Nebraska hunters, buoyed by good news from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, are eager to hit the fields.
Quail numbers are the highest in at least 20 years. The white-tailed deer herd has recovered from a deadly disease that swept through the state in 2012. Mule deer numbers are within 5 percent of record highs.
Duck numbers are at an all-time high, and goose populations are plentiful.
An exclamation point already has been stamped on the state’s hunting outlook when 14-year-old Hannah Helmer of Seward killed what is likely to be the state-record elk.
Here is a look at what hunters can expect for upland birds, deer and waterfowl:
Quail numbers high
Hunters who enjoy dog work, especially that of pointing breeds, are practically drooling in anticipation of the quail season.
“Quail populations shot up quite a bit last year,” said Jeff Lusk, the commission’s upland game program manager. “Populations this year appear to be even higher. This should be the best year for quail in quite a long time. It’s been about 20 years since quail populations have been this high.”
Mild winters and near-perfect spring nesting and hatching conditions have contributed mightily to the whopping increase in quail numbers the past two years.
A number of quail hunters traditionally participated in a quail survey by sending wings of the birds they shot to commission biologists, who were able to determine production by comparing wings of juveniles and adults.
“A number of hunters quit that survey and weren’t hunting quail anymore because the populations were so low,” Lusk said. “But they encountered so many quail last year that they requested to be put back on the survey.”
Nebraska’s traditional quail range is along the southern tier of counties from the southeast to the Colorado border and in the northeast portion of the state.
Lusk proved he can multi-task last May. While conducting a dove survey for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he also took note of quail along the 20-mile route in the Beatrice area.
“Normally, I hear one or two quail the entire route,” Lusk said. “This year I heard quail at each and every one-mile stop along the route. I even saw quail, and I had never seen them before on the route.”
Nebraska isn’t the only state that is enjoying a spike in quail numbers.
“All the surrounding states are reporting similar things,” Lusk said. “Iowa says it hasn’t had quail populations this high in 28 years. It’s the same with Kansas. They’re expecting a really good year.”
Pheasants doing well
Although pheasant numbers are far below historic trends, hunters can expect to enjoy some success.
“Pheasants aren’t doing as well as quail, but they are doing well,” Lusk said. “Our harvest last year was up 23 percent (from 2014), and our survey results are showing approximately the same abundance as last year. Populations are higher than the five-year average, so compared to what we’ve had in recent years, it should be better.”
The commission’s upland biologists are pinning their hopes for improving pheasant numbers in future years on a comprehensive pheasant management plan that is now being launched.
“We’re aiming to increase pheasant numbers as well as (hunter) access to pheasants during the season,” Lusk said.
Lynn Berggren, a commissioner from Broken Bow who died in February, was instrumental in prodding the commission to devise a plan that would lead to increased pheasant numbers. That plan now bears his name.
Prime pheasant habitat has been identified throughout the state, and efforts to bolster ringneck numbers will be focused on those areas — in the southwest, the Panhandle and the northeast.
“We’ll do work statewide,” Lusk said, “but we’re going to focus where we believe we’ll have the best chance of succeeding.”
Work has begun on wildlife management areas owned by the commission within the areas of focus.
“We have direct control of the management on those WMAs,” Lusk said. “But I also know our private land people have been trying to stimulate interest among landowners to increase acreages and improve pheasant management on those acres.”
Nebraska’s upland hunters often fail to realize that opportunities exist beyond pheasants and quail. Sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens also are on the menu and are overlooked by many.
“For a species as plentiful as it is in Nebraska, the interest in grouse hunting isn’t where we would like it,” Lusk said. “It is an under-utilized game bird in the state.”
The Sand Hills remains the primary range of sharptails and prairie chickens.
“But we have prairie chickens in the southwest, too,” Lusk said. “There are a good number of leks in that area.”
For the past several years, commission biologists have been trapping about 100 prairie chickens annually and sending them to Iowa and Missouri in a restoration effort in those states.
“We trap in the southwest,” Lusk said. “So there are good populations there. People just don’t consider the southwest as good chicken range.”
Although sharptails and prairie chickens share the Sand Hills, they prefer different types of habitat. Commission biologists have been studying the effects that wind power development is having on the birds.
“We’ve fitted birds with GPS collars,” Lusk said. “It appears prairie chickens make a good amount of use of ag land during the winter. Their winter range shifts, and they move pretty good distances to ag lands. Sharptails, though, prefer grasslands, and they also prefer more shrubs in their habitat and prairie chickens will tolerate.”
The prairie chicken population in the southeast has diminished because pastures where the birds thrived have been turned into corn fields.
“Prairie chickens are still huntable in the southeast,” Lusk said, “but numbers and hunter interest has dwindled.”
A free East Zone permit is necessary to hunt prairie chickens in the southeast. The commission used to give all those permits out, but about 100 have not been utilized each of the past five years.
The fall turkey season is not as popular with hunters as is the spring season. But the opportunity for success remains high for those 10,000 or so who purchase fall permits.
Turkey populations have fallen from peak numbers, but they are still near historic highs.
“You would have to go back 15 or 20 years to have lower turkey numbers,” Lusk said. “There hasn’t been much of a decline. I think the population grew so rapidly that it overshot what the landscape could support. Now it is falling back to where the turkey numbers can stabilize.”
Perfect spot for deer
Nebraska’s white-tailed deer are recovering nicely from the devastating losses suffered in 2012 when epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) killed an estimated 30 percent of the state’s herd.
“Every area was affected except in the southwest,” said Kit Hams, the commission’s big game program manager. “Areas elsewhere in the state lost 20 to 30 percent. The Sand Hills, which lost 30 percent that year, lost 30 percent again in 2013.”
In retrospect, the EHD outbreak was helpful in reducing the state’s deer herd, which had swollen to unwanted numbers. Nebraska hunters killed about 38,000 whitetail bucks prior to the outbreak — too many, according to Hams.
“We’re not trying to get back to where we can harvest 38,000 whitetail bucks again,” he said. “We had more whitetail than the landowners wanted — more than we wanted or needed. So we’re going to be careful and try to avoid getting back to where the population of whitetail were in 2010, 2011 and 2012.”
Whitetail numbers are controlled by the number of antlerless (doe) permits the commission issues.
“Whitetail are very close to where we want to start limiting their growth,” Hams said. “We added close to 8,000 antlerless permits this year.
“Right now, we’re at a perfect spot. Our hunters are happy; our landowners are happy. The whitetail age structure is looking great. Anybody can get a permit for just about anywhere in the state. If you want to shoot extra deer, we have antlerless permits available.”
Mule deer, which are not heavily affected by EHD, are near historic levels in the state, Hams said. The number of mule deer bucks harvested in Nebraska increased from 7,500 in 2014 to 8,900 last year.
“The highest we’ve ever had was just over 9,000,” he said. “We have a good chance of hitting a record-high mule deer buck harvest this year. Mule deer hunting is about as good as it’s ever been, and it’s increasing.”
Although EHD seldom causes mortality among mule deer, they do die from a parasitic worm that infects the lining around the brain. The parasitic worm also kills elk, moose and caribou. Whitetails are also infected by the brain worm, but it doesn’t kill them.
“That parasite was in the wetter regions of the country,” Hams said. “Whitetail and mule deer ranges used to be separate. When you put 300,000 center pivots in Nebraska and irrigate from one end of the state to the other, and when whitetail go everywhere, those parasites are able to move.”
The parasite began to appear in western Nebraska about 15 or 20 years ago, Hams said. It riddled the mule deer just as the EHD outbreak in 2012 affected whitetail.
“Now the mule deer are building back up,” he said. “Our mule deer herd is probably within 5 percent of the highest numbers we’ve ever had in the state. I don’t think any other mule deer state can say that.”
Commission biologists are pleased with where the mule deer and whitetail populations stand today, even though numbers are far less than many other states.
“We have about 300,000 whitetail in the state, which is about 4 or 5 whitetail per square mile,” he said. “That’s a lower density of whitetail than any state south or east of us. Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania are states that have 50 whitetail per square mile.”
Hunters who kill does help control the whitetail population. But unlike half the nation, Nebraska doesn’t need a high doe kill. Coyotes do the work.
“Nebraska is a wide-open state,” Hams said. “There is high visibility, and we have lots of coyotes. We don’t have to shoot as many whitetail does as states to the east and south of us do because our deer herds are more visible to coyotes.”
Still, it is necessary for hunters to kill some does. Years ago, there was a stigma if a hunter came home with a doe instead of a buck. That stigma has greatly lessened as hunters understand the need to kill does in order to control the deer numbers.
“What I’m seeing as more of a stigma now is if somebody shoots a yearling buck,” Hams said. “People are more selective. They’ve hunted deer a lot of years in Nebraska. They’ve had a lot of opportunity. And now more people are letting the yearlings walk. And some of them are letting the 2-year-olds walk.
“When I was a kid, 60 to 70 percent of the deer shot were yearlings. In recent years, 40 to 45 percent of mule deer bucks harvested are age 3 and older, while 34 to 36 percent of whitetail harvested are age 3 and older.
“That age structure has stayed relatively stable the past five years,” Hams said. “That’s the best it’s ever been, and we’re hoping to see increases.”
Three keys for waterfowl
The numbers are there.
“The last three or four years, we’ve seen duck populations at all-time highs — at levels we’ve never seen before,” said Mark Vrtiska, the commission’s waterfowl program manager. “In fact, last year was a record high for total duck numbers.”
It’s much the same for geese. Waterfowl biologists have seen snow goose numbers reach record levels the past few years. Populations of all goose species have maintained or steadily increased.
“In terms of numbers,” Vrtiska said, “it has been as good as it probably will ever get. We are — and have been for a number of years — living the good life in terms of waterfowl numbers.”
Other parts of the equation, however, must be factored in if waterfowl hunters are to enjoy a successful season.
High numbers of ducks and geese, abundance of water and cold fronts up north in the proper time frame are all necessary for Nebraska hunters to have a blast.
The numbers are there. Water conditions statewide are good, not great. Rainfall has been plentiful in some parts of the state. In the Rainwater Basin, however, water conditions are poor — even worse than the past few years.
“Generally speaking,” Vrtiska said, “we have some water and some habitat. We’re not as bad as 2012 when the whole state was in a drought.”
Waterfowlers don’t openly wish for bad luck to befall neighboring hunters, but down deep they would love to see dry conditions in South Dakota and Kansas.
“If conditions are right in those states,” Vrtiska said, “ducks may come out of Canada and stop in the Dakotas. Or they may overshoot us and go into Kansas. You hate to say it, but you kind of want them dry.”
Even with the high numbers, last year was not a bang-up year anywhere in the Central Flyway.
“There was water everywhere up and down the flyway,” Vrtiska said.
“Birds could scatter out. When there is that much water, it’s great for birds, but not so much for duck hunters.”
The third of Vrtiska’s keys to a successful season is weather.
“Every duck and goose hunter knows weather is key,” Vrtiska said. “If we don’t get the right kind of fronts at the right time, it’s not good.”
None of the three keys, however, is more important for a successful season than the others
“All three of them have to line up,” Vrtiska said. “If one is not in place, you just don’t have it.”
Ducks and geese didn’t reach Nebraska last year until late in the season. Vrtiska, who became the commission’s waterfowl program manager in 1999, said he has noticed a gradual shift to later arrivals during the fall migration.
Hunters have asked for seasons to be pushed back and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the commission, have complied — to an extent. The seasons still aren’t late enough to suit the fancy of some waterfowlers.
Those who keep pushing for later dates believe the birds will always migrate at some point during the winter. Vrtiska doesn’t believe that is true.
“Some guys want the season to go all through January in some parts of the state,” he said. “A guy last year called me on January 15 and said there was a migration. No, there was not a migration. Birds will redistribute in cases like finding a food source, but there wasn’t any mass migration into this area then. There wasn’t a weather front to cause it.”
Vrtiska won’t rule out a late migration caused by a massive weather condition in the Dakotas or Canada. But he contends the photo period affects the migration desires of waterfowl.
“After December 21 — the winter solstice — the days start getting longer,” he said. “The longer we go past that date, the more the birds are probably triggered to eventually go north. For us to have a successful season, a weather event has to happen before that date.”
Waterfowl biologists in Canada and the U.S. have not taken a strong look at the changes in agriculture practices on the prairies, Vrtiska said. But it’s likely that an increase in grain production in North Dakota and on Canada’s prairies plays a part in the desire of waterfowl to linger farther north during the fall.
“Maybe a buffet has been put out for those birds,” Vrtiska said. “And it probably has been staying warmer longer up there. Those birds probably have learned to adapt. If they have food and a little water, they can hang out. It will take some really cold weather or snow to push those birds out.”