As the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down many activities around the world, it just touched hunting in Michigan. The 2020 Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative has been canceled for fall 2020. This new program started in 2019 and provided planted ringneck pheasants for designated state game areas around Michigan, and hunters would buy a stamp to help fund the program and get a chance to get some wing shooting in. Hopefully, the program will be reinstated for the 2021 hunting season.

The author’s lab, Cooper, with a pair of roosters.

So, what is an upland hunter to do?

Well, there are still a ton of opportunities in Michigan this fall. Actually, the number of hunters utilizing the Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative was a very small fraction of upland hunting in our state. The mild winter was kind to wild ringnecks across our state in early 2020, so if you had a place you loved to hunt for them and still have that access, I would plan a trip. There is a good chance there will be some birds there.

Now, we know pheasant numbers are not like “the good ole days,” but I’ve personally worked a lot harder for fewer birds per square mile than we will this year. One day this spring, I counted 10 different rooster crows on the west side of our section. When that takes place, the next problem usually becomes access to those birds because some are in non-huntable areas, and that frankly has been the biggest obstacle facing upland hunters throughout Michigan. Many folks will sweet talk landowners to deer hunt, but few seemingly will ask to upland hunt. I have found that many older folks love to stand at their door and talk about their fond memories of their father and his brothers coming out to pheasant hunt in the ’40s.

The emphasis when asking these landowners must be on treading lightly and working the dog more than anything else. We all know a big fat rooster is merely icing on the cake. I had a neighbor that said he missed me coming down to ask him if I could hunt. Of course, taking him that bag of walleye fillets probably didn’t hurt the cause either.

Don’t forget about Michigan’s wild turkey fall hunt. Turkeys are quickly becoming Michigan’s number one upland game species, but the fall hunt still does not get the attention that the spring hunt does. Either sex bird can be harvested in the fall, and it is undoubtedly a challenging hunt as the birds generally don’t respond to calls like they do in the spring. Most experienced hunters still “put the flock to bed,” meaning they locate where the birds are roosting and get set up before they leave the roost in the pre-dawn hours the next day. There is also certainly a large percentage of fall turkey hunters taking part as part of their bow season. Setting up in a pop-up blind on a good deer trail often makes for a great set up on birds as well. We all know turkeys love to hang around whitetails.

Grouse numbers remained mixed throughout the state. There are still some outstanding pockets of birds in both the northern lower and Upper Peninsula. The key is location, the young stands of aspen or oak, so doing some pre-hunt scouting to find these young stands can up the odds immediately. Grouse are probably the most difficult upland bird to put in the game pouch as even seasoned hunters get surprised at the flush, and the birds magically take the toughest flyway through the branches. Taking a few home can be very gratifying.

For many of us, fall just would not be complete without watching our dog move through the canary grass probing for a big rooster or pointing a nice partridge in the hardwoods. The smells and colors of autumn were seemingly made for upland hunters. It is also a great place to start a youngster in the outdoors. So in between bowhunting excursions and fall fishing trips, I will be sweeping through a few fields chasing those wily ringnecks I heard this spring. If they happen to be up in the neighbor’s garden, my chocolate lab Cooper and I will still have witnessed the absolute best Mother Nature has to offer. Hopefully, you will be able to share that this fall as well.