Pheasants On Your Own

Lose that line of noisy hunting partners and learn to hunt pheasants by yourself, slipping along quietly as you use wetlands and other natural features as blockers. Here's how.

Solo hunters can work large fields if they zigzag and use terrain elements as blockers. Dogs help corral the birds. Photo by Dave Smith

By Dave Smith

Pheasant hunting tends by nature to be a gregarious and very loud affair. As practiced throughout the nation's heartland, it is often bookended by the roar of laughter over breakfast at the local café and the roar of more laughter over the final birds taken during a delirious flush at the end of a cornfield drive. In between it's lots of jabbering, yelling at the dogs, shouting pheasant observations across the field, and every other kind of disruption of the peace imaginable.

Greasy breakfasts, talk, organized drives, piercing dog commands, and hunts involving dozens of shirttail relatives are all at the roots of hunting pheasants this way - all very social, and good fun. The problem is that it doesn't work very well in the arid West after opening weekend. Out here, pheasants simply aren't produced in masses that deem this ruckus irrelevant; the ruckus is relevant. Putting birds in the bag after the opener demands tactics inherently more akin to the nomadic pursuits of some great Western loners: chukar hunters.

The four-mile walk from the truck to the first patch of good pheasant habitat on my favorite wildlife management area always begged for some company, and this day was no different. It took almost an hour - plenty long enough to share a few yarns with a hunting partner, working each other into a dizzying frame of expectations for the day.

But this particular stretch of old-growth riparian habitat also had a way of requesting silence. It demanded appreciation for the shrilling of red-shouldered hawks and the streaks of morning sunlight glancing through the trees on the ripples of the creek. My two Labs and I were, in many ways, about all the commotion the place should have to bear.

So it was just me and the dogs. No Dad, no Joe, no other hunters. I moved along at a good clip, anxious to hit the food plot and the tule patch and the blackberries along the creek. But which first? The hunting plans swirled, occasionally interrupted by the washed-out image of the return venture at noon, sun beating down, wet jeans rubbing. Thankfully, the sharp morning swamped the midday reality.

Despite the distance, this place was well known by dedicated pheasant hunters. Empty casings and tracks provided evidence that the roosters had been hunted hard on opening weekend. This first Monday of the 2002 season was clearly a good day to hunt alone. As I approached the spot, the slight emptiness that had tugged briefly at me on the long walk evaporated completely into a sense of doing it quietly, methodically, and right.

We started in the old farm fields, skirting the edge of the cut safflower in the heavy cover, hoping to catch a rooster loafing after a morning feeding bout. The first hen rattled me, but I settled down after three more came up. We curled back around a patch of Sudan grass and pushed it toward the old road into a small triangle of head-high weeds. Stumbling over a furrow, I felt the wingbeats explode. I burst through the vegetation just in time to see a rocket of color exiting rapidly. I threw an off-balance and futile shot at the rooster, but it sailed off untouched across the tule patch. Good plan in cornering the rooster; bad execution in not being ready when it happened!

We crossed the road and dropped into the tules, and the dogs got birdy again. We weaved figure-8s through the rectangular field, circling out into the sparse cover and back toward the tules and ankle-deep water; then, back around and all over again. Finally, Cheyenne turned it up and sprinted 20 yards. Painted brilliantly by the morning sun, the rooster exploded, and I lowered the boom just before it split a loosely arranged grove of cottonwoods. One for the sack - or so I thought. The dogs converged and came up empty.

Immediately panicked at the prospect of losing a rooster after missing a rooster, I furiously searched the spot and found nothing but feathers. Just off the pattern a bit, I kicked myself in disgust. I was about to concede after 15 minutes when my old Lab inexplicably lined out through the rushes and Bermuda grass. A glimmer of hope rallied against the dreaded notion of a lost cripple. Suddenly, that hope became reality. Cheyenne stopped dead in his tracks and locked up on his unorthodox Lab point. A few long minutes later, he piled into the thick tangle, and the first cockbird of the day was reduced to possession!

The tule field seemed promising and we were slipping around quietly, so I decided to hang with it and work every covert methodically. We flushed a few more birds, but none with color. I was about to head back to the Sudan patch when Chinook zeroed in on the same cottonwood grove that we'd taken the rooster from a half-hour before. Forty yards from the previous flush, another rooster erupted off Chinook's nose just as we approached ankle-deep water. This time I crunched it cleanly.

Nine o'clock on public land in the Far West - and no one else around. This was shaping up to be a real good day!

Finished with the tule patch, I focused on a weedy 10-acre Sudan grass food plot. It was bone-dry, and the November weather was mild, but the field always had good pheasant numbers. The dogs and I made a full-length pass down one side, flushing a few hens, and then turned around and zigzagged our way back across the field.

Unlike the heavy marsh vegetation we'd come from, this long narrow field seemed perfectly suited for an organized Dakotas-style drive. However, I had hunted it both ways in the past, and actually had better success alone. Slipping along quietly was the key.

On the third pass back through the center of the field, the dogs picked up their intensity for a brief moment - and then Chinook pounced. The colorful cockbird exploded from a tuft of Johnson grass, plenty close, cackling, in full autumn color. This time the swing was smooth, the bird folded at the report of my Browning 20-gauge over-and-under, and Chinook quickly scooped it up.

I wiped the sweat from my brow, stuffed the rooster in my sack, and began the long journey back to the truck in a peaceful solitary trance. Walking back, I stopped to water the dogs in the creek and rested for a while on soft bunchgrass in the shade of a massive oak. Contemplating solitude and a heavy game bag, I concluded that sometimes it's simply best to hunt pheasants on your own.

Contrary to popular belief, pheasant hunting can be successfully practiced alone - indeed, in deep solitude! Here are some

key elements of a successful solo approach, plus a way for two to three hunters to enjoy a little companionship while still actually hunting alone.

The fundamental premise of hunting alone is that pheasants learn to avoid hunters by knowing when they are coming and where they are coming from, which relates, quite simply, to noise and motion. More people equal more noise, more commotion.

Given the extraordinary gunning pressure wild pheasants face throughout Washington, Oregon and California, especially on public land, it should be no surprise that the roosters become adept at anticipating a hunter's approach. How many times have you witnessed roosters flushing 200 yards away at the slam of a car door or other loud noise? If they can hear a car door, you can bet they can hear people talking, or even the thrashing of several hunters and dogs coming through the cover. The more advance warning, the better their escape.

Consider also the harvest statistics and hunting pressure on public land in the Far West. Most post-season sex-ratio data suggest that the annual rooster crop has been knocked back to ratios of about 25 to 30 roosters per 100 hens. This equates to older and more educated roosters for most of the season, since about 50 percent of the harvest occurs on opening weekend. Further, the number of hunters traipsing through a good patch of uplands on public land can be staggering, perhaps even as high as one hunter per day of the season, considering the multiple passes made on opening weekend. Thus, we are left in many circumstances to rely on the ability of good bird dogs and the element of surprise.

"I firmly believe that talking while hunting wild pheasants is a major mistake," says Tom Blankinship, the California Department of Fish and Game's upland game coordinator. "I enjoy camaraderie with my hunting partners as much as anyone, but prefer to hunt quietly and alone. It's hard enough to be successful without giving the birds more of an edge."

Two of the best ways to maintain a low profile in pheasant cover are keeping your mouth shut and staying several hundred yards away from other hunters. However, I've even gone as far as to tape up my dogs' tags to avoid jingling; I whistle softly by mouth except when a sharp blast is absolutely necessary; and I try to avoid cracking branches or excessively splashing in wet areas. Granted, two Labs and a bird hunter don't have to mimic a spot-and-stalk archery hunter's tactics to kill a rooster, but being cognizant of noise can pay off in terms of pheasant harvest.

It's also important to think about how to surprise roosters when you plan an approach to a desired habitat. Some of my favorite pheasant spots have little trails leading into an area of thick cover. Why thrash the cover and announce yourself if you can ease your dog into scent unannounced and then beat the brush? Likewise with water: It's always better to approach islands or mudflat hummocks with a minimum of noisy splashing. I have one particular island that has a single ridge of very shallow water leading from the levee to it, which allows a relatively quiet approach with my Labs at heel. A few seasons ago, I killed eight roosters in 12 tries on that same little wildlife area island!

The practice of blocking the end of the field has been well established throughout American pheasant hunting lore. Put enough blockers around a 10-acre standing cornfield in Iowa and the practice is deadly. Try it on a section of Conservation Reserve Program land in eastern Washington, or on a wetland-upland complex on a state wildlife area in California, and the results will be far less impressive.

Here's the problem: Except in narrow monotypic cover, and sometimes not even under those circumstances, roosters have a tendency to curl back, slip out the side, even squeeze between two hunters and backtrack. Their unwillingness to run straight ahead makes the push-and-block approach a futile exercise more often than not in the West.

A solitary pheasant hunter still needs a blocker - but a different kind of blocker. The single most effective way to hunt pheasants alone is to push them into water. Well-educated roosters will run and run through dry ground, but a shallow wetland edge is a tremendous equalizer. Foremost, it is critical to weave back and forth across the uplands as you angle toward the wetland. Further, I look for heavy cover along the wetland-fringe and try to push birds in that direction. Roosters will wade into water 3 or 4 inches deep, but eventually they will seek little patches of heavy cover and hold until forced to flush.

Likewise, tall, extremely dense vegetation offers a momentary sense of security and can slow a chase long enough for you and your dogs to surround the patch. When my Labs get on birds, I'll actually look across the field a few hundred yards ahead to identify thick patches of cover. These patches can be herbaceous or shrubby, or even small groves of trees. The important thing is to identify spots that provide something different from short grassland cover; then, get there about the same time your dogs zero in!

Success aside, an enjoyable hunting experience is often one that involves sharing time afield with a friend or family member. Over the years, Daniel J. Decker and his colleagues in the Natural Resources Human Dimensions Research Unit at Cornell University have extensively studied the social aspects of hunting. Several of these studies have found that social interaction is an integral part of the hunting experience and can be as important in terms of fulfillment as the actual practice of hunting.

What about successful pheasant hunting? Can't have your cake and eat it, too - right? Actually, you can sprinkle a solo pheasant day with some good company. It just takes a wristwatch and a little planning.

My perfect day of pheasant hunting actually involves hooking up with a friend or family member and driving out to a hunting area together, lacing up the boots and having a cup of coffee on the tailgate, and then splitting up and going in opposite directions for a couple of hours. We'll usually return or meet up afield at a pre-determined time and take a break together. These "breaks" often increase our collective hunting odds, because we can share observations and help each other figure out where to focus the rest of the day. We'll usually do the same for lunch and maybe in the midafternoon. Finally, the day's end involves the drive back home or to base camp, picking birds and enjoying the culinary delights of a successful hunt.

So don't get lulled into believing that you either have to hunt pheasants with a big noisy crowd or must spend 12 hours in hermit-like isolation. Middle ground exists, and hunting this way can be very rewarding.

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