Sidestepping The Hotspots

Avoiding the very hottest pheasant habitat to bag birds may sound crazy, but it works. We bring you sage advice from an expert at avoiding the crowds by hunting the fringe for ringnecks.

It's human nature to try to be the best, to desire the best, to visit the best locations. But when you plan your next pheasant hunt, visiting the top location may not be in your best interest. For once, aim a bit lower.

Regardless of where you hunt pheasants, it's likely the prime property has been leased or bought. Access requires a checkbook. If you own your own company or a corporate jet, writing a check for a pheasant hunt won't hurt. But for the majority of the hunting population, high-cost hunts are out of the question. So sidestep the hotspots and hunt pheasants on the outside edges.

According to most state regulations, you're allowed only a few cock birds daily. You don't need to be in the midst of 1,000 pheasants flushing; 20 or 30 birds a day will do just fine. Zones less acclaimed for pheasant densities also offer more opportunities for access without paying high fees. Landowners there haven't been exposed to the intense commercialization of hunting, and haven't seen the flashing dollar signs -- not yet, anyway. Not only are landowners more willing to grant access, but the public areas also have less pressure, meaning less competition for you.

To make the most of a hunt that sidesteps the hottest of hotspots, do your research. It's easy to locate the hotspots in any given state. State conservation agencies publish pheasant densities and pheasant release sites prior to the season, but they don't hype the fringe areas, where hunting may be more difficult, but less competitive and less expensive. Here's how to find your own honeyhole on the edge of a pheasant hotspot.

PHEASANT FRINGE RESEARCH

Begin by studying game and fish department Web sites and requesting the latest data on the ringneck population for a particular state and region to pinpoint the state's best options. Ideally, get your hands on county-by-county population indices that show the population for the last season, but also indicate the seasonal harvest for the county. Several years of data can clearly show a trend for a particular county and tell you if the previous year's success was a one-time fluke or a regular occurrence.

Each state estimates its pheasant population differently. And even the best data is nothing more than an educated guess when it comes to tallying the population of a bird capable of disappearing in a golf-course setting. Some states use spring crow counts while others use summer roadside pheasant surveys.

A call to local conservation officers, state biologists and even county extension agents can reinforce paper data. It will also give you up-to-the-minute information on the effects of winter weather, spring rains and severe summer weather events, such as hail, that can annihilate entire populations of ringnecks in minutes.

Why should you locate the hotspot first? Even though you want to steer clear of the top pheasant counties, you need to know where the hotspots are located. Why? Like a bull's-eye, each consecutive circle away from the center puts you one step closer to an overlooked, unpressured honeyhole.

Moving away from the center of a high-density area doesn't automatically put you into birds. Pheasants still have a list of necessities for thriving, and even though mediocre areas are lacking the best in habitat, a few basic needs will go a long way towards producing pheasants. For pheasants to sustain a population they must have access to food, water, habitat -- and particularly, winter habitat.

Pheasant populations' explosive growth in the nation's midsection is largely due to the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program. In areas such as Iowa and central South Dakota, where grassland habitat is interspersed among grain fields, pheasants do particularly well, especially when ideal winter habitat is nearby. When those CRP fields are farther away from grain country, as is often seen in the western reaches of the pheasant belt, they still foster birds, but are not as productive. CRP grasslands provide both critical nesting and security habitat for pheasants.

CRP provides a good home, except when winter winds howl, and then pheasants require timber and brush. Many second-best pheasant locales depend on shelterbelts or river and creek bottoms to provide this habitat. Ideal winter habitat includes dense stands of conifers and shrubs. Groves around farms and ranches with two to three rows of shrubs provide small flocks of ringnecks with vital cover.

Thick pockets of other vegetation can also winter birds. Cattail wetlands, plum thickets and steep ravines lined with shrubs provide suitable winter habitat. Pheasants are gregarious and can tolerate high densities of birds in a small tract of winter cover. In other words, a small plot of winter cover may yield ample birds in a fringe area. If food is found adjacent to the cover, birds will fare even better during an average winter.

If you plan to hunt during the late season, don't be fooled into thinking that just because it's winter, pheasants will be in winter cover. Mild winters across the pheasant belt have allowed pheasants to thrive in areas not normally populated with pheasants. You should revisit early-season hunting locations that may not have yielded good results back then. Just remember that if winter returns, heavy snow and nasty weather can concentrate dozens of birds into good habitat. Those same birds may have been scattered across two sections of land in the early season, as is often the case in a fringe area.

Unlike a herd of cattle, small pockets of pheasants require little in food quantity. Pheasants are "granivores" -- seed eaters. In much of the pheasant belt, corn supplies that grain requirement, but soybeans, sunflowers, wheat, milo, oats and a medley of weed seeds make up a ringneck's bill of fare. Greens also figure in the year-round menu and include alfalfa, clover, grasses and dandelions. The birds can eke out a meager living almost anywhere, and that's what they do in fringe zones.

On marginal farmland, which is often where you'll find the second-best pheasant hunting, drought-tolerant crops such as wheat and sunflowers make up the bulk of the grain acreage. You'll also discover that in second-best locales, cattle grazing increases as corn production decreases.

Although habitat is the key consideration, remoteness can guarantee decreased hunting pressure. Unimproved roads, habitat a mile from any trail and habitat hidden from sight may mean less hunting pressure. Keying in on good habitat that doesn't have good access can lead to great hunting.

PINPOINTING THOSE SECOND-RATE HOTSPOTS

If you live in a pheasant-rich state, a week

end drive will help you pinpoint a hunting location away from the mania of high-density hotspots. If a weekend drive is out of the question, then the phone and the Internet become your only links to pheasants until the season opens. Since pheasant numbers depend on habitat, it pays to contact the habitat specialists in pheasant country.

Armed with these facts, you'd be well advised to contact the state's equivalent of either an upland game bird biologist or a conservation officer in the region you plan to hunt. With their real-time insight, these folks can give you details on specific populations and hunting pressure as it plays out through the entire pheasant season.

When it comes to locating CRP habitat in a county or region, your second contact should be directed to a county Natural Resources Conservation Service office. These offices assist with the management of federal agriculture and habitat programs such as CRP, and can be a wealth of information in locating quality CRP tracts. They'll be able to tell you how many acres of CRP exist in their area, and since they have staff in the field, they may even have personal knowledge of pheasant numbers in specific regions.

You don't want to overlook local, on-site contacts either. You should attempt to glean information from relatives, friends or classmates who live in marginal pheasant country. The talk in coffee shops and convenience stores often revolves around pheasants, so it pays to keep your ears open -- you might just make your pheasant connection over eggs and toast before, after or during a hunt.

TACTICS

Finding small pockets of cover with the right stuff in a fringe zone is your first step; then, to hunt that cover successfully, step back and evaluate it for maximum results. If you decide to hunt fringes, don't be afraid to leave some pheasant hunting traditions and tactics by the wayside.

Hunting a large field calls for strategy based on access, wind and the easiest way to coordinate a hunt with a large group. Fringe zones require a different set of guidelines; frequently, habitat and surrounding escape cover dictate ambush plans.

Your main concern should be in keeping pheasants in sight, even after they flush. You may need to hunt those birds again, so never push pheasants in a direction enabling them to escape easily into a neighboring property on which you don't have permission to hunt.

One practice that a friend of mine employs is to avoid hunting into the wind. He doesn't worry about wind because it doesn't allow him to move birds where he wants them to go. Most pheasant hunters have a wind fetish -- it muffles their approach and maximizes the scent opportunities for their dogs. That's logical, but when your parcel is smaller than a neighborhood block, keeping the wind in your face may not be the best option.

I was introduced to this concept on a hunt several years back. It was late in the season, and the pheasants were tense. My friend outlined his strategy far from the pheasant cover, using diagrams sketched on the ground. As our group of five departed, I immediately realized that we were hunting with the wind at our back. I assumed that my buddy was in a hurry and had overlooked that particular factor, but I would later learn it was Stage 1 of a progressive hunt.

After two blockers slipped silently into position at the end of the field, the remainder commenced to push the row crops, with a walker on each side providing a wing to keep birds from slipping out the side. Retrievers pushed the pheasants from the cover measuring less than 100 yards in length and a couple of roosters fell to this ambush. Several more escaped, wildly flushing from the sides, only to disappear over a hillside.

After regrouping, my friend explained our next move. Since the birds were in poor cover, we needed to surround it -- and quietly, or we'd risk bumping the pheasants before we arrived. Fifteen minutes later, our small group used commando finesse to encircle the cover, and, on cue, the retrievers went to work. Our group soon enjoyed the flushing activity and the spoils of a successful hunt by sidestepping the hotspots.

You don't really need a large group to surround the small cover found in most fringe zones. Two or three hunters can find success, but it takes an analytical review of the cover and surrounding terrain to be smug at the end of the day.

First, look beyond your target cover and locate the next parcel of habitat that escapees will flee to if they escape your shot pattern. This is important, even if it's on the neighbor's property. You need to recognize the natural escape routes the birds will take and cut them off.

Pheasants are strong flyers, but only for short distances. They'll ditch into cover a half-mile away instead of trying to fly across a section. Plus, if the next available cover is on your side of the fence, you have the makings of another ambush.

Second, scout the perimeter of the cover. Does it provide any natural blocking features that can prevent pheasants from escaping without flushing? A deep gorge, harvested crops, a lake or even a road can stop pheasants cold. When you get to the end of such a setup, slow down and let your dog and the nervous nature of the pheasants work in your favor. If you stop in the last 10 yards or so of cover, the pheasants should naturally flush from self-inflicted tension.

If you find yourself alone, you can still push a few birds during a sidestep hunt, but you have to use tactics that make you appear more than a one-man band. A strip-cover tactic I learned during solo hunts as a teen requires one hunter and, if one is available, a dog. Pheasants often seek these strips of cover, but easily escape by running full speed ahead.

To be successful, search for strip cover next to plowed or harvested fields, restricting escape routes each side of the cover. This means the birds have nowhere to go but forward. After pushing ahead 50 to 100 yards, back out and move outside of the main cover, then quietly dash ahead 200 to 300 yards. Once ahead of the birds, jump back into the cover and quickly push back toward where you quit earlier. The confused birds often think they are being pinched from both sides and stop to evaluate the danger, causing them to hold tight and then flush within shotgun range.

Another tactic involves the repeat of a hunt. Why waste the time and effort? Birds on the fringe may have seen hunting pressure from orange-clad nimrods and four-legged predators alike; they know that holding tight means survival. But if you work the cover twice, it'll be almost too much to take for even a pheasant with nerves of steel. Hunt the field into the wind first to give your dog an advantage in smelling birds. Instead of leaving when you reach the end, turn around and hunt it back, again taking your time. You won't be flushing swarms of pheasants, but you stand a good chance of finishing out your limit with a tight-sitting rooster.

Flushing dogs are the species of choice in the main pheasant belt, but when you're hunting fringe areas, pointers provide an effective adversary against tight-sitting roosters. It's also not as frustrating fo

r pointing dogs that can go schizophrenic in hotspots loaded with hundreds of birds. Instead of trying to pinpoint one rooster in dozens of scent trails, pointers find fringe areas with low densities more suited to their style. Just be sure to work with your pointer during pre-season training so it will stay close and hunt smart. Rushing through cover in fringe areas means missing tight-sitting pheasants.

Don't get me wrong: Hunting the best pheasant country is a unique experience, but one that may be beyond your budget limitations. Sidestep the hotspots and hunt the fringe. You may not experience the pleasure of being awed by the sight of hundreds or thousands of birds, but you're sure to be awed by some of the best hunts at the right price.

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