Five Ruses For More Pheasants
September 24, 2010
Put more pheasants in your game pouch with fancy legwork and deception.
Author Gary Lewis fooled this pheasant that fell for a sideline stratagem. Pheasants like edge habitat best of all. When the group is small, you can score by hunting smaller pockets and keeping a blocker at the end of the row.
Photo by GaryLewisOutdoors.com.
Dried rows of corn rattled in the November breeze. The old Lefever side-by-side rode light in my right hand. Ducking to get a glimpse through the uncut stalks, I spied a skulking rooster, his head low to the ground. And then, a hen and another rooster.
We had boxed the corner of the standing corn: Sam was in the ditch at the point; Mark, 40 yards to the north; and me, 50 yards downhill to the east.
Dana, Adam and Chad, who already had a rooster in his game bag, busted up through the 10-foot stalks. They whistled, howled like coyotes and shouted. There were pheasants and quail feeding on the corn, and as the drivers approached, the birds ran skittering away toward our corner, to circle on the ground or take to the air.
Following the drivers' progress, I was startled to hear a sudden rush of wings behind me as a rooster leapt skyward. Turning, I shot too soon, then took a better shot and folded the bird.
We were hunting farmland just west of the Idaho border in eastern Oregon: rolling side-hill land, with a gentle slope up to sage-covered tabletops.
We pushed fields of standing corn, fallow hillsides, fence lines stacked with tumbleweeds and soggy bottomland. Pheasants would burst from cover hundreds of yards away to soar onto the next property, or would hold to flush with a roar of wings almost at the toes of our boots. Drives were structured to give everybody a chance. Responsibility and muzzle control were constantly stressed above the bagging of game.
It was important for the success of the hunt that certain procedures be followed in driving the fields. When necessary, we walked in a straight line, six abreast, across a field. At such times, one hunter shouldn't lag behind the rest, nor should another get too far ahead. Fields of fire were explained: A hunter in the middle of the line could shoot only up or straight ahead of him. A hunter on the edge could shoot up, ahead or to the side, where no other hunter was endangered.
That ordered, managed hunt for wild birds taught me a few things about roosters and the strategy it takes to put them in the game bag.
The hunt is like a magic act: The hunter is the magician, and the pheasant is the jaded audience that's seen it all before. Whatever trick you decide to pull out of the bag depends on the habitat and the number of "stagehands" -- or hunting partners -- you have at your disposal. And as any good magician knows, you have to understand your crowd.
Pheasants love the "edge" -- that fringe habitat found at the borders of cropland and scrub, the streambanks and ditches that border fields of grain. In the morning, they prefer the sunlight to shade.
And if a rooster has survived a season or two, don't expect him to spend much time with the hens. If the ladies are headed one way, you can bet that a long-tailed rooster is headed in the other direction.
In the fall, the rooster has one goal -- his survival -- and all he knows is what he's learned about how predators work. He's been on the menu every day of his life, outwitting foxes, coyotes, bobcats, owls and hawks. When autumn comes, you're just another predator with opposable thumbs and a shotgun. He'll beat you, too, unless you even up the odds with a few tactics he hasn't encountered.
Pheasants roost in medium-height grass and awake before sunrise to pick grit and gravel. Next, they head to the fields to feed in the first glow of the new day. By shooting hours, they are working back out of the grain, into the fringe cover. Midmorning, with the sun already high in the sky, finds the birds in the thickest, densest cover they can find, lying low until late afternoon.
Toward the close of the day, with the birds on the move again, comes the best time since morning to spot and flush them along the fringes of feeding cover.
After opening weekend, the birds will have learned that the slam of a car door and the thump of a shotgun signal the approach of a group of hunters. While we're mapping out our action, the pheasants are planning their exit: stage left. Remember, you're playing in their theater, and they know the acts better than you do.
The first rule is to pick your ploy. You need drivers and blockers if you're going to put on the "Grand Illusion." If there are only two of you, perform your sleight-of-hand in the fringe cover and leave the food plots to larger groups.
The second rule is to play the wind. You need the breeze in your face -- or more accurately, in your dog's face. Working into the wind, your pointer or flusher will smell the birds before he stumbles onto them. You'll be able to watch the dog's attitude and know when you're getting close.
To beat a pheasant at his own tricks, you need to call the strategy before you take to the field.
THE SQUEEZE SUBTERFUGE
This tactic works best when you've got six or more players. Sketch the field and your hunt in advance. Drivers and blockers should have the plan in hand and know their positions.
Come in quietly. Stop your car about a mile before the hunting field. Turn off the music, don't slam the door and keep conversation to a whisper. Let your dogs run off their early-morning excitement. You want to see that they're obeying commands and working close before they take the stage.
Give the blockers 15 minutes to get into position. Position blockers on the sides of the field, as well as at the end, to get the advantage on birds that squeeze out the middle. Drivers can come in loud or quiet, depending on your game plan. But when working toward blockers, the best rule is to keep the safety on until there's blue sky beneath the bird.
A variation on this trick can pay off when the field is too big for the group. Focus your strategy on one section. Quietly post the blockers, then create a diversion with loud voices and car doors on the side you won't hunt, to make more birds move into the hunt area.
In a big field, a pheasant will run as far as it can before it takes to the air. At the edge, where crops or the grass give way to a stream, a ditch, a road, or a stand of trees, expect the birds to flush wildly.
THE ZIGZAG FEINT
Employ this trick when there are fewer hunters and a lot of good habitat. A measured, methodical, silent approach is your key to success. Stay 10 yards apart, working from one edge to the other, in a zigzag fashion.
Don't be in a hurry. When working brushy fencerows or ditches, one or two drivers should bust through the weeds with a dog, searching a slow zigzag pattern back and forth. Post another hunter at the end of the row to jump skulking birds into the air. Keep communication between the hunters to a minimum, so the moves aren't telegraphed to the birds.
Most hunters work a field by walking through, 10 yards apart, with the dog moving back and forth. The zigzag pattern works the field in a thorough manner that keeps a rooster guessing.
When a bird is on the run, keep him between you and your partners. He's got you both located. As the noose tightens, he'll either flush or hold.
And when the dog goes on point, make a half-circle 20 yards around the dog to come in looking straight at him. With the bird between you and the pointer, watch the dog's eyes. He knows where the bird is, and he'll be locked on. This will give you the chance to make the best approach, knowing where the pheasant is going to come from.
If possible, make your approach from below. When the bird flushes, it'll want to go downhill, unless you're blocking the exit. If it has to fly uphill, it has a lot of altitude to gain, and you've got more time to take the shot.
When a bird escapes, watch its flight plan. It may hit the ground and start running, or it might lock up and hide right where it landed. Mark and follow the flush after the first ruse has run its course.
THE SIDELINE STRATAGEM
Pheasants live along the fringe. Moving from roost, to gravel, to feed and water is easiest in edge habitat. The lone hunter and a dog will make the most points on midday jaunts through fringe cover. Here, the birds go to rest when the sun is high or to escape from the pressure a large hunting group may be putting on a nearby crop field.
When hunting along the edge of a river or lake, you may flush pheasants that have sought refuge on the fringes of nearby fields. Almost always, they'll fly over the water instead of back over the resting cover. These are the birds that have learned that at the first hint of danger, safety lies on the other side of the river.
One place we hunt has ranches on both sides of the river, with an island in the middle. When there are parties hunting both banks, this is the only time these birds are in any real danger. The island is their last place of refuge -- except when I bring my waders or a raft.
This mindset of hunting the edges also pays along the railroad tracks. Where the cinders end and the bushes start is good escape cover. And the bird will most often fly across or along a railroad track, rather than breaking back into the fields.
Ditches are another sideline play. When pushed, a seasoned rooster knows how to use a ditch, whether it's a dry irrigation canal or a barrow pit, to his best advantage. Once he hits the furrow, he'll go one way or the other, most often at top speed.
THE TRIANGLE DECEPTION
Use this move when hunting long ditches or strip habitat, such as along a railroad track or a river.
One hunter is the point of the triangle, moving through the cover about 25 yards ahead of the rest of the group. The other two hunters should take the edges, pushing a wedge into the pheasant habitat. As the birds in the deep cover move out to the edges, they'll be kicked up by the two hunters at the base of the triangle.
The pheasant doesn't want to leave his hideout. So rather than flush, it would rather hold or sneak. Just when it gets around the point man, headed in the opposite direction, it runs into the next hunter. Strip habitat -- willows and tall sagebrush, cottonwood trees and junipers -- is taller than the surrounding cover. This high cover can obscure the hunters' vision.
Here again, the blue-sky-beneath-the-bird rule comes into play. Know your fields of fire to avoid endangering your partners.
THE FREEZE-OUT PLOY
Pheasants expect a motion offense, but they don't know how it's coming at them. If the dogs get "birdy," but they don't find lock up or flush, stop and try a freeze-out. What the roosters don't expect is for you to stop.
It doesn't take a lot of cover to hide a pheasant. I've flushed big roosters from cover that wouldn't have hidden a mouse. These birds are the ones that count on stillness instead of foot speed. You can beat them at this game. Simply stop and call the dogs back for another pass . . . then another. Hold your ground and wait the bird out. Either the dogs will find him, or he'll get nervous and make a break for it.
We once hunted an uncut wheat field along a creek. We knew there was a bird close by, but we hadn't found it. The springers cut back and forth, tails wagging, bodies quivering with anticipation. We walked slowly, watching them. As the dogs worked ahead, we moved with them until Randy, the dogs' owner, called a halt.
"Let's just wait here," he said. We turned and waited, watching the area we had just come through.
Turning and running, then turning again, noses to the ground, the dogs worked the wheat until, in a roar of wings, a long-tailed rooster sought elevation and the safety of the sage. My shotgun pushed twice against my shoulder as the bird swept by. My gun empty, the bird still flying, I heard another gun blast, and the bird folded -- an older rooster and presumably wiser. We admired him for his beauty before he joined the others in the bag.
Even the hunter without a dog can drive a pheasant crazy with the freeze-out. Start and stop at intervals, especially in the corners of fields, where the edge gives way to another type of habitat. When a slow-walking hunter stops and waits, pheasants get nervous. Even a tight-holding bird will get flush when it can't take the pressure.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF DECEPTION
Plan your hunt . . . then hunt your plan. With hunter-savvy pheasants, it's a matter of knowing the fundamentals of deception. Strategy comes first.
Don't foretell the effect. Go in quiet. Hunt with your face into the wind and slow down. Use blockers when you can and work the edges.
Avoid unnecessary actions. Keep the dogs in check with electronics or with leads until they get birdy. Shouted commands and foot races to catch the dog will only put the birds on the alert.
Never repeat an effect. If you know there are birds left in the field that you just hunted, let them filter back in, and hit them the next day with a trick they haven't seen before.(*
the method secret. Let the other hunters make all the noise and run the birds to cover. And let them wonder why you always bring home a limit.
It has always been this way. If you want to put more pheasants in the game bag, it comes down to legwork and deception. The trick is in fooling the rooster into thinking that he made his escape then being there when he takes to the air.
It's not a game that you'll win every time you take to the field. Win or lose, the pheasant hunt is most glorious for what returns in memories. Good friends, hard-working dogs, long-tailed birds and sunlight on steel barrels.
And a ruse that worked!
To order a signed copy of Gary Lewis' book Hunting Oregon, send $19.05 (includes shipping and handling) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, P.O. Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709. The book is packed with valuable information and over 100 photos.