Ringnecks With Ph.D.s
September 30, 2010
That may be how you regard Kansas pheasants that have survived almost a full hunting season. The author, however, has developed some effective tactics for taking them — and a few should work for you!
By Marc Murrell
January marks not only the first month in a new year, but also the last month in which you can chase Kansas' pheasants.
Chasing them is the easy part; catching them is a whole other story. They've been pursued high and low for a month and a half, and by New Year's Day the dumb ones are in freezers or someone's favorite stir-fry recipe. The remaining roosters have Carl Lewis thighs, and they put those muscles in high gear at the first sight or sound of danger.
But hunters willing to go after these track stars can still manage to bag some birds, and even shoot limits of the colorful cocks. Here are a few tips to put more birds in your bag before our 2004-05 season comes to a close.
Many Kansas pheasant hunts have enough participants to field their own football team, sometimes both the offense and the defense. While this is often a successful tactic for huge tracts of habitat, like Conservation Reserve Program land early in the year, it doesn't necessarily hold true in January. In fact, hunters who go in the field with only the company of a dog or two, often end up with plenty of birds in the bag. Such was my case a few years ago as the season was within a week of shutting down.
I'd neglected pheasants most of the season, instead hunting waterfowl relentlessly. Duck season having closed, I decided to give the upland birds one final shot, and so I loaded up my black Lab, Magnum, and headed to a CRP tract nearly a quarter-section in size.
As I walked down the middle of the field, Magnum zigzagged in front of me. He'd get a little birdy and take off on a tangent, and I'd call him back in the direction I wanted to go, figuring the bird was hundreds of yards ahead and way off course. We flushed a few birds, all well out of range. The good news was most of them simply flew to the outer reaches of the same field and settled back down into the thick grass.
A bit baffled, I paused for a rest as I watched my Lab take off on another jaunt. That little trip shortly flushed a rooster that would have been within shotgun range had I followed the dog. The look he gave me after hearing no shot made me think I was the dumber of the two of us, so I decided to just follow his lead for a change.
His game of follow-the-leader was impressive. In just a few short hours he managed to flush dozens of pheasants within shotgun range. Unfortunately, many of them were all brown - exciting, but still illegal. It wasn't long before we started working the edges of the cover, and when he'd get hot on a trail near the perimeter, we would try to push the running bird to a corner or an area where thick grass met sparse. The results were usually a tight-sitting flush and it wasn't long before a four-rooster limit lent welcome heft to my game bag.
Kansas shotgunners can collect their share of ringnecks late in the season, but not in "easy" spots. Smart wingshooters will opt to hit the thickest cover in their hunting areas first. Photo by Marc Murrell
Pheasants in linear cover have a distinct advantage, as their escape route is often like an airport runway. Hunters who stay one step ahead of a pheasant's game by placing blockers at strategic locations are often rewarded for their effort, and many hunters who've worked the same areas for years know just where pheasants are going to leave certain fields. Or they simply post blockers at the ends or near corners of each field.
Pheasants in this scenario will typically do one of two things. The first I experienced first-hand as a .410-toting 9-year-old three decades ago: flushing wild. My dad and I, along with a family friend, had just pushed hundreds of pheasants into a nearby field that still had a big strip of standing corn. The field had flooded during harvest, and the farmer didn't bother with what was left.
I had little idea what was in store as my dad took me to one end with specific instructions to stay right there. They went to the other end to start walking. A box of .410 shells caused my vest to sag as I quivered with the excitement of being left to fend for myself and the thought of shooting my first pheasant.
It wasn't long before pheasants started rocketing past me. I started shooting a single-shot and reloading as fast as I could. I never touched a feather until I nearly emptied my pockets. Dozens of birds had flown past me when one finally managed to run into a few stray pellets and colorfully crumpled in the nearby stubble. Even with a couple of shells left in my pocket, and more birds filing past, I couldn't take my eyes off my prize. I never fired another shot.
My dad arrived on the scene worried that, with all the shooting, I had killed my limit, his limit and our friend's limit, too. He could only laugh as he looked at the pile of empty hulls from the barrage and I proudly pointed to my first rooster.
The second possibility may work to a hunter's advantage, too: If a pheasant detects a blocker's presence, it may double back on its own track and get pinned. Hunters should proceed slowly and methodically, pausing briefly to startle any tight-sitting roosters into flight. In this case, a close-working bird dog is a huge asset that can provide prime opportunities for easy shots as the birds hold until kicked.
Although wearing blaze orange isn't required for pheasant hunting, it's a good idea, particularly in a blocking situation. Wear a cap or vest for maximum visibility.
LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW!
If Mother Nature drops several inches of white stuff in January, you'd better come up with an illness and call in sick to work. Pheasants that normally give hunters the slip during periods of ideal weather often react differently with snow cover and freezing temperatures. Birds will be less inclined to run, and many times they'll hold tight.
Hunters out after an overnight snow can track birds and distinguish between hen and rooster sign by size and tail marks. A hunter willing to take it slow and to follow a rooster's tracks quietly can slip up on the bird, causing it to sit tight - or to flush within range. And there's nothing prettier than watching a cackling rooster burst from a drift and send snow in every direction.
Access to late-season pheasants on private ground is much easier to obtain in January than it is earlier in the year. Opening weekend and family
gatherings are usually over by then, and so farmers don't mind letting other folks have a crack at the pheasants on their property. It's a good idea to offer farmers a cleaned bird or two as a token of appreciation. Many will decline, but they almost invariably appreciate the gesture.
GO WEST, YOUNG MAN
The best pheasant hunting in Kansas is found where the bird numbers are highest, which is usually in the western third of the state. However, central portions of Kansas from north to south can provide fantastic shooting as well. The only section of Kansas that hunters needn't bother to searcg is southeast Kansas, where pheasants are few and far between.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks publishes an upland bird hunting forecast each fall. It evaluates and summarizes each geographic region of the state for upland bird hunting potential based on surveys. A printed version is available at any KDWP regional or park office, or online at www.kdwp.state.ks.us.
YEE-HAW FOR WIHA
One of the most successful programs in Kansas' hunting history has been the Walk-In Hunting Area Program (WIHA, pronounced wee-haw). The program involves the KDWP leasing private land for public access, primarily for upland bird hunting. It's extremely popular with both resident and non-resident pheasant hunters.
Started as a pilot project with only 10,000 acres in south-central Kansas a few years ago, it has grown to more than 1 million acres statewide for the 2004-05 season. The tracts leased for access range in size from 80 acres on up. They are open for legal upland bird hunting from either Sept. 1 or Nov. 1 (the pheasant season always starts on the second Saturday in November) through the end of January. Most of the prime pheasant-hunting habitat enrolled in the WIHA Program is located in western Kansas.
The KDWP publishes an atlas that details the locations of each tract within a county. Individual counties can also be downloaded at the department's Web site at www.kdwp. state.ks.us.
Hunters need only possess a valid Kansas hunting license or hunter education card, if required by law, to hunt any WIHA tract.
While January trips may not always produce like earlier in the season, there's still plenty of opportunity to trick at least a couple of wily roosters. With relatively little late-season hunting pressure, there's really no reason not to give it a try. The results can be most rewarding and fulfilling.
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