Even late into the hunting season, the Dakotas can produce great ringneck action. Here's proof! (December 2008)
On the west wall of my basement, just above my cluttered desk and to the left of my thermometer collection, stands a grouping of 8x10 photos that my family has unpretentiously dubbed the "wall of fame." The wall chronicles many highlights of our days in the field, and occasionally I glance at the glass-housed memories and drift back to days gone by.
Dakota pheasant hunters Dale Simpson and Mike Hall take a break on the tailgate after a late-season hunt that yielded good action and birds in the bag. The period immediately after a light-to-moderate snowfall is a great time to be in the field.
Photo by R.A. Simpson.
In the mix of individual pictures and memories, I can readily point to several periods or times that, although some may have escaped the camera, tend to stand out from the others. For instance, the 1977 fall flight when scores upon scores of northern mallards rained down upon my home waters like a gift from heaven. Or the unbelievable largemouth bass bite on Jones Lake in the early 1990s when 5-pound-plus fish were commonplace. There also are the archery seasons of 1993 and '94, when there seemed to be a good buck around every corner on my father-in-law's farm.
And of course, there's the latest addition to the old memory bank -- the late-season pheasant hunting witnessed in the Dakotas this past year. Quite honestly, I've never seen anything like it. If you were allowed the privilege to take part in that winter bonanza, it's a memory that will not soon be forgotten.
Last year's late-season hunting was beyond the scope of imagination; many shells were spent in its celebration as pheasant numbers charted into unknown realms. It was probably the only time you will ever hear me say that late-season hunting was . . . well -- easy! I really hate to use that word in regard to winter longtails, but there were so many birds stuffed into the Dakotas last winter that even late in the season it was more of a shoot than a hunt.
I remember working a half-section of heavy CRP just after Christmas that was so full of birds, my wife's cousin said he couldn't drive around to block with the pickup windows down, or he would have everyone's limit inside the truck before the hunt even began.
As we enter into the final innings of the 2008 pheasant season, having passed the halfway mark in both the North and South Dakota seasons, prospects for another book-busting year look very good. Will hunting be easy? Probably not. These are still late-season longtails, and we all know how tough a bird those are compared to the shortspurs we were chasing two months ago. That was a barrel shoot compared to the hunt that is upon us. While tactics and locations have to be amended, there's still an amazing amount of roosters out there for those of us who love to chase them.
Pheasant hunting has entered a new era in the Dakotas. Populations and harvests are at levels seen only in their dreams by a few veteran hunters. With current CRP and habitat issues now on the front burner, we are all holding our breath for the future. But for right now, the birds are here and my advice is to enjoy the good hunting while you can.
Besides, who ever thought that we'd be talking about a harvest number close to a million birds in North Dakota? And South Dakota doubled that tally with a harvest of more than 2 million birds last year! For most of us, pheasant hunting has never been better, and although many birds have already hit the deck this season, plenty of ringnecks still remain.
I love late-season hunting. Don't get me wrong -- opening day is magical on the prairie, but after that, give me some cold weather, a cattail slough and a rocks-in-the-pocket wind, and I'm all smiles. That's when the real hunt begins.
As has already been suggested, the game has changed. December pheasant hunters chase birds quite different from the ones they put in the freezer two months ago. Of the ringnecks that remain, only the best -- to say nothing of the luckiest -- have passed the test, and they know this late-season hunting game well.
As pheasant populations continue to expand to levels not seen in more than half a century, Dakota hunters will have no problem finding a bounty of birds in the field. The challenge lies in getting them within shotgun range. At this time of year, it takes just as long to plan a hunt and get everyone into position as it does to execute the maneuver.
The birds are very spooky and have been playing this game for several weeks. Spend some time at the farmyard or on the tailgate assigning duties -- who'll block every possible escape route, who'll push the birds -- and your hunt will be much more successful. The trick is to get everyone in position as quickly and quietly as possible. Don't worry about the birds that get out before you're in position -- just stay with the plan. You never get around every bird in the field, but be ready when you pull up to your position. Now is not the time to look for your vest, shells, or to baby the pooch. Have one hand on the door handle and get to where you need to be.
Late-season is not a solo affair in big cover; it takes bodies to keep the birds guessing. Success doesn't lie in where you find the birds, but rather in where they're going once the hunt begins.
Escape routes tend to persist year after year, with only small variations, depending on crop rotations and habitat growth. Hunters who know their land have the upper hand.
With pheasant populations at modern-day highs, we actually have more birds in the field right now than we would have had on opening day a couple of decades ago.
Very few birds will try to hold, even in the thickest cover. The roosters left playing this big chess match are generally the first to break cover and I don't spend a lot of time digging every bird out at the end of a pass. Late-season hunting generally is fast paced.
Large tracts of CRP acres, standing crops, and wetlands take a lot of guns to hunt properly, but isolated pockets of small cover still exist for small groups or just a couple of hunters. The type and size of cover should dictate the hunt at this time of year.
But remember, those are just guidelines; there are no rules when it comes to late-season pheasants. A case in point from last year: On the morning of Dec. 21, my son Justin and I decided to tackle a large waterfowl production area near Wolsey, SD. While the bulk of my hunting occurs on private
lands, public land witnesses a resurgence every winter because of the quality of winter cover there -- and I love to hit those areas. These are the smartest of ringnecks, having earned a PhD. in the ranks of survival on public land, but they are plentiful. In fact, there are many years when there are more birds on certain public acres during the last week of the season than there wee on the first.
Of course not all public acres are created equal when it comes to winter cover. Forget the large grasslands and head to Waterfowl Production Areas, lake access areas, or similar wetlands that hold large acres of cattail sloughs and woody cover; those are the ones that hold birds.
On that morning, a fresh dusting of snow had fallen and the timing was perfect for an early morning hunt. Because there was just the two of us, and an amazing amount of cover, we decided to come in at the cover from opposite ends and hope to either get a flush or passing shot at a bird the other had spooked. We execute this plan a couple of times every winter and as long as we know each other's exact travel routes and lines of sight, we usually collect a couple of birds.
Working from South to north, I hit the cover first, with waves of birds flushing out ahead in the head-high cattails. When I reached the heart of the cover, I could hear birds running ahead -- playing cat and mouse. I took off on a short run to cut them off, and 20 more birds took to the air with just a handful of roosters in their ranks.
In a small break in the cover I took a lucky shot and collected my first bird of the day. Soon after, I heard a chorus of shots in the far distance as Justin took advantage of the vast number of birds heading his way.
And so the hunt went, until we filled our six-bird limit in a little over an hour's time. The cover was too much for two guys to enjoy any success, but by splitting up and working small pockets within the maze, we collected our birds. Again, if it weren't for the vast number of pheasants in the area, hunting would have been impossible.
The next day, we joined a group of 14 locals and surrounded a quarter section of neck-high CRP that consisted of some of the best winter cover in a five-mile area. Complete with a couple of food plots, the cover sucked in birds from quite an area and was full of big winter ringnecks. Shells were easily spent as waves of birds rolled over each other dancing from one corner of the quarter to the other. We collected our birds in one push thanks to the line of blockers who kept the birds at bay. Hunt that particular cover with just two or three guys, and those same birds that easily fell to our shotguns would have made fools of us.
Hunts similar to these are taking place all across the pheasant fields of the Dakotas right now. Just pick your cover in keeping with the number of hunters on board. The birds are flighty, and the hunt is fast-paced. I hit certain small pockets when it's necessary to slip off the tailgate to keep birds in, and some others are big enough to allow the help of a dog. Just keep moving, and block those escape routes.
It takes a lot of options to hunt hard in the late season. Hit these patches -- big or small -- very often and you'll burn them out. I hate to hit any area -- public or private -- more than once every 10 days; that's arguably long enough to leave any area in peace. But hit an area every other day for a week, and you can kiss the pheasants goodbye for the season.
Snow can be either friend or foe, depending on depth and texture. A couple of inches of powder are like money in the bank -- but try to put on a sneak in the thick crunchy stuff, and you can forget it. Of course the hours immediately following a light to moderate snowfall can be some of the best. Fresh tracks never lie and the birds seem to work the available food sources over pretty hard.
Just after a mid-December dusting last year, I was hunting with my brother Dale, and Mike Hall of Huron, SD. The plan was for Dale and Mike to work a weeded fence-line adjacent to a harvested cornfield while I took the long way around to block. With fresh tracks and scratchings in the snow just in front of them, I knew those two buggers had their birds before I ever got out of sight.
While weather plays a large part in finding late-season pheasants, it also dictates the number of hunters left in the field. "Late-season hunting has been very popular the past several years in North Dakota," said Stan Kohn, upland game biologist with the NDGFD. "We had a lot of birds last season and those hunters who stuck with it to the end had some fantastic hunting. Again, most of our hunting is weather-related, especially for non-residents."
The same is true in South Dakota, but to a somewhat lesser degree. "A few guys stick it out no matter the conditions, but the bulk of our hunters keep an eye to the sky at this time of year," echoes Chad Switzer, senior upland game biologist with the SDDGFP. "Although the bulk of our harvest occurs during the first few weeks of the season, we saw a lot of hunters late into the season and that helped our harvest hit a modern-day high of over 2 million birds."
Kohn pointed to the Thanksgiving holiday and deer season as the turning points. "After those events," he noted, "hunting pressure tapers off and access to private ground improves. Once they get their deer, the 'No Hunting' signs start coming down."
Kohn also points to a resurgence in public land opportunities in North Dakota. "Once pressure tapers off and those areas get time to settle down a bit, they can really pull in the birds," he adds. Again, the WPAs and public-lake access areas will hold more birds than the public grasslands this time of year, especially after a significant snowfall.
Time of day and food sources also play into the success equation. I like to look at the heaviest cover very early or very late in the day, and work marginal areas near food sources in the heart of the day. Nice weather will scatter the birds while tough conditions generally concentrate them.
Both Switzer and Kohn agree that last year's late-season hunting was some of the best we have seen, and all fingers are crossed for the season that is upon us. The birds in both states have spread evenly among their respective pheasant belts, and so by using a common-sense approach a lot of unproductive cover can be overlooked. It's easy to find birds this time of year; food plots, shelterbelts, cattail sloughs, farmyards, and switch grass all hold pheasants.
Although efforts to extend the season in South Dakota failed to get enough support, the current pheasant season still runs into January in both states. With pheasant populations at modern-day highs, we actually have more birds in the field right now than we would have had on opening day a couple of decades ago.
So don't put away that shotgun just yet; dust off the heavy loads, put on your boots and get out there. This is some of the best pheasant hunting the Dakotas have to offer, and its just getting started. December ringnecks are without a doubt the most prized game bird in the Great Plains, and now is the time to collect the late-season bounty.