I watched from my duck blind as an orange-clad group of pheasant hunters worked their way along the edge of the river. Their dogs zigzagged back and forth into the wind, obviously picking up the scent of running birds.
While they were still some distance from me, I watched as three bright-colored roosters flushed from the river bank. Flying low, out of sight of the hunters, they crossed the shallow river a few feet above the surface and disappeared into the shoreline brush of an island. The hunters continued on and eventually passed by me.
Duck hunting was slow that sunny morning, so I left the blind in search of the pheasants I had watched cross the river. Dog in tow, I waded across the river to the lower end of the island. The thick brush it held was a combination of second growth willows, cattails and other weedy plants. I let the dog do the work, as I walked quietly along the sandy bank. The Lab was soon picking up scent and driving forward, so I took advantage of the clear banks and moved swiftly to the upstream point of the island.
Suddenly one of the cocks broke clear of the brush at a dead run, spotted me, and flushed noisily into the sunlight. He was so close I had to let him get out a few yards before I pulled the trigger. At the sound of the shot the other two birds broke free of the brush and swung the other way. One of them didn’t make it.
The two pheasants were a nice bonus after a hard-luck morning of duck hunting. When that morning was over I had much more in my possession than fat roosters in my vest. I had learned an important lesson about pheasants, rivers, escape routes and islands.
The rooster that survives the first two weeks of pheasant season is one gun-shy bird. By his very survival he has proven that he has quickly learned some hard truths. He has learned to run, run, run, and never — ever –flush in front of a hunter. He has learned to bail out of the swale on hearing a car door slam. And he has learned that pheasant hunters rarely wear waders.
Islands provide an excellent sanctuary for heavily-hunted pheasants, especially on public lands.
First, most upland-bird hunters wear walking boots since they are more comfortable for an all-day hunt, and that locks them out of any place with water that is more than ankle-deep, especially when it’s cold. Second, islands often contain the same kind of riparian habitat that draws pheasants to river banks in the first place. The brush, shrubs and weeds that grow on them provide food and cover, and a drink of water is never far away. Everything a pheasant needs is right there. The respite from the ranging bands of hunters is a bonus.
Riparian habitats are Western pheasants’ last refuge. Modern farming practices have wiped out much of what the gaudy birds need to survive.
“Modern farming is efficient,” said Mark Kirsch, a biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in the pheasant-rich Columbia Basin. “Pheasants don’t like efficient. They like waste — waste grain, weeds and stubble fields.”
Kirsch further described clean farming as a method that has reduced the habitats available to populations of pheasants, leaving pockets of birds in the only good habitat left: riparian zones.
“The birds have been pushed into the last pockets of cover, which are along creeks and rivers. Also, farmers have discovered that leaving shoreline cover along streams reduces erosion.” This has led to more farmers fencing off their creek banks and allowing the brush to grow. The pheasants, always an afterthought in today’s modern farming era, move in and make themselves at home.
Riparian zones are also where grain fields are frequently found. The lowlands along river valleys and creeks are where much of the row-crop farming is done. Rivers like the Snake, Columbia, Sacramento and Upper Klamath are places where irrigation is easy and there is plenty of flat ground for tilling. Pheasants are farm-country birds, and they seek out the high-energy foods available in these farm fields.
In the dryer areas, wheat is the common crop, but farmers rarely leave the stubble fields anymore, preferring instead to till it under immediately upon harvest. This has greatly reduced the amount of winter food for birds in the dry highlands and pushed them down low into the river bottoms.
Rivers and creeks are not the only areas that provide good riparian cover.
Swamps and marshes are also pheasant hotspots. They offer the same kinds of escape opportunities and they hold something else pheasants love: cattails. The thick, tall plant grows in batches along the banks of boggy areas and marshes, providing cover so tight few hunters can walk through it. Add to this the soft, muddy goo cattails grow in, which is difficult to walk in, and you can see why humans avoid them and pheasants love them.
Hunting wet areas is not easy, that’s why the birds are there. Still, it can be done, but the hunter must be resourceful. As soon as the pheasants detect hunters the birds start using their escape routes, so you have to block them from bailing. A hunting party does this best, because a lone hunter cannot cover multiple locations at once.
In heavily hunted public areas, a lone hunter may also score by setting himself along the escape routes and letting other bands of hunters drive the birds to him.
Many rivers in the West are shallow and easy to wade. When this is the case, hunting parties can score by approaching island cover from two different directions. One hunter can cross and work the island down to the bottom, where another hunter has waded across and is waiting. For larger islands, a party of hunters can work the island from top to bottom, but a blocker or two is always needed at one end.
Deeper rivers such as the Snake may require a boat to reach the island-hopping birds. The boat can drop a hunter or two at one end and then proceed to the other end. The remaining hunters can then move down toward the waiting blockers pushing the birds before them.
A good dog is almost a necessity when using river-island h
unting tactics for pheasants, and it should be a dog that loves the water.
Over the years I came to rely on Labradors for these tactics, and the breed responded well. The big dogs pushed through the brush easily and retrieved the birds from the rivers’ icy water with enthusiasm. Pointing breeds are not as effective in the tall, thick cover. A flushing dog is best in these circumstances.
Many wildlife areas and refuges now require the use of non-toxic shot for all shotgun hunting. Bismuth and other heavy non-toxic shot have ballistic characters that are close to lead. Use these in the same shot size as you would lead shot.
But the less-expensive steel shot is too light. In the early days of shooting steel I learned that steel shot performed better on upland birds than it did on ducks, as long as you increased the shot size. I found No. 4 steel to be equivalent to No. 6 lead shot, and I have taken many pheasants, and even a lot of quail, with these loads.
All islands are not found in the water. Pheasants learn to use pockets of thick cover surrounded by open fields in much the same way. Predators cannot approach the birds unseen in these pockets, and isolated cover is often overlooked by gunners. Hunting parties should separate and approach these pockets from a number of different directions, limiting the escape routes open to the birds.
WADERS, BOATS & PHEASANTS
A late-season, gun-shy, wild-flushing pheasant is a tough customer. Any time you bag one, you can feel deservedly proud. Once the roosters pass the opening day and graduate from Shotgun University, strap on some waders and try a little island hopping. The birds will be surprised to see you, and you may have some extra weight in your game bag when you wade back.