After the Shootout
September 30, 2010
No doubt: After the opening-day blast of excitement, Sunflower State pheasant hunting becomes a different game.
By Tim Lilley
You don't have to give up on Kansas pheasants after the opening week of the season. The birds are still there, and you can still enjoy some outstanding action. You just have to approach things a little differently.
That concept - of taking a different approach - applies not only to the way hunters chase birds during the first seven to 10 days of the season; it also relates to how many hunters spend the middle weeks of November in the Sunflower State.
Maybe they go deer hunting with a bow. Maybe they hunt waterfowl.
Since you're reading this, chances are good that you know a hunter - or maybe several - who do just about anything other than chase ringnecks after the season's first week. They're making a big mistake.
Randy Rogers knows that - possibly better than anyone else does. A biologist working out of the Kansas' Department of Wildlife and Parks' regional office in Hays, he has been leading efforts to manage the state's pheasant resource for many years.
"Once you get through those first days of the season," he said, "the biggest difference is that the birds are going to be running more and holding less. You have to take that into consideration when planning a hunting strategy."
Rogers emphasized that your plan - the approach you'll take to hunting a given piece of ground - should be set well in advance of your arrival to start the hunt.
"Once they've been hunted fairly hard, which always is the case during the opening week of the season, pheasants become a whole lot more wary," he explained. "One of the best things you can do is figure out how you're going to hunt a certain piece of property in advance ... so you can just show up and start hunting right off."
Why can that make a difference? Rogers thinks it's simple. He notes that birds are going to go into escape mode at the first sound of vehicle doors, voices, and even dogs. The quicker you can make the transition from traveling to hunting, the better off you're going to be.
Photo by Tom Evans
Rogers also made a suggestion that will be music to the ears of those hunters who often have a hard time climbing up out of a warm bed to be in the field at first legal hunting time in the morning. "There's one thing you can bet on, even if the birds have been hunted hard," he offered. "When pheasants come off the roost in the morning, they're going to head straight to feed. Early in the season, that generally means harvested row-crop fields."
Think about it: You know birds are going to be more wary. And at the start of any hunting day, you know you're probably going to find them in fields that give them the best opportunity to take off on you.
Why would you want to push your luck like that?
"Maybe I'm just lazy," Rogers said, "but I've enjoyed my best success after the opening week of the season by giving the birds a chance to get off the roost, go to the feed fields and get that part of the day over with - before I ever start hunting."
Rogers' experience is similar to mine. After the rush of opening weekend, my best Sunflower State ringneck outings have happened beginning in late morning, or even after lunch. By then, birds are well past feeding. They've settled into their loafing areas, and hunters have a better chance at an encounter.
You know the kinds of places: natural waterways that remain in tall grass year 'round and are close to the feed fields. You can also include other stands of grass close by, especially those with a southern exposure. Even though Kansas weather can remain mild through Thanksgiving, pheasants are going to take advantage of as much heat as they can - and that means using southern-facing slopes and draws.
Undoubtedly, there are readers shaking their heads right now. Been there, done that, they're thinking. Never found the birds. Rogers has a fascinating take on that. He'll tell you that looking in the right place might be the wrong thing to do.
"Hunters need to adapt to the birds and the changes that take place after the crush of season-opening hunting pressure," he explained. "Even though the weather is not all that severe, usually, during November, hunting pressure is another reason that pheasants will change the habitat they're using ... moving to fields that are less frequently disturbed."
I can remember the very first Kansas pheasant I ever harvested, and how I never would have known it was there if my partner's dog hadn't found it. We'd worked up a nice draw with no action. When we broke into that typical harvested row-crop field, the dog veered off to my right.
The young English pointer continued out a little finger of grass that this hunter never would have given a second's worth of attention. When she started acting birdy, I was skeptical. There just can't be a pheasant there, I remember thinking. No way.
I was less than a dozen steps from the dog when a big mature rooster exploded from a little tuft of grass that didn't look big enough to hold a ringneck. With a little divine intervention, I overcame my shock and got off a good shot, giving my pointing co-hunter a chance to enjoy the proud trot of a successful retrieve.
So when you're making that pre-hunt game plan mentioned earlier, take the time to consider all of the possibilities on the acreage you plan to hunt. Are there parcels you just never work because you're convinced no self-respecting ringneck would ever hang out there? Are there smallish brushpiles, draws or waterways that have just never struck you as being big enough to check out?
Does your game plan make your approach predictable? If so, you can rest assured that pheasants are going to take advantage of it - and of you - to avoid detection.
"You can count on some of the pheasants pulling out the full spectrum of evasion tactics," Rogers offered. "You will encounter the unorthodox and unusual."
The funny part is that you might never know it. On another Kansas hunt, a dog helped me discover that, too.
Whiskey, the bourbon-colored Brittany that joined me in Sunflower State bird fields for more than a decade, had been acting awfully birdy as we worked down a fencerow one November morning. Whiskey often ranged farther than he should - especially when wary ringnecks were involved - but something told me to let
him go. I'd remembered hearing other hunters talk about birds that flushed after they'd passed, taking off a few yards behind them and using that element of surprise to escape a 12-gauge round of shot.
As Whiskey bounded enthusiastically down the fence I slowed, took a few steps and paused. I took a few more steps and then stopped for a minute. Almost right at my feet, a rooster came up out of the brush, trying to gain enough altitude and momentum to get away. (He did neither.)
"That kind of hunting is definitely the way to go if you're hunting just with your dog, or if there are only a couple of hunters with you," Rogers suggested. "I have a young Lab, and when he gets on pheasant scent there is just no 'whoa-ing' him.
"Chances are," he continued, "he is chasing running birds. But chances also are just as good that there are still birds close by. Those are the ones that use the unusual or unorthodox tactics to avoid hunters."
Those are the birds that force hunters to become unorthodox or unusual in their hunting approach. Another suggestion Rogers offered also involved small groups of hunters. "If you're working across a field, it's always a good idea to suddenly change direction after the birds have been hunted some."
His logic is simple. After the big opening-weekend hunting parties are long gone, much of the rest of the season sees only single hunters or much smaller groups. Those big parties educate the resident pheasants; when smaller groups later move through the same hunting areas, the birds often will just move to the side.
They don't expect hunters to make an abrupt right or left, and they often provide the opportunity for shots on flushes when hunters do change up their approaches like that.
Rogers also made one other point that could help you; it involves hunting a part of the state that some hunters might overlook. "Believe it or not, the true central part of the state likely could provide the best pheasant action this season," he said. "All of the early data I can review suggests that."
He defined the area as south of the northern two tiers of Kansas counties and running just into the northern part of what traditionally is called the southcentral region. Check out that area this month, and you're going to improve your odds for a grand November pheasant hunt.
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