The Right Approach for Early Pheasants

Get your pheasant season started off on the right foot with these tips on how to work typical types of cover to your advantage and not to the birds'!

By Tim Lilley

"Don't walk up through there like you're going back to the truck," Jim Givens cautioned. "Walk like you do in the parking lot at the mall when you can't remember where you parked." Then my hunting buddy laughed like he knew for a fact I'd been in that predicament before.

Hasn't everyone?

OK, maybe you haven't. But you've probably seen someone with that "lost gait." It's halting, kind of stop and go. They take a few steps, look around; move one foot or the other, look some more; then maybe take a few more steps.

When Givens painted that picture in my mind that nippy fall morning, I knew exactly what he meant. He went to one side of the thicket; I went to the other. Our dogs worked the thick stuff between us.

None of us had covered 100 yards when I made eye contact with the big rooster pheasant; he flushed in a flash. Swinging instinctively, I pressed my finger on the trigger of the Ruger Red Label. The big ringneck folded and dropped into the thick stuff, where the dogs worked their magic.

It was an awesome start to a pheasant season - one that you can duplicate this season, just about anywhere pheasants are found.

This story's focus is to guide you along the path to success with input from a marvelously savvy hunter who has chased these wonderful game birds for decades.

Photo by Bill Vaznis

"I'm not going to say how long I've hunted pheasants," Givens said with a laugh. "It's been more than a few years and in more than a few places. When you love dogs and watching them work as much as I do, you're going to hunt a lot."

He has, and still does, at an age when many hunters have retired from work and from the outdoors in favor of comfortable rockers and time that some know as "the golden years." Know this: A year without regular visits to pheasant fields would tarnish severely any gold this hunter might find in it.

"Hey . . . HEY!" Givens barked later in that opening-weekend hunt. "What are you doing?"

"Whiskey's on point!" I replied excitedly. "Let's get up there before that bird flushes!"

"Stop," my partner/teacher ordered calmly. "Now . . . look up there and tell me what you see."

"Like I said, Whiskey's on point! There has to be a bird in that grass right in front of him."

"Uh huh, there probably is," Givens said, "but there doesn't have to be. He could be scenting a bird that was there a while ago. But tell me this, if there is a bird in there, where's it gonna go?"

"Huh, I never thought of that," I offered, in my most innocent novice-hunter voice, to which Givens cackled again.

My dog was pointing near the edge of a field bordered by an old farm road. The bird had nowhere to run, and only this spot of cover to hide in. Its only option was to flush, and the less we pressured it, the longer it would stay put - giving us a chance to get well within shooting range. We covered the 60-or-so yards to my bourbon-colored Brittany at a comfortable, almost lazy shuffle.

We got within a step of the dog's bobbed tail when a pheasant flushed right in front of him - a hen.

"See? There wasn't any need to be in a hurry, now was there?" Givens laughed again. "It's just a shame that wasn't a rooster because Whiskey deserved to have that bird."

It didn't matter to me. We'd been hunting less than an hour, and had already enjoyed action. No way was I going to mention that I'd also learned a lot from Givens' advice on handling those first two birds.

By the time you read these words, Givens already will be into his scouting routine for the upcoming season - and he won't just be looking for birds.

"There is plenty of public land for people to hunt, but you know that any birds there are going to feel the most pressure the soonest once the season opens," Givens offered recently. "I think it behooves any hunter to start scouting at least a month before the season opens, if not six weeks before, and spend time getting permission to hunt private land.

"And you must have permission to hunt whatever land you're going to visit when the season opens."

The day before the hunt mentioned earlier, we spent hours driving around, visiting again with landowners that Givens had already spent time with in advance of that particular hunting season. We'd just left one farm when he offered another nugget of wisdom that will serve you well this season.

"We're going to see a bunch of roosters together somewhere up this road," he stated, driving along so slowly that his full-sized pickup barely kicked up dust on the dry, old two-lane dirt road. "Early in the year like this, roosters are still together - especially the young birds. They don't split up until they've had some hunting pressure."

Just then, dozens of roosters exploded from a thick brushpile at the field corner we were approaching. "See what I mean? Big groups like that are why the early season can be so good," Givens said.

That's especially true when hunters have taken the time to scout and get permission to hunt.

As we drove along toward the motel near the farm where we intended to start the season, Givens allowed as how he'd hunted one particular piece of ground for years. He'd first gained access to it through an introduction provided by another landowner, one whose land he'd also hunted for a long time.

"Then, that place changed hands," he recalled. "The first time I hunted up that way, I noticed a pickup on the far end of the field that had changed hands. It butted up against another place I had permission to hunt, so I stopped and walked up the hedgerow that separated them."

Givens got more than halfway through his walk when a truck eased up beside him in the field that had a new owner. Its driver stopped and asked Givens whether he'd done any good.

"I told him I'd be doing better if I could just hunt the field he was sitting in. 'Why can't you,' this old boy asked. 'There's no fence here.' I told him it didn't matter because I didn't have permission to hunt there. He told me

that usually didn't stop people. I told him it always stopped me.

" 'Well, I own this place, and you have permission now,' he told me. And the neat thing was, every time I stopped by his place to let him know I wanted to hunt, he'd take me to another section I'd never seen before. I ended up with almost 2,000 acres to hunt because of that one little talk we had."

Givens continued hunting there until the owner passed away. His widow leased a big portion of the land to someone who wanted to farm it, and Givens stopped by her place to find out which, if any, of the land he could still hunt.

"She told me I could hunt all of it, just like always," he said. "Told me that if anyone ever stopped and questioned me about it, to have them just come talk to her. That's the kind of situation you can develop just by respecting landowners' rights and getting permission."

As a result, Givens hunts private land in more than a few states pretty much exclusively. But he is quick to point out that, public or private, the kind of land pheasants prefer isn't going to change.

"Pheasants use heavy cover to roost," he stated. "They'll feed in more open areas, in fields and along their edges. They'll go to places with some cover for loafing. The best hunting spots are those that have all these kinds of habitats fairly concentrated. The closer they are together, the less the birds have to travel. You'll find them a lot easier if they're not traveling very far."

The farm we hunted on the opening morning that I told about at the start of this piece had just that kind of concentrated habitat. Long, brushy thickets were scattered among crop fields that featured natural waterways and edges left to grow tall with grass. It was the perfect setup - especially because most of that loafing-type cover faced south, benefiting from the sun the best way as a result.

Once you've spent time scouting for pheasants and gaining landowner permission (or figuring out just which public parcels you'll focus on), you'll next have to think about your schedule. Honestly figuring out exactly when you'll be hunting on a given day will help you head for the right places.

"If you start out early in the morning," Givens explained, "the birds are liable to still be on the roost, or they could be traveling from there to their feeding area. By 10 or 11 in the morning, they'll be done feeding and start heading to the areas they'll use for dusting and loafing. You'll find them there until late in the afternoon, when they feed again."

From there, pheasants head back to the roost for the evening. That's pretty much their day, every day, and you should use that information to your advantage when heading out for a hunt. Let's say you just can't wait - who can, when the season is still young?

Your best bet will be to work the thick cover, especially if it is close to or even borders feeding areas. These are definitely the spots where ringnecks start out their days.

Maybe, for whatever the reason, you don't get to your hunting spot until late morning, or you've decided on an afternoon hunt. Many wingshooters seem to instinctively head for the heaviest cover they can find. That's not the approach, not now, when the sun is high in the sky.

"This is the time to concentrate on the natural waterways and grass edges," Givens said. "And I'll tell you one place that just might be my favorite for pheasants, when I can find it.

"If you can find a draw with a pond at the bottom, you focus on the cattails at the upper end of the pond. Pheasants just love them. Up at the very driest end of the pond, there are going to still be some cattails there, and you'll almost always find pheasants there. When it comes to habitat, that's a definite hotspot."

There is another kind of habitat Givens will focus on when he finds it. "If you can find plum thickets or similar cover where you hunt, you're also going to find pheasants using it a lot," he said. "The bottom is open for them, so they can use it for dusting and loafing. But the overall cover is thick enough that it offers protection from predators. This is the kind of spot that you are liable to find birds bunched up just about any time of the season, regardless of how much pressure they've had from hunters."

Now, let's move to a Friday night. You sneak out of work an hour or two early to get in a quick pheasant hunt as a perfect kickoff to a fall weekend. By the time you get to the field, birds are going to be heading back to their dinner table. This is the time to work feed fields again, and then the edges that will lead them into the heaviest cover to roost for the night.

You can set your ringneck clock by this kind of schedule, and you should keep it in mind as you hunt - not only during the opening weeks, but all season long as well.

As the hunting year unfolds, you'll have to factor weather into the equation.

"If the opening of the season is dry and fairly warm where you hunt," Givens said, "you're going to have to work for the birds. Even though they tend to stay bunched up until they've had some pressure, they will spread out some when the weather is fairly hot and dry."

If a cold snap moves in, you'll be in luck. "Cold weather will definitely keep the birds bunched up," he added. "And if it's windy, pheasants are going to move to creek bottoms and river bottoms to get some protection. Don't think you can't hunt them when it's really windy, and don't get discouraged if you don't find them where you think they should be. Just head for the bottoms."

Just remember, he said, that the nicer the weather is - especially early in the season - the harder you're going to have to work to find pheasants. Maybe during your first hunt or two, roosters will still be bunched up some. But if you are in shirtsleeves, they'll be spread out more than you might expect.

And at the opposite end of the weather vane, birds will bunch up regardless of the pressure they've seen from hunters if it gets cold. Add some biting wind, and you should hunt as low as possible because the birds are going to head in that direction to escape as much of it as they can.

And by all means, Givens is quick to point out, always make the wind a priority.

"Always hunt into the wind . . . always," he said emphatically. "It doesn't matter whether you have dogs; it doesn't matter whether the wind is nothing more than a light breeze. The fact is, pheasants are going to hear you - they'll know you're coming - more quickly when they're downwind of you. If they're upwind, you're always going to get closer to them before they make a move."

Sure, it's impossible to always hunt into the wind. His point is that when you first work a field, work it thoroughly into the wind before turning around and heading the other way.

"Unless you have a very large group of hunters," he no

ted, "it's going to be impossible to cover every inch of a big field into the wind. Your best move is to work the best part of the cover into the wind before you move over and work it back the other way."

And don't forget the image of a sprawling parking lot full of cars - and the way you look for yours when you're not sure of its location.

"No matter how big the field you're hunting, work it slowly and crisscross the terrain," Givens offered. "If there are other hunters with you, spread out 20 to 30 yards apart to work the cover.

"Walk slowly, and stop fairly often," he continued. "You'll make the roosters nervous because they won't know whether to stay put or get away from you. If you just walk on through a field, no matter how slowly you move, you'll walk right by every bird in the field. And if you aren't hunting with dogs, I can't stress this slow, stop-and-go approach enough. It's the key to success."

He added that, especially early in the season, most of the ringnecks you'll encounter are going to be young. Many won't have been hunted before; these are the roosters that will get nervous on you . . . the ones you'll have the best chance to score on.

"No matter how old they are," Givens added, "they need heavy cover to roost. They need food, and they prefer a little more open cover nearby that they can use for dusting and loafing. Go find some land that has all of this cover concentrated together, and you're going to find plenty of pheasants when the season opens."

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