Top Tips For Early-Season Pheasant Hunting

You may think you're getting your share of early-season ringnecks, but these early-season pheasant hunting tips should help improve your score.

Two vivid pheasant-hunting memories serve as the lynchpins for this story, which is intended to help you enjoy early pheasant hunting more than ever before. Forget about the crowds. Forget about the craziness of opening weekend. Instead, just hunt -- but hunt effectively.

Hunting buddy Jim Givens and I planned for months to open the pheasant season together, and the plan included a drive of a few hours to hunt land far from our homes. Along the way, we stopped here and there to renew acquaintances with landowners and inquire about permission to hunt that weekend and later in the season.

Just after one of those stops -- a productive one -- we turned west and continued our journey. Soon approaching the intersection of the county road and another, I noticed a flicker of movement from a brushpile about the size of a small backyard utility shed. As Givens started to slow down for the intersection, that flicker of movement exploded.

Dozens of ringnecks flushed from that tiny patch of cover. There were way more birds that anyone rightly could have expected from such a small tangle of brush. Many of them were young roosters.

Later that same weekend, Givens and I were hunting a draw, moving uphill on each side of a thicket that only our dogs could navigate. We walked slowly up each edge of the draw, about 50 yards apart. Too far away for casual conversation, this was a quiet two-man stalk. Our Brittanies were in the tangled mess, and we could hear their movement, so there was no need for shouting commands -- or saying anything, really.

A rooster flushed almost right at my feet. I had stepped around a finger of brush and looked up just as the bird tried to bolt. I mounted the 12-gauge Ruger Red Label without thinking, swung and squeezed the trigger. Adding this pheasant to the day's bag involved less than 10 seconds, but the lessons it provided have lasted many years.

The first encounter -- with what actually looked like a large covey of pheasants -- drove home the point that, during the early season (and particularly on opening weekend), hunters will encounter the highest number of "uneducated" pheasants of the entire season. That fact alone impacts how you should hunt -- especially if you're not going the route of enlisting in a blaze-orange army of hunters who target and move through large fields like a swarm of combines.

Some veteran hunters don't even fool with the season's opening weeks. They have grown weary of that kind of pheasant hunting, and they prefer to wait until most of the casual wingshooters have turned their attention to college football or white-tailed deer on the weekends. They're missing out on some great ringneck action.

Follow these early-season pheasant hunting tips, and you can enjoy the best early-season hunting you've ever had in the pheasant fields.

Compensate for uneducated roosters. That may be the most important thing you can do. We're all used to encountering birds later in the season that run like a sprinter in the Olympics, or that flush at the first sight or sound of you or your dog -- often 100 yards out of gun range. Early in the season, however, you should expect to encounter young roosters that will hold tight and flush at your feet -- or behind you. That hold until they get by me, and then fly tactic is an old one in the pheasant world.

You should move slowly and pause often. Vary the length of the pause. Don't give roosters a chance to pattern you.

Scout for small targets. Thanks to the Internet, hunters have the ability to do some pretty effective scouting online. You likely are hunting acreage that is familiar to you -- or you at least know the general area(s) you plan to hunt during the first few weeks of pheasant hunting season. Get online and, using a resource like Google Earth, identify small fields and brushy draws that are adjacent to major crop fields.

Pheasants use those spots throughout the day. They don't simply decide to move, en masse -- into crop fields and stay there. Their movements are dynamic, and your group of targeted hunting spots will give you a chance to encounter birds throughout the day.

Use standing crops to your advantage. Early in the season, a couple of factors could lead you to show up and find fields still full of grain crops. Maybe you've had a wet fall, and farmers haven't been able to get into the fields with their equipment because of the soft, wet ground. Or, maybe you've had a hot, dry summer and crops have pretty much failed in this field or that. Farmers sometimes will leave those disappointing crops standing through the winter.

Pheasants will have plenty of cover and food in spots like those. Don't just hunt the cover around the edges -- hunt these fields, too. Move slowly, pause often. Remember that you're going to have uneducated birds around.

Try hunting without dogs. Some readers are groaning; others cursing; still others picking their jaws up off the floor. "Hunt without my dogs? Are you out of your mind?!"

The fact is that, early in the season, the most effective hunting dogs work very close to their hunters and are totally biddable.

If you have a pointing breed that likes to range, you likely will get some birds that will hold for a point until you get there. But you're also likely to educate some young birds and make them tougher to hunt through the rest of the season. Also, if you have a close-working dog but it doesn't mind you very well, consider hunting without it -- primarily for the reason covered in the next tip. More about dogs later.

Be quiet. If you are compelled to bark orders to your dog, your early-season hunting will suffer. If you believe that yelling to your hunting buddies on the other side of the field is a common part of pheasant hunting, you'll also hurt your early-season success.

It's tough to argue that any pheasant hunt should be more like still-hunting for deer than a walking conversation. Regardless of the time of season (opening weekend or two months into things), quieter hunters are more successful hunters.

That single rooster mentioned near the start of this story really drove that lesson home to me. Givens and I couldn't see each other. We couldn't see our dogs -- but we could hear the

ir movements and knew where they were. Neither of us had any reason to say anything, so we didn't. It paid off, and not only in pheasants.

At one point later in the day, hunting another uphill draw, I looked across at the tall grass just to my west and was surprised to see a coyote laying in the sun ... watching me. I didn't say anything, didn't stop; I just kept slowly moving up the edge of the draw, and that coyote never moved. It was amazing -- and another reinforcement that natural movements and lack of noise help hunters keep from disturbing their surroundings.

Always hunt into the wind. This cardinal rule for hunters with dogs really ought to be mandatory for any pheasant hunting -- with or without dogs. Pheasants that flush into any prevailing breeze have a bit more struggle taking flight, and that gives hunters more time to mount their shotguns, swing and shoot.

It pays to keep tabs on the prevailing winds in your hunting area. Keep them in mind when you're scouting and planning your hunts. Always enter fields and draws with the wind in your face -- no matter how light it is -- and you're giving yourself one more advantage.

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