20 statewide, with pheasants closing Jan. 16 east of Interstate 25 and Jan. 2 west of I-25. Quail hunting closes Jan. 2 on the northeast plains and west of I-25, Jan. 16 in the southeast.

The Walk-In properties all are located in 13 counties east of I-25. Last year, about 8,500 hunters, or 46 percent of the state's pheasant hunters, purchased Walk-In Access stamps. When surveyed about the 2003-04 season, most reported vastly improved pheasant-hunting success compared with parched 2002-03. or 303-892-5481

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