As the owner of Upland Journal, an online bulletin board discussion forum, I come in contact with a cross section of expert bird hunters -- folks who hunt wild pheasant seriously during the season. I posed a series of questions to some of them find out what tips, techniques and tactics they employ that have improved their chances of finding and bagging birds over the years. Here are just some of their observations.
LOOK FOR THE RIGHT COVER
Predictably, CRP fields are one of the areas my experts concentrate on, but it's the edgier, thicker cover around large or small fields that really attract their attention -- places like brushy draws, hedgerows, fence lines and road ditches. They search out abandoned farmsteads with fallow fields, overgrown tree lines and brush.
They especially try to find cover around water, and they highly recommend searching out creek banks and reedy areas near swamps, and to particularly key in on cattail sloughs. Another observation on where to find birds: locate infrequently used railroad beds, especially those that pass through crop fields.
ANTICIPATING WHAT HUNTED PHEASANT WILL DO
According to my experts pheasant have three mechanisms for escape: running, flying and hiding or "skulking." The consensus is that pheasant will hold tighter and run less in the early season, but when hunting pressure increases it's off to the races.
They point out this means hunters should be quiet when hunting pheasant: slamming doors, hollering, and whistling to dogs alerts pheasant, allowing them a head start on escape.
The objective is to pressure the bird until it tries to hide, allowing the hunter to get within shotgun range when the bird holds for a point or an impending flush. Like many game birds, pheasant are creatures of the edges, and when running from a dog or hunter will seek sanctuary and hold where the cover transitions.
MAKE THE SHOT COUNT
Without exception the need to swing to the head or just ahead of the beak of a flying pheasant was the number one determinant in bringing down a bird, according to my experts.
Unlike other game birds, pheasant need to be sexed in the air and gunners look for the long tail feathers of the legal male birds. In the air a departing cock pheasant is half tail and that's what many shooters can't resist concentrating on -- thus, they invariably miss behind. As one of my experts stated: "Shoot were they're going, not where they've been!"
GUNS, CHOKES AND LOADS
There wasn't a clear favorite type of shotgun amongst these experts: side-by-sides, over-unders, semi autos and pump shotgun all do the job. The suggestion is to use what you are most comfortable with ahooting.
Surprisingly, the 12-gauge wasn't the run-away gauge of choice; many shot a 20 gauge even on wild birds, and some a 16 gauge. My experts did not recommend anything smaller than a 20 gauge, however.
Naturally, choices in chokes and loads are tweaked during the season but generally Improved Cylinder/Modified is the preference for double guns and Modified for semi-autos and pumps. The "best" pheasant load is a matter of debate, but good old 1 1/8 ounce, No. 6 shot is the relative standard 12 gauge load.
All my experts hunt with dogs, either flushing or pointing breeds -- and some hunt with both types. The list includes the English springer Spaniel, Labrador retriever, pointing Labrador, American and French Brittany, German shorthaired pointer, German wirehaired pointer, English pointer and English setter. Without exception their advice is to provide the dog with experience in the field and to trust the dog: let it do what it was bred to do. In other words, shut up and follow the dog.
Very generally a flushing breed is considered more suited for smaller, tighter covers like cattails, along streams and fencerows. Pointing breeds excel in covering a lot of territory in open country like CRP fields. With that said one of my experts says he's killed plenty of pheasant in heavy cover over pointing dogs and in big fields with flushing dogs.
Regardless of dog preference, pheasant are track stars and sometimes won't hold so its imperative that the dog must "Sit" or "Whoa" and "Come" on command. A truly seasoned pheasant dog will even learn to move in front of a running pheasant and will adjust to all the types of cover and be a key component in "pinning" running birds and in the hunter's success.
The No. 1 piece of gear that my experts insist on is lightweight, comfortable, and waterproof boots. Leather boots with Gore-Tex were mentioned as well as the L.L.Bean style rubber bottom boots and Muck type rubber boots. Multiple pairs are recommended; an uninsulated pair for warmer weather, a lightly insulated pair for colder weather and a high rubber boot for soggy conditions.
Coming in a close second to boots was a high-quality bird vest. The upland strap vest is the top choice of my experts. Many prefer what is now termed a "technical strap vest" that functions like a backpack with a belt system that keeps the weight of shells, dog gear, electronics, snacks, water, first aid kits, and a brace of long tailed birds riding on the hips. Wing Works and Quillomene brand vests were both highly recommended.
Editor's Note: a special thanks to those who served as experts for this story: Wade Burns-ND, John Langdell-SD, Cary Cavacini-IN, Marty Schaefer-IA, Mike Showman-OH, Mike Sheffer-KS and John Neubaum-IL.