Hunting Weather-Wise Ringnecks

November pheasant hunting can see conditions ranging from stifling to frigid. The birds adjust their routines to match the weather — and so should savvy hunters.

By Tim Lilley

"You need to work the west side of this plum thicket," Jim Givens suggested - emphatically - as we approached what looked like prime pheasant cover. "You're gonna take a bird from there ... I just know it. Get Whiskey to work along the edge of that cover. He's either going to point a bird or flush one. I don't think they'll be running."

Whiskey, my bourbon-colored Brittany, seemed to catch scent as soon as he began moving south, into a stiff breeze, along the edge of the thicket. A little finger of brush protruded from it just ahead, and as we rounded that tangled mess, a rooster literally flushed at our feet.

My Ruger Red Label came up, then barked; the bird went down. As Whiskey retrieved him, I heard a faint chuckle from the far side of the thicket. Givens always enjoys it when his theories are proven dead-on accurate.

"How did you know that?" I asked him as we began the drive home later that afternoon. "How did you know at least one rooster would be on the west edge of that thicket?

"The weather told me," he replied quickly. "If you think about it, you'll see what I mean.

"For one thing," he explained, "it has been unusually chilly these past few days, and the nights have been downright cold. Pheasants are going to find and use the thickest cover they can, especially when the cold snap is early in the year like this one is.

"By the time we got to that thicket this afternoon, the sun had been beating down on that side of it for a while. There was no doubt in my mind there would be birds over there enjoying the heat. But I didn't think they'd run because that wind was blowing so strong right into our faces.

"I thought they might duck deeper into the thicket and we'd go right by them. But I knew that if one was on the edge, you'd get a chance at it."

Givens chuckled again - a kind of I-told-you-so laugh that was just fine with me, because it was a token of the lessons learned that afternoon in a windblown piece of pheasant country.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Most hunters really enjoy the opening weeks of the annual pheasant season because the birds usually are easier to find and hunt than at any other time. Once they've been pressured a bit by hunters, anyone who's ever chased them knows how wary and "intelligent" they can become.

But that doesn't mean they're always easy to hunt in the fall, because hunters aren't the only teachers they encounter. Weather wises them up, too, and your chances for success now and every fall will go up if you take the time to learn how they react to various kinds of early-season weather.

From here, it's easy to argue that the opening weeks of every pheasant season can offer up the highest chance of dramatic differences from season to season because the weather patterns are awfully tough to predict. This can be the time of the hunting year that, though you just know where the birds will be and how they'll act, you hit your favorite hunting spots and endure major disappointment.

Randy Rodgers knows that probably as well as any ringneck hunter does. His career as a wildlife biologist has included many years of work with these wonderful game birds, and he's learned how finicky fall weather can complicate the early hunting season.

"I almost hate to even use the term 'normal conditions' when I talk about the early weeks of the season, because things can change so dramatically," he explained. "Many hunters likely can recall opening seasons in shirtsleeves because the weather was so warm. And they also know of openers that found them bundled up and still cold ... or wet and miserable.

"You never know what to expect, but you can learn to understand how pheasants are going to react to whatever the weather is like when the season opens in your area."

That understanding is a key to consistency in early-season success. Throughout pheasant country, an "average" weather pattern that coincides with the opening of the season probably will include nighttime lows in the 20s and 30s, with highs reaching perhaps into the 50s.

"In conditions like that," Rodgers offered, "pheasants are going to be still pretty widely scattered, and they won't be using the heaviest cover available, because they don't need to. These are the times when keying on decent cover that's close to good food sources will lead to success."

Row crops generally are the foods the birds will be focused on - unless there are decent stands of grasses and areas with insects. "Even though it's getting pretty cold at night by then, there still will be some insect activity," Rodgers explained. "Pheasants will be all over grasshoppers if they're available, because the insects are still active, but they're moving more slowly now because of the lower temperatures."

You also can expect to find the birds dining on weed seeds in those spots where that kind of forage remains. As a result, an opener with that elusive "average" kind of weather presents a number of hunting options.

You can, for example, choose to concentrate on those areas of decent cover surrounding row-crop fields. Or you can take the time to explore the spots where birds can still feed on insects, especially grasshoppers, or weed seeds. The idea of going to the same place at the same time season after season really might not be your best bet when it comes to early-season success.

For example, the onslaught of a bitter cold snap won't always move the birds immediately to the heavy cover you likely focus on during midwinter and late-season hunts. "If a 'norther' blows in - you know: the kind of really cold snap that can happen early in the season - it won't always cause pheasants to change their routine," Rodgers offered. "If it doesn't last very long, say a couple of days, it really won't move them."

That doesn't mean it won't have an effect on your hunting, however. "I have seen situations where pheasants were caught away from the heaviest cover in a given area, and they have suffered pretty severe mortality, because, in essence, they got caught out in the open by some pretty severe cold," Rodgers noted. "And when it comes to the young rooster, they might not even know where the heaviest cover is yet, because they are still learning and adapting to the area they live in."

Rodgers has come to understand over the years that it usually tak

es at least a solid week of bitter cold before pheasants will definitely change their daily routines and start moving to the heaviest available cover. So let's apply that insight to your situation. You've been planning that first hunt of the season for months. Then, suddenly, you wake up on the appointed morning to find the day many degrees colder than the day before. Maybe there's even the season's first snow on the ground, or a light coating of ice, or an extremely heavy frost.

You quickly check the weather and learn that temperatures aren't going up much as your first hunting day unfolds. Rodgers' experience suggests that, unless this cold snap has been around for a week or more, you probably shouldn't alter your plan in terms of where or how you'll hunt.

The patterns described earlier in this piece that relate to that mystical "average" weather likely will apply in this case. Look for pheasants close to food sources - row crops, insects, weed seeds - and save the heavy cover for last. Hunt the places you'd hunt on a normal day first, despite the cold, and then, if you don't encounter the birds where and/or how you think you should, head for the thicker stuff.

And as suggested by the incident that opened this story, if your bitter cold morning unfolds to become very sunny - albeit much colder than normal - think about areas where ringnecks will have a chance to loaf through the midday and soak up the sun's radiant energy. Those are going to be prime hunting locations.

About the rottenest hunting conditions for pheasants involve rain - and not so much because of what it does to the birds. It can make hunters downright miserable. If there's any saving grace, however, it might just be the effect that rain can have on pheasants in a given area.

"If you get into a situation where it's unusually wet but the temperatures and other elements haven't changed much, I don't believe you'll see conditions change radically as far as where pheasants are going to hang out," Rodgers offered. "However, their daily routines could change depending on the actual timing of the rain. They might just hunker down where they are and wait the wet stuff out."

That really can be a good thing for you - if you're willing to endure a steady rain as you hunt.

If temperatures are staying in the range that's considered normal where you live, you can expect the birds to be following their usual routine for the opening weeks of the season. You should just plan on them holding tight and not moving much because of the rain.

This can be a particularly good time for hunters with dogs, since pheasants can be much more likely to hold tight for pointing breeds. And hunters who prefer to be out by themselves can really enjoy higher prospects for success if it's unusually wet, as the birds tend to hold tighter than they would otherwise, meaning that you'll get closer to them before they flush.

If you're by yourself, or maybe hunting with only one or two others, a rainy day means moving very slowly and erratically. You want to get the birds skittish enough to flush when you get close. If your approach is to move through areas at a steady pace - regardless of speed - you're like to walk by a whole lot of birds, or to have them flush once you've passed by.

That last sentence calls to mind the image of a small waterway overgrown with weeds that separates two row-crop fields that Jim Givens and I have hunted more than once over the years. Since we both owned dogs, the rainy days were the ones we looked forward to the most, in that we knew that our four-legged companions would have a chance to point birds in that spot and have them hold until we approached. It was those days, miserable as they could be to endure, that have been among the most productive and exciting we've enjoyed in the pheasant fields.

Dry weather often proved just the opposite - not for the ringnecks, but for us.

"When you get into a pheasant season during extremely dry conditions, you're going to find that things improve for the birds, not for the hunters," Rodgers offered with a laugh. "For one thing, dogs are at a definite disadvantage, because scent doesn't linger as long as when there is some moisture. And anyone who enjoys hunting over dogs knows how frustrating and tough it can be for them on extremely dry days ... especially if there's more than a light breeze."

So arid weather enhances the pheasants' chances of eluding the amazingly refined canine sense of smell. But that's not the only advantage conferred by dry weather.

Rodgers pointed out that we've all probably ridden out years with summers and early falls so dry that many a farmer just left the row crops in the fields because the stuff was not even worth cutting. "In those fields where row crops are not harvested, pheasants will definitely suck into those places," he said.

With the double entendre intended, think of these unharvested fields as a kind of Conservation Reserve Program "subway." Not only do the openings between rows of uncut crops provide the pheasants with much easier transit than the usual CRP acreage - a subway system of sorts - but all that readily-available food also constitutes a kind of Subway fast-food shop for birds - one that means plenty of good eating.

"Whenever you have dry conditions throughout the growing season," Rodgers observed, "the quality of traditional pheasant cover is going to diminish. However, when crops are left uncut in fields, that definitely mitigates some of the impact.

"And in areas where farmers grow wheat, I have seen dry years when they don't treat the crop or stubble with herbicide. In those situations, pheasants actually benefit from the improved habitat provided by those fields where weeds are allowed to grow up."

Rodgers did note that whenever hunters encounter habitat affected by hot dry weather, pheasants are going to be more likely to run, because the birds sense that they're at least a bit more exposed, owing to a lack of really heavy cover to use if necessary.

It's in these situations where your approach has to be well planned and executed if you want consistent success. The alternative is to spend lots of time watching plenty of roosters flush well out of gun range.

If you hunt over dogs, it's important to work them into the wind at all times, and to keep them fairly close. Without dogs, you must think about the areas you're going to hunt with an eye toward imagining how running ringnecks will move - and identifying the bottlenecks or breaks that might cause them to flush - before you ever start working the area.

Doing this will help you to hunt thoroughly and effectively, and that will improve your success.

"When you think about it," Rodgers said, "hot, dry weather during the opening weeks of the season is going to be much worse on hunters and their dogs than it will be on the pheasants. It can really be miserable hunting on a hot day, especially when it's dry and there's a decent wind blowing.

"You'll have to deal with dust, and you're going to need regular fluid intake for you and your dogs. I suspect it's most important for the dogs, too, because when they start getting into birds fields and are exposed to some scent - even though there's not much when it's dry - you know they're going to get excited and kick it into high gear."

Rodgers is right. Your dog has been bred and trained to respond with tremendous enthusiasm to the scent of a ringneck. He or she doesn't care whether it's hot and dry - it's all about finding those birds.

That's when you're going to have to make sure you have water along for your dogs, and take plenty of breaks to give them drinks. The alternative can be downright dangerous and very harmful to your four-legged hunting buddies.

When all is said and done, then, weather plays a really significant role in every day you hunt pheasants. But from here, it's never more important than during those early weeks of the season.

Things can change overnight - or even in a few hours. Knowing what to expect from the birds and how you should adapt figure among the most important elements of enjoying consistent success from season to season, and weather front to weather front.

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