Minnesota's December Pheasants

Minnesota's December Pheasants

These are good times for our rooster hunters. So find some good habitat and enjoy your time afield right up to the end of the year. (Dec 2006)

For some Minnesota pheasant hunters, the season begins when the last four weeks of the season is all that remains.

By then, the heavy hunting pressure that was common during the early season has dwindled considerably, right along with the amount of available cover. Crops are picked, fields are plowed for next year, and the only decent habitat during the late season is what has been protected by CRP, CREP, WMAs and WPAs.

It's great that we have CRP and CREP protecting habitat that produces more pheasants, but only the hunters with the right connections have the ability to hunt the private property where those federal programs are providing habitat. Fortunately, the hunters on the private property are pushing birds, and some are going to be pushed back into the public hunting areas, and in the late season when these spots aren't getting constantly pounded by hunters, those who choose to venture out onto public hunting lands can have some good hunting.

Of course, the roosters using the public hunting cover won't be easy to flush within range. Which is why many hunters don't find the late season appealing. Too much of a challenge. Too much walking and not enough shooting. Birds flushing too far out. And it can get cold or snowy, and that can make for a miserable hunt if the birds aren't flying or are flushing out of range.

But then there are always the hard-core hunters. With each step, there is the potential to flush a rooster in range. Every pocket of grass and every sliver of cover have the potential to hold a rooster, and as long as the season is open, anytime is a good time to be chasing pheasants.

"Hunters who get out in December realize that those roosters are going to act a lot differently than they were earlier in the season," said Steve Kruse, one of those hard-core hunters who pushes birds right up until the bell rings to end the fight on the last day of the season.

"People say those pheasants are getting smarter," Kruse said, "but they're just getting conditioned. During those last few weeks of the season, the stupid little things you did to spook birds earlier you could get away with and still shoot some young first-year roosters. Those birds are gone, and the roosters that are left won't allow you to make those same mistakes."

Those same mistakes consist of pushing a field with the wind at your back, or slamming vehicle doors when you get to your hunting spot. Some hunters, like Kruse, believe holding the dog back in the late season will mean less roosters flushing within shooting range.

"You can tell when a dog has picked up the scent and the bird is running," Kruse said. "The dog will pick up some speed and follow the zigzag pattern that bird is running in, and you need to stay with that dog, within reason. You don't want to be running after the dog. But you don't want to hold the dog back, either, like you might do earlier in the season when a lot of the roosters are holding tight. In the late season, the roosters are the runners, and the only way you get them to flush in range is to let the dog have a little bit more freedom to chase the bird. And stay with the dog."

Kruse said the problem with a pheasant flushing out of range is that it's usually not just one bird that goes -- it's a bunch.

"In the late season," Kruse added, "the pockets of cover are usually holding more than one bird, and if one flushes before you get in range, they'll all go. It can be frustrating when you see 15 hens and a half-dozen roosters flush well out of range because you were scolding your dog, trying to hold it back."

Kruse never passes up a parcel of cover no matter how small or sparse it looks.

"You never know," he said. "In the late season, you never want to overlook those little dime-sized sloughs. They may be only 25 yards in diameter, but there may be a half-dozen hens and a few roosters hiding there because no one has pushed them out of this obscure piece of cover. If you've been walked by 100 times, yet never been stepped on, where are you going to hide?"

So how should hunters proceed during the late season to ensure success? From the start, hunters need to consider their surroundings, according to Kruse.

"When I first walk up to the field, I look at what the land is offering up," he said. "I always want the wind in my face and will go to great lengths to hunt under that situation. When I just can't get the wind directed right at me, I consider this an adverse situation, but there are times when I have to hunt with the wind at my back, so in a situation like this I know there are going to be less opportunities to shoot because pheasants will be flushing farther out and getting out of range too quickly.

"But there are always birds that flush in range, and if you have a decent dog, you will get some shooting opportunities even when you can't work a piece like it should be worked," Kruse continued. "At least that's the way it is when you have plenty of birds like we do now. When the numbers are down and the hunting is tough, you have to work a spot with everything in your favor if you want to drop some roosters. These days, with our good bird numbers, you're going to have more opportunities, even in the late season."

So the ideal setup for a late-season hunt, as far as Kruse is concerned, is a field that is from 40 to 100 yards wide where you can have eight hunters with a dog on each side of each hunter. So four dogs in front of eight hunters, and if there are enough bodies, you have two hunters posting the end of the field. But what if a dog gets onto a running rooster? Not everyone is going to chase that dog.

"True," said Kruse. "You don't want to get out in front of the other hunters, so everyone picks up the pace a little so you can let the dog run the rooster a little while, about 20 to 30 seconds. That's usually all it takes to pinch a rooster with that many guys and dogs. If the bird gets too far out, bring the dog back and re-form the line. I super-stress safety when I'm in the field. You'll either catch up with that bird early or you're going to have to catch up to him later. Never jeopardize your safety by getting out in front of the other hunters. That's just too dangerous."

Another part of Kruse's late-season game plan to put more pheasants into the game pouch in the orange-shouldered vest is to hunt the field back to the vehicles.

"This is where a lot of hunters lose out," Kruse said. "When you have to backtrack to the trucks, you should hunt the cover again. Most hunters don't do that. You walk by birds

that hold tight, and if you have tree groves next to the grass, you're going to have birds run into those trees. After walking the fields, send your posters up and over to push some pheasants back into the grass where you're going to be walking it back.

"You can't push all the birds out of a piece of cover," he continued. "In some good cover, these pheasants have a tunnel system and you can walk right past them as they're slipping behind you. We've all had pheasants flush behind us and wondered how that bird got past the dogs. They sneak through in those tunnels in the grass. It's their escape route and they use it every time they get pressured. Sometimes they get away with it and sometimes the dog gets lucky. So, even with dogs, you'll run right past a bird while tracking another, and some birds hold tight or run, while others flush. The birds that hold tight or run will be there for you on the return trip."

For many late-season pheasant chasers, the hunting party consists of a few guys who piled into one vehicle with one or two dogs, and these hunters are going to attempt to work a half-dozen smaller wildlife management areas (WMAs) and flush a rooster or two from each spot. It's a good strategy for the late-season because many of these smaller public hunting areas were ignored early in the season while hunters keyed on the larger swaths of CRP and public hunting cover. Some of those smaller WMAs and waterfowl production areas (WPAs) are holding birds because they haven't received any pressure in these spots.

In most cases, even the smaller WMAs are a bit too large for a few guys and a dog. It takes some strategy to keep those conditioned roosters from running out ahead and flushing out of range, or tucking into a sanctuary and holding tight while everyone walks by.

"You circle those birds," Kruse said. "You walk the outer edge of the cover and slowly work into the center. Your path will look like a big spiral into which you've corralled those pheasants to the middle of the cover -- and they start flushing."

That is, of course, if you've done all the other little things that you're supposed to do.

"With just a couple of hunters and a dog, you can let the dog control the hunt," Kruse said, "so you won't have to be barking commands at the dog, which will put those pheasants on high alert. Stay with the dog and let him flush those runners. These late-season roosters won't know how to deal with an aggressive dog and will flush when they realize they aren't going to be able to hide."

A small hunting party on a manageable piece of pheasant habitat -- like a small WMA -- needs to conscientiously strain the cover, which is seldom the case during the early season when hunters just scramble over a run of land.

"Late season in the smaller plots requires a more methodical approach," Kruse said. "The roosters are prone to hold tighter or run and flush out of range, so you do better if you walk slower until the dog gets onto a bird. This allows the dog to get the scent of a bird holding tight and get him running or get him to flush. While circling a field, you don't walk a straight line, but zig and zag a little bit and widen the distance the dog is working. For this type of hunting, a slower approach works better, but hunters seldom use it."

As far as hunting spots in Minnesota, the range hasn't expanded any, which means all those spots that were productive in 2005 will likely have more birds in them in 2006. And 2005 was a very good year.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, favorable weather and nearly 2 million acres of grassland that were protected under farm conservation programs made 2005 one of the best pheasant hunting seasons in 40 years. Hunters killed 585,000 pheasants last year -- the highest harvest since 1964 -- well above the 2004 take of 420,000 birds.

"Landowners and conservationists put together all the habitat elements for excellent pheasant production, and in the last few years, it has all come together," said Dave Schad, director of the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife. "Severe winters in the mid-1990s and cool, wet springs limited pheasant production in some of the past 15 years. But in the last several years, the weather has been favorable, and grassland habitat is abundant, thanks in large part to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM)."

The number of active pheasant hunters increased to 111,000 in 2005 from 104,000 in 2004. Hunters averaged 5.3 birds each in 2005, compared with four birds per hunter in 2004. Last year marked only the fourth time the pheasant kill topped 500,000 birds since 1964 when Minnesota saw the last large-scale land-retirement program expire. Under the Soil Bank program, which began in the mid-1950s, pheasant harvests of more than 1 million birds were common. In two out of the last three years, Minnesota's pheasant harvest has topped the 500,000 mark.

"These are good times for pheasant hunters," Schad said, "but CRP contracts that cover some 1 million acres are set to expire from 2007-2009. If CRP is drastically altered, landowners will no longer have financial incentive to protect their most environmentally sensitive lands. Pheasants and other grassland bird species will decline."

So you should take advantage of the quality pheasant hunting while you can. The future of CRP and other federal programs doesn't bode well for the future of pheasant hunting in Minnesota, and this could be the last great year we have for some time if the doom-and-gloom forecasts concerning habitat come true.

Some of the benefits of hunting late season are easier access to private property now that the fair-weather hunters are done for the season, less competition for public hunting ground and the dogs work better in the cooler weather. The warm weather we've had the past few years during the early season has stressed some dogs to the point where they were lucky to survive. Some didn't.

Hunters need to trust their dogs in the late season. Not only will pheasants run before they flush, but if they hit the ground and they have an ounce of energy left, they'll run.

"These roosters that are left for us late-season hunters are tough," Kruse said. "You might get to the spot where you dropped one and that dog wants to move off. Let them. They're probably chasing that cripple, and you are thinking they just want to hunt a new bird. The dog can smell that bird and knows it's on the run. Let the dog use its nose to find that bird instead of bringing it back to that spot where it fell. The dog will always find the bird if you let it."

Minnesota hunters have been fortunate the past couple of years. During these peak-number years, the season has been extended for an additional two weeks up until the New Year. This has allowed many hunters to extend their time in the field to hunt one of the most popular upland game birds in the world.

Who knows, but with a little luck, maybe in 2007 we'll finally get to shoot three roosters instead of two. That would be a real treat for pheasant hunters. We can only hope

.

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