Late-Season Longtails

Late-Season Longtails

If you want to put more Kansas pheasants in your game bag this month,

listen to these tips from some masters at finding pheasants.

By Marc Murrell

If you're an avid upland bird hunter and you didn't find many pheasants last season, you're not alone. At least, not according to officials with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. The 2001-02 season may go down as one of our worst in history.

"Grim," was KDWP upland bird biologist Randy Rodgers' overall impression of last season.

What does all this mean for this year's season, now in full swing? The chances are good that birds are few and far between. And once the season rolls into January, the birds left are going to be educated, wily and totally paranoid.

So what's a hunter to do when things look bleak to begin with and the season is winding to a close? Here are a few tips that may help you put more late-season Kansas ringnecks in your bag.

The opening day armies of hunters are long gone. However, those tracts of pheasant habitat like Conservation Reserve Program holdings or crop stubble fields of milo and corn that were so conducive to marches of huge magnitude still hold birds, especially if the weather turns bitter. Small groups of hunters can still be productive on these big tracts; someone hunting solo can even have a fantastic day with the right approach.

The key to this approach is to look at the small pieces of the big puzzle. A few years ago I did exactly that and took my Labrador retriever, Magnum, out for a little exercise with hopes of bagging a rooster or two during the last week in January. My destination was a 100-acre block of CRP bordered by milo stubble. On opening weekend it yielded plenty of birds seen and harvested. My plan was to break up the field into six to eight sections and approach hunting them individually.

Using the edges of the fields and other natural stopping points for running birds, I zigzagged my way slowly and quietly, purposefully avoiding the easiest routes, which were walked by hunters throughout the season. I took my time and kept a close eye on my four-legged companion. If he got birdy, I would follow him, no matter which way he went, until he lost the bird or it flushed wild. My plan worked out fine! Often enough to fill a limit of four birds in a few hours, I got close to a wild flush or a tight-sitting rooster sent skyward by a happy Lab.

Bruce Snelling says hunters have to be ready to make longer shots at late-season ringnecks. He recommends taking out the cylinder choke in your favorite shotgun and replacing it with a modified or full. Also, switch from No. 6 shot to No. 4 or even No. 2! Photo by Marc Murrell

The weather can have an effect on pheasant hunting success year-round. All too often, Kansas' pheasant hunters are cursed with mild weather throughout much of the season - making it difficult on both man and beast. But if Mother Nature blesses the last few weeks of the season with snowfall, you had better load the truck and plan on getting out the first chance you get!

"Snow can make or break a late-season hunt," said David Pendry, who routinely chases roosters in January in several northwest Kansas counties. "If it's mild in late January, it makes things awful tough."

Snow and cold weather concentrates the few remaining birds. Marginal habitat like sparse fencerows and mowed draws can't provide protection from the elements, so birds seek thick stands of CRP or weed-choked fields and cattail sloughs.

"It's not uncommon to see big bunches of birds late in the season during cold weather," Pendry said. "If the first one flushes, you better be ready for more, too."

It's a time when you don't want to be shooting an over-and-under, not if your dream is to shoot a limit from one explosive flush. If you're able to pin the birds, or use strategically placed hunters to block their escape, the hardest part of your hunt will be selecting a rooster.

"Hen . . . hen . . . hen . . . hen . . . ROOSTER!!!" many hunters yell as any number of females boil from cover for every multicolored male.

While many early-season encounters with flushing pheasants often occur at close range, late-season roosters are more unpredictable. Some trying to avoid detection may sit tight, but oftentimes they flush wild. Most of the time they are out of range. Hunters need to pack a little more punch during the late season to effectively kill the ones that hesitate but still flush at 30 to 40 yards.

"I will usually replace the improved-cylinder choke in my favorite 12 gauge with a modified or even full choke," said central Kansas pheasant hunter Bruce Snelling. "And the 6s I used early in the season will be replaced with 4s or even 2s."

Another option for hunters who insist on shooting a two-holer is to use two different chokes. Some hunters feel that if their first barrel, often in modified choke, doesn't connect, they've got a good backup with a full choke. Many times it's not an issue, but flushing pheasants can cover a lot of yards in an instant, especially in a heavy wind.

"Hunters shouldn't be tempted by birds flushing at the edge of gun range, but planning for longer shots will lead to more birds in the bag," Snelling added. "In addition, birds flying straight away are much harder to cleanly kill than those at an angle, especially at long range, so hunters are well served to be even more particular on shot selection late in the season. You might be able to knock a bird down, but if you don't kill it there's a good chance you'll never see it again because he'll run off."

A pheasant hunter in southeast Kansas is either the most patient person in the world or the perfect example of futility. The point is this: Hunters should concentrate their efforts in those areas where they have the best chance for success.

Southeast Kansas is a pheasant ghost town, while northeast Kansas can be productive at times. The traditional stronghold has always been the western third of the state, with the central third - both north and south - producing more adequate hunting opportunity in years of good pheasant production.

While the best hunting is often found on private land, state-owned areas can be good, too. Most of the time they're good for the first few weeks of the season, but after that, the birds either adapt or go home with hunters. Public lands take a non-stop

pounding from hunters and can be unproductive without a twist. Hunters who get off the beaten path and go that extra mile may find success, but it will take work.

Some public lands known more for coots than cocks - like Cheyenne Bottoms, Jamestown and McPherson Valley Wetlands - can yield action on late-season roosters since many hunters are opposed to using steel shot for upland bird hunting. These areas often provide good cover and are easier to hunt if the shallow marsh areas freeze up.

It's still possible to kill pheasants in January, but nobody said it would be easy. That's especially true during years of low production such as Kansas has seen lately. Many people call to voice their concerns, and to suggest things like stocking birds and shortening seasons. Rodgers patiently explains from a biological point of view that neither action has any significant impact on bird populations.

"The bottom line is pen-reared birds don't know how to survive in the wild, and it's basically like pouring money down a rathole," Rodgers said. "With pheasants, it's very clear that only taking cocks and adjusting the season simply does no good whatsoever. By and large, the years of experience have shown that adjusting seasons simply doesn't have any significant impact."

Rodgers said that bird populations are resilient, but hunters shouldn't expect an overnight success on the upland bird comeback.

"A lot of this is going to depend on the weather we get," Rodgers has learned. Even with ideal weather patterns of adequate spring and summer precipitation, coupled with mild winters, it will likely be a few years before the birds are able to bounce back.

"I would say at the very best, if we have two good years of production, we could be back up to average," Rodgers said. "But that's a big if. Probably a more realistic view is more in that three- to four-year range."

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