When Pheasants Don't Play By The Book

After the echoes of the opening-day barrage fade, pheasants grow seemingly smarter by the day and become getaway artists. Hunters who hope to succeed must adopt unconventional tactics to hunt them.

Mike Raahauge of Raahauge's Shooting Enterprises in Norco, Calif., takes aim on a flushing rooster ringneck.
Photo by Michael Dickerson

We all know how pheasants are supposed to behave.

According to popular hunting literature, the average, well-adjusted pheasant holds tight for a high-bred pointer, flushes noisily and climbs nearly vertically before transitioning to horizontal flight. These by-the-book pheasants are theoretically easy to hit, for they slow momentarily as they reach the zenith of their climb, allowing the intrepid hunter to pot them virtually at will.

The problem with this scenario is that such "book pheasants," as I call them, are seemingly becoming more rare by the season. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that pheasants are evolving specifically to avoid the shot patterns of hunters, but today's bearers of long tail feathers most certainly possess and employ a wide array of defense mechanisms designed to thwart the average gunner.

Some birds flush wildly out of range, refusing to hold for man or beast. Some hold so tight you practically have to kick them into the air. Some rocket straight away and low, like quail on steroids. Others are downright cowardly. They send the females aloft as decoys to draw fire, and then duck and run like purse snatchers.

I still marvel over a pheasant I encountered last season. The bird flushed from underfoot, climbing straight up and very high. There was just one problem: the bird was literally corkscrewing in exaggerated spirals all the way. With a couple of decades of pheasant-hunting experience under my belt, I'd never seen one do that. Of course, I spun round and round with the bird, flat missing with the first barrel. I was fortunate to connect with a few pellets from the second barrel -- but not before I'd practically screwed myself into the earth. Surprisingly, the bird hung high in the wind like a kite, flapping away but not going anywhere. I even had time to reload before the bird finally helicoptered slowly to the ground.

"Thank goodness," my hunting companion said, convulsing with laughter. "I was afraid that bird would fall and kill my dog."

Even without such bizarre antics, pheasants are shifty, sly survivors of the first order. They are neither the fastest game bird around nor the most difficult to hit, but they are missed often enough -- or, more commonly, they escape without offering a shot -- that many a hunter trudges back to the truck at the end of the day commenting rather colorfully on the dubious ancestry and questionable parentage of male ringneck pheasants.

Avoidance of the empty-game-bag syndrome begins with the realization that pheasants rely on three primary survival strategies. Simply stated, they run, hide or fly. If you remember that they almost always prefer the first two options to the third, you're already ahead of the curve in devising tactics to deal with problematic birds.

Before delving into these tactics, let's be clear that we're not talking about opening-day birds. Pheasants are not immune to the laws of natural selection. The young and the terminally dumb are the first to see the inside of an oven each season. No, we're talking about birds that have figuratively been there, seen that and don't want any part of it.

As each hunting season progresses, surviving males become fewer in number but vastly smarter individually. That's especially true of birds on heavily hunted public land. When you consider that most pheasants spend much of their lives in a half-mile sized area, it doesn't take a rocket scientist of a pheasant to figure out what the sounds of approaching pickup trucks, chattering hunters and noisy canines mean. Think about it. At popular or well-known public hunting areas, most hunters park in the same spots, make the same noises, and use the same ingress and egress routes day after day, season after season. It's small wonder the birds don't win every match.

THE 'THREE S' RULE

Educated birds require a fundamentally different approach and mindset than those so often displayed by the over-energized opening-day gang. When the going gets tough, it's time to adopt the Three S Rule: shut up, slow down and scour the cover.

The shutting-up part should be self-evident, but rarely is when the hunting party numbers more than two. When the mere sound of a closing car door causes pheasants to start flushing in the next county, you should get the hint that it's time to be quiet. I'm not suggesting that you have to stalk birds as you would stalk big game, but minimizing unnecessary noise can be a huge help.

Slowing down is vital in hunting super-wary birds. You make less noise that way, and you're less likely to pull a crazy legs act and blaze past tight-holding birds -- or drive running birds out of gun range. In fact, by working slowly and pausing frequently in a stop-and-go pattern, you can often unnerve birds into flushing that would otherwise have held tight.

Work slowly and thoroughly, scouring every bit of cover that might hold birds. Examples include islands of weeds or brush left standing in crop fields, hedgerows, roadside ditches and thick cover along banks and shorelines of ponds or streams.

Of course, knowing where to look for birds is vital. The best hunting is usually in areas where feed and cover are plentiful. It also helps to remember daily movement patterns. Early in the day, birds are in or near roosting cover. By mid-morning, they move to feed, preferably on such crops as soybeans, milo and corn. They move into nearby loafing cover in the early afternoon, and return to roosting sites at the approach of sunset.

HANDLING WILD FLUSHERS

Wild-flushing birds present a special challenge. Working slowly and quietly may help you get within range before they flush, as will approaching with the sun at your back, making you harder to see. If that circumstance coincides with having the wind in your face, take advantage of it -- not because you are defeating the birds' rather shabby noses but because hunting into the wind can help dogs detect birds before the birds detect you.

If you still can't close within gun range of birds before they flush, consider splitting your hunting party and approaching from opposite directions. Of course, make certain everyone understands their proper zones of fire and the absolute need to refrain from shooting at low-flying birds.

When working solo, watch flushing birds closely and mark where they land. Some will immed

iately run for the state border, but others will head for the nearest cover to rest, especially after a long flight.

When all else fails, there's still one secret weapon at your disposal. It's called Hevi-Shot, and it's manufactured by Remington. One of the newest forms of non-toxic shot, Hevi-Shot is 10 percent denser than lead, and individual pellets are somewhat pear-shaped, rather than round. As a result, the stuff patterns wonderfully, hits harder, and reaches out farther than traditional lead shot. It's definitely the way to go when hunting pheasants in areas where the use of non-toxic shot is mandatory.

RUNNING DOWN RUNNERS

The best way to deal with running birds is to make them run out of options.

In the big crop fields of the Midwest, that's often done by the use of large drives employing small armies of hunters marching abreast through the fields. Blockers are stationed at the ends of the fields, and flankers are employed to keep birds from slipping out the sides of the field ahead of the drivers. Executed properly, the strategy forces running birds to flush when they near the blockers. Blockers often enjoy the bulk of the shooting, so hunters rotate positions on subsequent drives. A key to success is having enough hunters advancing on line to keep birds from curling back through the drivers.

While there are places in the far West where it's possible to mount such drives, they're not all that productive on many types of terrain Western hunters face, especially on public lands.

That doesn't mean the theory won't work. In fact, it works phenomenally well -- you just have to adjust the mode of execution. Whether you're hunting alone or with others, strive to push running birds toward "natural blockers," such as open ground or, better yet, water. Even a dirt road will do. Regardless of the type of cover hunted, the idea is to make birds run into places where they run out of cover. They will then have to flush, hopefully within gun range, or sit tight, in which case a good bird dog or a hunter's approaching footsteps sends it into the air.

DEALING WITH FROZEN-STATUE BIRDS

For super tight-holding birds, which sometimes burrow deep into cover that would stall a tank, some hunters resort to unorthodox measures. A pal of mine once owned a beagle named Oscar who specialized in working deep-cover pheasants. Oscar, who has since regrettably gone to that happy scent trail in the sky, never met a brush pile or tangled thicket he wasn't overjoyed to dive into head first when he smelled a bird. I'm talking about stuff so thick that Brittanies and shorthairs look at you with that, "No way, boss," expression, and attempt to stare the birds out of the brush.

Birds that wouldn't budge for those dogs, or couldn't be found by them under dry, poor-scent conditions, didn't hesitate to budge for Oscar. One look at that rapidly approaching vacuum-cleaner beagle nose was all it took to make them launch into the air like anti-ballistic missiles. The primary requirement for success was to be in the general vicinity of Oscar when he found birds. Beagles aren't generally noted for their willingness to hunt close, follow commands with religious zeal or resist the temptation to do a little freelance hunting of their own.

For those of us too tradition-bound to attempt bird hunting with a beagle, there are, thankfully, other options for dealing with tight-holding birds. It pays, for example, to make repeated passes through thick cover you suspect is holding birds, especially if the hunting party is small and the cover substantial. It's quite common to flush a bird in a particular location, and then flush another from practically the same spot while passing through the same area later in the day.

One of the best tricks involves little more than the generous application of a booted foot to the brush or vegetation in which a bird may be hiding.

Over the last couple of seasons I've begun hunting at a preserve near my home that has very thick, abundant natural cover. The preserve-raised birds will, at times, hold tighter than a drum. The standard technique for working these birds is to first urge your dog to break point and flush the bird. When that fails, as it often does, we simply wade into the brush and give it a good kick. That usually produces the desired result -- an explosive, in-your-face flush that can unnerve even experienced hunters.

Under these conditions, it's best to go with an open choke, such as improved cylinder for autos or pumps, and improved cylinder and modified for double-barreled guns. The natural temptation is to shoot quickly in reaction to the flush, and many novices make the mistake of focusing on pheasant's long tail, shooting where the bird was rather than where it should be when the shot charge arrives. The only cure is to force yourself to let the pheasant open the range a bit before shooting, and develop the habit of leading the head rather than the body of the bird.

ADJUST TO THE TERRAIN

The most important factor in choosing guns and shotshells for pheasant hunting is the terrain in which you'll be hunting. Open country usually dictates nothing less than a 12 gauge with tight chokes. Light modified and improved modified barrels are good choices for doubles in open country. Some hunters shoot nothing but full choke (or modified and full, with doubles), but they also sometimes make mincemeat of close-flushing birds -- and miss birds at moderate ranges they would have hit with a more forgiving choke.

While I subscribe to the 12-gauge-only theory on wild birds, preserve-raised birds generally hold tighter for a pointing dog, allowing the use of more open chokes and smaller gauges. I draw the line at anything smaller than a 20 gauge, however. Pheasants are big birds that can absorb a lot of punishment. Remember, too, that your shot has to penetrate heavy wing bones and a lot of feathers to reach a pheasant's vital areas, particularly when they're headed dead away.

Size 7 1/2 shot is mandated on many preserves, effectively limiting your options, but wild birds should be pursued with size 6 shot, at minimum. It's not uncommon, on the big pheasant drives in the Midwest, to see savvy hunters stuffing the first barrel of their double guns with size 6 shot, and then loading a tight-choked second barrel with size 5 or even 4 shotshells. That's not a bad idea where long-range shots are the norm.

In all cases, quality target loads are the way to go. The shot in target loads has higher antimony content, resulting in harder lead, which deforms less upon firing and patterns better. It also hits a tad harder than the softer shot contained in ordinary game loads.

When hunting more broken terrain or mixed habitat types, pay special attention to ditches, dry creek bottoms and ravines. Pheasants often make tracks for such areas when threatened, and hunker down in the bottom or fly to safety, out of sight, just below the rim of a ditch or ravine.

This lesson was driven home to me last year in, of all places, Hawaii. I was hunting the Big Island for multiple game bird species, and was astonished at how far away the wild ringnecks were flushing. I let them go, even on the rare occasions when they

flushed within range. I was after more exotic fare -- namely, a beautiful mutant version of the ringneck called the Hawaiian blue -- for mounting. My chance came late in the day when, after trailing a runner for what seemed an eternity, we caught a glimpse of a big, beautiful blue flushing up and over the rim of a steep ridge some 200 yards away.

My hunting companion and I looked at one another, shrugged and began the long, tiring climb up the ridge. I fully expected the pheasant to be long gone when we topped the ridge, but upon peering down into the deep ravine below, we spotted a suspiciously pheasant-shaped shadow hunkered down within the larger shadow of a boulder. In went the dogs, and the shadow materialized into a greenish-blue blur streaking for safety down the steep little canyon. My load of sixes ended his flight, and his spot next to a mounted ringneck on a wall of my home serves as a daily reminder of the craftiness of one of our grandest game birds.

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