November pheasant hunting involves two scenarios. The initial scenario is the first couple of weeks of the month when hunters are still seeing plenty of “dumb” roosters. The second scenario becomes prevalent during the second two weeks when hunting pressure has thinned out the easy targets, and most of the pheasants are “smart” birds.
Sure, the season opens the middle of October, but in most cases then, the farmers are just picking crops, and the birds are fat and happy in the heavy cover of standing corn or beans. Hunters are working the grass and swamps, and these spots are getting hunted hard, but those shotgun-toting pheasant hunters are not conditioning birds, because there just aren’t many pheasants in that secondary cover. However, once the crops are completely out around the first week of November, all those roosters and hens are pushed into the CRP and whatever cover is provided by public hunting areas. That’s when hunters can really get in some good flushing.
Not everyone is unhappy about the tough hunting conditions hunters face those first couple weeks of the season.
“When the pheasants get out in those big fields of corn when the season opens, they’re not easily available to the hunter,” said Matt Holland, the director of conservation programs for Minnesota for Pheasants Forever. “I guess that’s good for those of us who like to get out during the late season, because then there are plenty of birds for later on when the crops come out and the weather forces the birds into the heavier cover. It provides some opportunity for later on in the season.”
Holland then began providing insight.
“I’ve always said that a public-land rooster late in the season is worth three private-land roosters because of their high level of education,” Holland said. “Early in the season when there is a lot of other available cover, like crops and edge cover, the pheasants will come into the grass and roost at night, but they figure out quickly after the first few days of the season to get out of there early. Once the crops come out or some snow moves in, it will push the birds back into the grass. But you need to have something change, like the crops getting harvested or the weather pushing them into heavier cover. That will move birds back into areas after they have been pushed out by hunters.”
The bottom line is that Minnesota hunters have been lucky the past few years.
“By all accounts, it should have been a good nesting season,” said Holland of this past spring. “We didn’t have much flooding of nests, and more importantly, we didn’t have the extended cold and wet periods during their peak hatch, which can really knock a population down. We had good populations coming in, and we had good nesting, so hopefully, a lot of birds are awaiting the hunters.
“There are going to be areas this year where hunters will walk into the cover and flush 50 birds out of a slough, and that’s great to see,” continued Holland. “The habitat coupled with the weather conditions determines how many birds there will be, and for us hunters, there are never enough pheasants. It’s certainly great to be able to go out in Minnesota and see good numbers of birds.”
But good numbers of birds doesn’t always result in success for hunters. Steve Kruse is an avid pheasant hunter who spends most of his fall out in western Minnesota working through the CRP and sloughs in an area where just a few years ago the pheasant numbers were down.
“There are only a few simple rules to successful pheasant hunting, but hunters fail to follow them,” Kruse said. “These guys might get opportunities in early November, but by the end of the month, they only get to see those roosters flush way out ahead of them, too far out for a shot.”
In Kruse’s pheasant rulebook, the wind is a huge factor in achieving success.
“You always want to push into the wind,” Kruse said. “This will keep the pheasants holding tighter, so they will more likely flush in range of a shot. When you have the wind at your back, they will flush out farther and be gone before you know it. Sometimes the field conditions have you moving with the wind at your back, but whenever possible, keep it in your face. And the dogs are certainly affected by the wind direction. It’s going to be much easier for the dog to pick up the scent of a pheasant if the wind is blowing into them.”
John Pesek is a long-time dog trainer and owner of Royalty British Kennels, where he breeds and trains British Labrador retrievers. He tends to agree — to a certain extent — with Kruse on the wind factor.
“You can’t always get the wind working for you just because of the lay of the land,” said Pesek, “but when you can, it helps.
“Always start out getting the bearings on the wind,” Pesek continued. “Always get the bearings on the property. Check out the directions of the draws. Where are the fencelines? Where will those birds run? Where will they flush? Work the wind to your advantage. The objective is to corral the birds. Know where to push them, figure out where they’ll hold, and then get the dogs and the birds together in that spot.”
Kruse thinks hunters should blame themselves when they don’t look closely at the land they hunt.
“Hunters fail to take into consideration all that a piece of hunting land is offering them,” Kruse said. “Are there tall to short grass areas? This is where birds will often flush, if you pinch them into that zone. Is the grass buffered by trees? Pheasants love to hide in the heavy cover and then retreat to the trees when hunters come with dogs so they can see and move more freely. You have to block the pheasant’s access to the timber whenever possible. Is there a sparse fenceline? This is an often overlooked spot when there is heavier cover nearby, but when pheasants have been hunted for a few weeks, they might leave the heavier cover for something not as thick where they can run or flush when they sense danger. Too often, hunters just get out of their car or truck and start pushing through the grass, not considering the wind or the layout of the land.”
Holland, Kruse and Pesek are all well versed on the contrast between public- and private-property hunting opportunities. They all take advantage of both options, and Pesek also trains his dogs over birds on his hunting preserve.
“Certainly the public hunting areas get pounded and used, and there is a high level of use on the WMAs during pheasant season,” Holland said. “The good news is that the past few years if a hunter found some decent habitat, they
were going to find some birds, and it looks like that’s the case this year as well.”
Kruse said many of Minnesota’s pheasant hunters tend to favor the south-central region, but the bird numbers have come back strong in the western and southwestern sections of our state, and there is plenty of public hunting available in that region.
“Where I hunt, the bird numbers were down and hunters quit coming out to hunt,” Kruse said. “Some might see that as a good thing, but I don’t. You need hunters working both private and public spots so they keep the birds moving back and forth between the cover. That way everyone gets some shooting.”
Holland commented on the ability of hunters to find productive locations and the ability of pheasants to come back from the brink when the numbers bottom out.
“There’s a direct correlation in the amount of pheasants to pheasant hunters,” Holland explained. “Folks pay attention to what regions have good populations of birds, and they go there. The number of hunters follows the DNR’s roadside index pretty well.
“And the birds are flourishing where their numbers were way down a few years ago,” he continued. “It speaks to the reproductive potential of the pheasant. Given the right conditions and the habitat, the pheasant population can skyrocket. Just like given the wrong conditions and loss of habitat, they can go in the tank very quickly. Those fluctuations are a part of life when you’re looking at pheasants, but when you do have good conditions and the necessary habitat, we can really grow them in this state.”
Holland said it’s all about habitat.
“When you lose habitat, you lose carrying capacity for pheasants,” he said. “When you lose habitat, you’re going to lose birds, particularly with nesting cover, which is probably the most limiting factor for pheasants in Minnesota. We need undisturbed grasslands out there. There’s a lot of pressure on our habitat, whether you’re talking about urban development, agriculture or houses going up in the fields where there used to be good cover. We have a lot of pressure on our shallow lakes, our grasslands, our prairies, but what we’ve tried to do and what we need to continue to do is work with the farmers to try and provide good commonsense conservation programs that work, and that work on farms.
“We need to make sure we continue to communicate the benefits of habitat, water quality, soil quality and how that affects our quality of life in Minnesota,” continued Holland. “Hunting and fishing is one of the main reasons we live in this state, and I think most people — whether you’re a developer or a farmer or a hunter — agree with that. It’s very important to our quality of life, so we need to continue to work hard to keep an open dialogue and find ways to put wetlands and grass back to give wildlife a chance.”
So November in the southern Minnesota pheasant range is going to provide two hunting scenarios. That first couple of weeks of the month is when most of the pheasant hunters are going to be in the field, and according to Pesek, that’s perfect timing because the last two weeks of the month the hunting can get tougher with fewer but smarter birds being the rule.
“A lot of hunters used to go down south and road-hunt when there was a lot of fence cover for the birds,” said Pesek. “It was never my style of hunting, but a lot of hunters could get a limit of early birds just driving around and watching for pheasants in the ditches. Not anymore. It’s gotten tough to road-hunt because there’s no cover on the fences and all the ditches are mowed in the fall. The pheasants want some cover, so they head for the public hunting lands that have been groomed for bird cover, and they find CRP and spots on private land where there is good cover.
“With the early birds, you can whistle more because those pheasants aren’t familiar with that sound, and they’ll hold,” continued Pesek. “But after a couple of weeks of pressure, the pheasants that are left have been educated and they won’t give you an easy shot like you had after they concentrated in the cover after the crops went out. You can’t make too many mistakes and get birds once those pheasants are conditioned.”
What are those mistakes?
“You never want your dogs out first,” Kruse said. “The dogs should be the last thing you tend to before hitting the field. The echo of a door is a sure sign to those birds that some dogs are soon to be chasing them. The later in the season you get, the more important it is to look at the little things that you do that will spook birds, but why train those birds in early season? Talking loudly, slamming doors, just making loud noises in general is going to put those birds on high alert. There are too many factors in the bird’s favor to add some more to it.”
And what about the dogs? Some hunters are always maintaining tight control over their dogs no matter what the seasonal conditions, while other hunters let their dogs control the hunt right from the start.
“Later in the season, you let the dog control the hunt,” Kruse said. “Early in the season, you’ll have more hunters and more dogs, and then you have to control the hunt. Hunters have to stay in line, know where the posters are and where the dogs are, so you control the dogs and you control the hunt. Late-season hunting might be fewer hunters in the party, and the smart roosters are not going to let you get close to them. Those late-season birds will run until they’re out of range, and then flush. So in a situation like that, letting the dog go after a bird, within limits, can be a better situation.”
According to Pesek, who has trained hundreds of dogs, both pointers and retrievers, “You can get away with a lot more in early November, but by the end of the month, all the dumb birds are dead.
“In the late season, you have to give the dog some control because you can’t be shouting commands or blowing the whistle nonstop, because those birds are spooky and they won’t sit there and wait for you to flush them,” continued Pesek. “They run and flush well out of range when you give them a reason to. Guys who over-control their dogs late in the season are just making sure there are some birds around for next season.”
With the higher numbers of pheasants, there may not be as much resistance when asking for permission to hunt, which has been the case in past years when landowners thought by limiting hunting on the land it would create more birds. According to Holland, that is a notion that has no scientific merit, but it may have kept landowners from allowing hunting.
“That concern is real,” Holland said, “and we surely wouldn’t want to do anything to turn the population of birds downward, but when you hunt pheasants, you only kill the males. And as hunters know, you never get all the roosters. Hunting cannot add to the decline in pheasants. Pheasants are a polygamist bird, which means one rooster can breed with multiple hens, so you only need one rooster for every six, eight or 10 hens. It’s like the bull in the pasture. One rooster can take care of a lot of hens. When you remove a segment of the rooster population by hunting, yo
u really don’t impact the ability of the birds to reproduce the following spring. It would be a concern if you were taking hens, which would be a different story. But since we only take the males, you are not impacting the population.
“That’s a concern for landowners who haven’t had birds on the property for a while or have seen the numbers drop significantly because of weather or loss of habitat,” he said. “When you see them coming back, you don’t want to lose them. You can’t control the weather, but you can control the habitat. So when you do see those pheasant numbers rising, it’s important to get out and harvest them. Enjoy it, because you never know what’s going to happen with the weather, and they might not be there next year.”
Check out the Pheasants Forever Web site at www.pheasantsforever. org. If you would like to discuss dog training with John Pesek, call him at Royalty British Kennels, (320) 384-7714.