Pheasant Hunting: Think Like a Predator
July 13, 2018
Sometimes a stroll in the fields is fine. Othertimes you need a bit more planning. Here are three keys to efficiently getting your pheasant limit.
It's been my experience as a hunting guide that too many pheasant hunters underestimate how difficult it can be to achieve success in the field. In short, most hunters expect to find, flush and kill pheasants every time they step into a field. No matter how many birds may be present, success still depends on having complete comprehension of all the variables that play into achieving results while pursuing wild, cagey and often hard-to-kill birds.
To find more success in the field, change the way you think and consider the role you are playing, which is that of a top-line predator.
Pheasants are powerful in flight, with an average cruising speed of 38 to 48 miles per hour according to data from Pheasants Forever. When pressured, they've even been clocked at flying at speeds closer to 60.
However, hunters should always remember pheasants are built to run and are much more comfortable on the ground than in the air. I would estimate the amount of time any pheasant actually spends in the air doesn't add up to more than a couple minutes in an entire day, if they ever leave the ground at all.
To become a more efficient pheasant hunter, always remember that a pheasant's first survival instinct is to run rather than fly when encountering pressure of any kind. In fact, pressured birds often scurry away from the first signs of anything that resembles danger, such as vehicle brakes squealing, doors slamming, shotgun actions closing, dogs barking and human voices hollering. Even birds that seem to jump out of the end of the field just as you start walking have simply run themselves out of cover and were forced into flight. With that in mind, it helps to think of things from a pheasant's perspective before your boots ever touch the ground.
Park and enter each field you plan on hunting with caution, thinking what your approach looks and sounds like to any pheasants in the field. Doing so will make your entrance subtler and counter the birds' instinct to run first, which, in turn, will lead to more shot opportunities throughout the entirety of your walk.
Also, always remember the clock in a pheasant's head is ticking as soon as you pull up to a field. A pheasant won't sit around and wait for you to get geared up. Instead, they'll use those precious seconds against you by running toward safety. Thinking about your approach helps minimize the down time and spurs you into quicker action.
Perhaps there's no greater rush of adrenaline in the upland fields than a rooster flushing at close range, where the sudden fury of motion and the unmistakable sound of wingbeats seems to simultaneously fire off every synaptic connection in our bodies. Good dog work that results in a close flush, clean shot and quick retrieve might seem like the main ingredients of a great pheasant hunt, but, like most recipes, the prep time involved needs to be considered as part of the whole. In short, proper scouting is important to pheasant hunting, yet many hunters fail to recognize its importance.
When I head out scouting, I typically look for areas with adequate thermal cover that suits a pheasant's needs throughout the fall and winter, but an area can really catch my eye if it has plenty of nesting cover nearby. Simply stated, an area has to be able to produce pheasants before it holds them, so I strongly believe nesting and brood-rearing cover that's in or adjacent to land I'm hunting is paramount to success.
For example, a pocket of cattails in the middle of a grazed-down pasture holds far less appeal than a similar patch of cattails that's surrounded by acres of warm- and cool-season grasses. From a pheasant's point of view, the latter example provides everything it needs to survive all year, whereas the former example might only hold birds if severe winter weather hits.
This summer and fall as you scout, pay particular attention to areas with cover types pheasants need all year long and also identify CRP or grassland areas that were managed for various reasons. You'll be glad you did.
BIG FIELDS / SMALL GROUPS
Big groups can certainly be fun, but hunting in smaller groups promotes safety and helps efficiently manage all of the key players — hunters, dogs and, of course, the birds themselves.
However, it is inevitable to run into a big block of cover that's difficult to tackle with a smaller group. I avoid this scenario if at all possible, but there are times when I know a quarter section of CRP, for example, is holding a significant amount of birds that's worth taking a shot at, even with a smaller group.
If you've hunted pheasants enough times, you've probably encountered similar situations where you haven't had enough manpower to effectively and efficiently hunt a big block of cover. Most times, hunters will tackle these situations in parallel walks from one end to the other, using blockers at one end of the field as the walkers drive toward them. It's a tactic that sometimes works, but it leaves a lot to be desired.
Instead of walking the large patch of cover in strips from one end to the other like hunters have done for decades, consider breaking it down into six sections and work diagonally toward the corners, creating your own pinch points along the way. If you're hunting hard-pressured birds, working diagonally in cross-sections can throw wild birds for a loop and catch them off guard, forcing them to get confused birds to flush at your feet or escape by running to a corner or other pinch point where blockers are lying in wait.
This tactic might mean taking a few extra steps to get into position on some of the walks, but throwing the birds a curve ball like this with a small group of hunters is one way to turn their conditioning against them. We've tried this tactic several times with success the past few years, and, like anything else, the more you put it into practice, the better it works.