Just The Facts on Pheasant Hunting

Stick with these tried-and-true tactics to score on ringnecks right now and throughout the winter season.

Photo by Tom Migdalski

By Mike Schoonveld

Did you know there are actually three distinct species of ring-necked pheasants in the Midwest? Yes, we have "early-season pheasants," an almost mythical species that are very hunter-friendly. This breed of ringneck allegedly runs to the gun. Hop out of your truck, load up the scattergun and just walk absent-mindedly into the field. In no time, these early- season roosters will notice you are there, come a-running and spring into flight once they get within 10 or 15 yards of you as though they are on some sort of kamikaze mission.

A story about early-season pheasants usually centers on how to pop these birds with 28 gauges and how to keep your bird dog from overheating. Throw in a quick and easy pheasant recipe and the story is told.

The second breed of pheasant roaming the Midwest is the "mid-season pheasant." This species is the ones that are left after the kamikaze birds are all headed for the frying pans. These birds live in the same areas as early-season pheasants, but you'll have to work for them a little to get them into your game sack. A good bird dog will help, but strong legs and a fair shooting eye will make up for being dogless.

Limit hunts come to those who put in a modicum amount of effort. An article about hunting these mid-season birds will often delve into such esoteric topics as which sort of boots to wear or the merits of large-sized dogs like German shorthairs or Labs vs. smaller breeds like Brittanys or springers. Throw in a quick and easy pheasant recipe and the story is told.

Then there are "late-season pheasants." This is the toughest breed of ringneck known to man. These are the birds that can recognize a dog kennel in the back of a pickup truck and are already running out the other end of the field before the truck is even parked. These birds aren't just lucky remnants from the early-season action - these are smart birds. They are the survivors; and in a test of man and dog against a late-season ringneck, odds makers would pick the bird every time. It takes more than just a man and a dog to score on these pheasants. It takes strategy, tact, magnum loads, perseverance, lightning reflexes and a dog sharp enough to read and understand Shakespeare. Or so it would seem with most late- season pheasant hunting articles I've read. Throw in a quick and easy pheasant recipe and the story is told.

Okay, there's really no genetic difference between these species, but there certainly is some truth in the theory about early-, middle- and late-season pheasants acting distinctly different.

I've walked into a patch of giant ragweed on opening day and scored a limit before the muffler on my truck cooled off. I've put my dog in the same field 10 days into the season and came home with tired feet and enough pheasant meat to try out a couple of quick and easy pheasant recipes. I've also hiked miles through good-looking cover and snowed-over fields with only the distant glimpse of a departing rooster for my efforts.

It all has to do with timing. In most areas of the Midwest, early-season pheasants exist, but only about as long as the frost on a thick stand of switch grass on opening day. By mid-morning, the frost is gone and so are most of the early-season birds.

The midseason breed has a bit more longevity. How long they can be found is more a factor of hunting pressure than anything else. That being the case, on most public hunting lands in the Midwest, this breed wisps to extinction as fast as the smoke from a 12-gauge barrel on a windy day. On Uncle Joe's farm, with only you and cousin Ernie out hunting, the midseason breed might be encountered as far into the season as, say, the second day, perhaps the second weekend. Don't expect pushover pheasants much longer, however, because not only are late-season pheasants smart, they are teachers - or so it would seem.

Since pheasants supposedly can't talk to each other or have much reasoning power, one could theorize that each pheasant would have to learn on its own what hunters and their dogs are up to when they hit the field. If that were the case, some pheasants would get their first and last lesson at the same time, while other pheasants in a good pheasant patch wouldn't get a lesson at all.

That doesn't seem to happen. While some ringnecks do learn the hard way, it often seems the word that hunters are afoot spreads through the pheasant population as fast as Presidential rumors grapevine through the Washington press corps.

The point of all this is to explain why many of the most successful hunters I know don't worry about hunting for early-season pheasants and give scant attention to the mid-season breed, as well. These guys will take what easy birds are offered them on opening morning, but by the end of the day, certainly by the end of opening weekend, the experts are already opting for tactics most suited to getting in range of late-season ringnecks.

THE SQUEEZE PLAY

No one tactic is responsible for putting a cagey rooster in a difficult spot more than squeezing him into a situation where his best option is to take flight. Given a choice, a late-season ringneck would much rather run from danger than fly from it. The hunt strategy, then, becomes one of making the pheasant run into trouble.

Trouble can come in two forms. It can be a lack of cover, or it can be another hunter. Small groups of hunters, even people hunting alone, should opt for trying to force a running ringneck into places where it runs out of cover. A spot where a grass waterway ends out in a picked bean field would be a perfect scenario. A hunter or two working toward the middle of the field inevitably forces any pheasants in the cover toward the dead-end. In this perfect scenario, a hen or two might burst from the waterway once they first start feeling the pinch, but the roosters running ahead know better than to fly at the first approach of danger.

As the pheasant is pushed to the end, it has to decide if it's safe to run across the barren stubble, to fly or to hide. The smartest ones fly and fly quickly, hopefully (for them) while the hunters are still out of shotgun range. Few ever opt to hotfoot it across the open cover. Most simply crouch into a clump of grass and rely on their natural camouflage.

There, a dog's nose or a hunter's boot can still locate them. Thoroughly tromping the final few yards often boosts a hiding rooster into flight, offering a fair shot.

This is a "best-case scenario" and not one frequently encountered. In most cases, pheasant-filled waterways don't just abruptly end out in the middle of a bean stubble fiel

d. It's up to the hunters to size up the area they have to hunt and make the best of the available features.

At best, there will be a few locations where a hunter can push birds toward open areas. At worst, think corners and edges. Pushing a running bird into the corner of a square field isn't a sure thing, but it works often enough and is preferable to simply wandering around out in the middle and hoping.

The squeeze play is easier to accomplish when there are more hunters involved in the strategy. With additional players, cover areas can be broken into segments and the participants broken into groups of pushers and blockers.

Let's say there's a mile-long field through which a ditch runs and there's been a 66-foot-wide filter strip established along the edge of the ditch. Thousands of miles of these have been established through the Midwestern pheasant belt, thanks to incentives in previous (and current) USDA Farm Bill provisions.

Let's say there are four of you hunting this farm, so a simple, but effective strategy, would be to divide into two blockers and two pushers. The blockers should retreat 100 yards or so out into the crop field and walk parallel to the filter strip. The idea is to circle around any pheasants living in the cover. Once the blockers have covered one-quarter to one-third of a mile, they take positions in the cover while the pushers start to hunt through the cover along the ditch toward the distant blockers.

The pheasants will run ahead of the pushers and any dogs they might have, but end up getting pinched when they encounter the blockers ahead. Running is no longer an option, so it's fly or hide, just as in the first scenario.

For safety's sake, the blockers should take positions where the pushers can easily see them and both groups of hunters should wear the legal minimum and more of hunter orange hats, vests and shirts. Most pheasants will flush at a sharp angle, so it's often just a matter of waiting for a bird to swing out to where a shot can be fired safely.

Most of the time when I'm with a group using this strategy, we alternate being drivers and blockers. Some days the drivers seem to get more of the shots, some days the blockers are in the hotspot. But without the teamwork, the pheasants would just run on forever and no one would get any action.

THE PUBLIC LAND PUZZLE

There's no doubt game managers on public lands across the Midwest know very well how to create and maintain good pheasant habitat. That's proven by surveys and game census techniques that show pheasant densities on many public parcels, which rival the best pheasant densities found anywhere.

There is also no doubt a late-season, public-land rooster is about as smart a bird as any hunter is likely to encounter. Lessons taught on a daily basis during the season make it seem as though the birds all learned to dig deep holes and live underground until the season is over.

Of course, that's not what they do, but one thing they do get accustomed to is that every morning, or at least on many of the mornings of the season, there is going to be a bevy of hunters and bird dogs setting forth from the established parking areas, invading their home turf. A couple of tactics can turn the tables on these veterans. Both have to do with not acting like every other hunter who has been there previously.

Switch to afternoon hunts. I once had a job that had me out and about long before dawn, but left me with afternoons full of free time. Andy, my Brittany spaniel, and I would often use that time chasing pheasants and quail on heavily hunted public areas. An early afternoon start left us with several hours of hunting time and only rarely did we ever encounter other wing-shooters. They'd all come early, put in their time and miles and were headed home by lunchtime.

I used another tactic to my advantage on those afternoon hunts, as well. Instead of hunting from the parking lot out into the fields as the majority of the early-shift hunters always do, I'd put Andy on a leash and we'd hike a mile or more back into the property following crop fields and travel lanes. Then, we'd hunt back toward the truck. Public- land pheasants are smart, but they aren't rocket scientists. Duping them with a couple of non-standard tactics is often enough to make your day a success.

Try the same tactics on private lands you have permission to hunt. The veterinarian who gave Andy his yearly shots once bagged 49 pheasants in a 25-day season. He had an advantage, of course, in that he knew which farms had the best habitat on them and he'd schedule his daily route so he'd end up one of the better farms at midafternoon.

Doc didn't have any spots, however, which were reserved only for him. He'd finish with his animal doctoring, let Ginny (one of Andy's aunts) out of the cab of his truck and spend the last hour or so of the afternoon hunting in patches of cover that were seldom hunted past noon.

GUNS & AMMO

Doc never came quite so close to a "perfect" season as he did that year. That season pheasant populations were peaked, Ginny was in her prime and it all worked out perfectly. Doc always bagged lots of ringnecks, however, enough that he could afford to take the good shots offered and pass on marginal opportunities. Ginny was also the best pheasant retriever I've ever hunted with. She'd trail a wing-tipped pheasant a mile if she had to and deliver it back to Doc every time.

That's why his favorite pheasant gun was a 20-gauge Ithaca Model 37 Featherweight. If you are lucky enough to have great spots to hunt, many days to hunt and a non-slip retriever backing you up, consider a 20 gauge for your sport.

The rest of us need to carry more firepower. I once heard an avid pheasant hunter say, "You can't kill a pheasant too dead." That may not be exactly true, but it is true that it's better to err on the heavy side, rather than the light. A 12 gauge shooting a quality, high-brass load will often put an extra two or three pellets into a retreating ringneck - and that extra shot can mean the difference in an easy retrieve and one only a dog like Ginny could make.

QUICK & EASY

What sort of pheasant hunting article would be complete without a quick and easy pheasant recipe? Here's a favorite of mine. Make some garlic-flavored olive oil by quickly simmering a teaspoon of chopped garlic in one-half cup of olive oil. Remove from heat and add one-half cup of vinegar, one-quarter cup of whole grain mustard and one-half cup of brown sugar.

Mix all this together and put in a zip top storage bag. Add enough pheasant breast filets for the number of people you plan to serve and zip the top shut with as little air locked inside as possible. Knead the package to ensure the breasts are well coated and allow the breasts to marinate in the bag for at least two hours.

Cook the marinated breasts on a hot charcoal grill for about 10 to 15 minutes, turning once. It's quick, easy and delicious. The re

cipe will work well with any of the three species of ringnecks found in the Midwest. This you'll find to be very true!



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