December 14, 2023
If you want a limit of late-season pheasants, you're probably going to have to march into the cattails. Cattails that are all but impossible to walk through, and prove to be as devilish as can be for upland-bird hunters running out of time.
Bob St. Pierre understands that sentiment, because when it comes to cattails, he knows the misery they can cause. But because he also loves chasing wild roosters to the season's final day, off he goes into the nastiest stuff he can find.
"Cattails, bad weather [in the late season] and roosters; you either love them all or you hate them," St. Pierre said. "Personally, I tend to love them because they provide terrific habitat and winter cover for pheasants. Particularly in the northern states, we could have wintertime wipeouts of pheasant populations if it weren't for cattails."
With states like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa all coming to mind—all places St. Pierre’s already tromped with his brace of German shorthairs to chase autumn roosters in a really good season—the veteran upland bird hunter says that cattails are among the most important thermal features, especially when Old Man Winter shows up. Because of that, he suggests that pheasant hunters remember a page from the duck hunter's playbook.
"Wildlife management areas and waterfowl production areas in those northern states almost always have cattails," said St. Pierre, the chief marketing and communications officer for the Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever conservation groups. "Those places can be really good for late-season pheasants, because where there are small, shallow depressions with water, there is usually cattails too.
"And because of that, wetlands are absolutely critical for pheasants and the habitat they need," he added. "That's why we're such big advocates of buying state and federal duck stamps, because they support this critical habitat that roosters and hens need to get through a northern winter."
St. Pierre admits there's a devilish problem with all of this. "For a guy who stands 5'6" and runs pointing dogs, cattails are the Achilles heel for me as an upland-bird hunter many times," he said. "I'm not tall enough to see the dogs on point and it's hard to work the dogs in that stuff. And when it all comes together and a pheasant drops in the cattails, well, they can be hard to find."
And even dangerous to find, warns St. Pierre, especially in a winter that's already had a few starts and stops of cold, and snowy weather replaced by weather that’s not making anyone think of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.
"This can be especially true here in Minnesota, that when we get a little snow, it can protect the base of the ice that is forming on these wetlands and it really doesn't get too thick, so it can become really dangerous," St. Pierre said.
Because of that, you've got to know the basics of ice safety—think ice-fishing safety guidelines—to be confident that the ice is thick enough to support a hunter and/or a hunting dog treading upon it.
On the bigger slough complexes, there's also the fear of losing a dog in the endless swamp filled with head-high cattails. Because of that, St. Pierre won't think of hunting cattails without some sort of electronic aid.
"One thing that has created a lot of comfort for bird hunters in the last decade is a GPS unit married up with a GPS dog collar," he said. "If you're going to a place that's a long ways away from home, the fear is that in going to that foreign and nasty landscape, especially when you don't know beforehand what the cover looks like, that you'll lose your dog and won't come back with an important member of your family."
By using something like a SportDOG TEK Series 2.0 GPS + E-Collar setup or combining the Garmin Alpha TT 25 Dog Collar and a Garmin Alpha 300/300i handheld unit, you can rest a lot easier in cattail country. Now you know what to ask Santa for this year.
St. Pierre is a complete upland-bird hunter, chasing western sharptails in September, pheasants and ruffed grouse in October and November, and southwestern desert country quail in December and January. And in all of those places, electronics are important for him as a hunter and owner of a pair of pointing dogs that are going to run hard for miles.
"It’s not hard to get turned around on a cloudy day when you turn the dogs loose, crest that first ridge and lose sight of the truck," he said. "There's a huge level of comfort in knowing where your dog is at all times, where you are and where the truck is."
As far as hunting the cattails, St. Pierre says wintertime often means that a pheasant hunter must invite a little "suffering into your corner."
"The reason that we lose a lot of folks in the late season is that it's often hard work," he said. "You have to love it, pheasant hunting, to really want to hunt these cattails in late season. But that's where the birds are going to be."
When doing so, St. Pierre focuses on the outer edges of the cattail marshes in the early days of late-season hunting before and after Thanksgiving Day. That's especially true when the water isn't frozen yet or the ice isn't very thick. Because when it's that mild, he notes that the birds aren't going to stay in the cattails all day anyway, especially when they can move about and get to native food sources, wintertime crops and leftover ag production.
As the ice develops and becomes safe and solid, he'll begin to do more than explore the outer edge of cattail patches, instead probing into the deeper inside edges where birds haven't seen a lot of pressure. It's tougher walking and hunting, but it's where the birds often go as the weather gets gnarly.
And when winter begins to get severe, St. Pierre's willing to go even deeper into cattail patches, knowing that it's the habitat roosters need and seek when many inches of snow have fallen and temperatures are in the single digits. He also knows those birds aren't pressured nearly as much since hunters and four-footed predators tend to avoid that really thick, nasty stuff.
It's at this time of the year when St. Pierre starts thinking like a deer hunter too, looking for deer trails crisscrossing through a cattail slough: "The whitetails also use cattails as winter cover, but they are big enough and strong enough to get through them and the trails they leave behind can help you hunt such spots too."
St. Pierre loves a good, long cold snap when temperatures are dipping low for several days in a row, a run of weather that starts to create safe ice. Add to that prolonged cold snap a powdery snowstorm that dumps four to six inches on the landscape, and that's just right.
He recalls such a scenario a few years ago on private land to which some friends have access—a 25-acre patch of land with a 15-acre cattail marsh in the middle of it. "When we get that first good snow in that spot, that's where we're going to hunt," said St. Pierre. "Those roosters get sucked into that like a magnet and you can sneak up on them with the dogs and know that it's going to hold birds and they're going to hold a little tighter on the point."
When he thinks about that spot in Minnesota, and the weather that he loves to see the weatherman forecasting on the map, St. Pierre might get a little misty-eyed with a far-away look behind his spectacles.
"One of my German shorthair pointers, Trammell, who passed away a couple of years ago, her final rooster was on that property," said St. Pierre in a tone that all sporting dog owners recognize. "It was on that 25 acres, it was after muzzleloader deer season was over, and it was after my pup had already retired at age 12."
Until there was one final chance to work Trammell—named after St. Pierre’s connection with his boyhood home in Michigan and a childhood baseball idol, Detroit Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell—on one final heavenly upland hunt before the GSP canine passed away in Dec. 2021.
"I'll never forget those snowy cattails, Trammell working her way through them methodically, pointing those roosters in that thick stuff, us dropping them when they flushed, and her bringing them back on the retrieve with her old, gray muzzle.
"I've got a photo of her with that final bird," said St. Pierre quietly. "And it's a bird that I'll remember for the rest of my time."
And all because of cattails, a tough place to hunt for sure, but the birthplace of some absolutely fine and life long memories made in the late season. Recollections of a pheasant hunt, a hunter, and his dog, memories that will survive for years to come.