Want to improve your pheasant-hunting success rate this fall? These seven tips can help you put satisfying heft into an otherwise skimpy game bag.
Photo by T.C. Flanigan
This is what we upland bird hunters live for: the cool, crisp and clean air of autumn, Creation's landscape splashed with fall colors, the cackle of roosters, the thump of scatterguns -- and that satisfying heft in the game bag that puts a smile on a hunter's weary face.
While those may indeed be the pheasant hunting dreams that have kept us going through another long, hot, and dry summer, none of those autumn visions of hunting grandeur guarantees us a successful hunt this fall as we trudge through upland cover once more.
So how can you tip the pheasant hunting odds in your favor and give the chef back home the prime ingredients for a favored ringneck recipe? Simple -- employ these tips and tactics from pheasant hunting's "Sizzling Seven" hottest tips for better hunting.
GET IN SHAPE
While this time-honored piece of advice might seem more appropriate for a flatlander who's heading out West to hunt high country mule deer or elk this fall, it certainly applies to pheasant hunters as well.
First, pheasant hunting generally involves plenty of walking, sometimes up and down hills, always through thick cover, and often for miles on end. Trust me, as I get older, I'm learning the value of staying in shape, even for upland bird hunting. The better shape I'm in, the longer and stronger -- and, I hope, better -- I can chase roosters.
But keeping yourself in shape is only half the battle -- especially if you hunt with a canine companion.
"Pay attention to your dog in two respects," said Bob St. Pierre, public relations manager for the conservation organization Pheasants Forever. "First, keep them hydrated and second, keep them in good condition."
By getting yourself and Fido in shape for the rigors of upland bird hunting, you'll be increasing the odds of having more successful hunts with a limit of long tailfeathers sticking out of your game vest. If not, you and your hunting dog may run out of steam many miles from the truck with a few birds still left to go toward that daily limit.
SHARPEN SHOOTING SKILLS
Keep in mind that if the goal is to increase the heft in your game bag, it pays to spend some time knocking clay pigeons from the sky before heading out to chase roosters.
Buy a box of targets, grab your favorite shotgun and shells, and head out to the shooting range or back forty to practice the same kind of shots you'll get when Mr. Ringneck cackles and erupts from cover.
"If you'll sharpen your shooting skills before you ever step foot into the field, you will cripple less birds," St. Pierre said. "By knocking off some of that rust before you set out into the field, which is obviously very important, you'll be able to make good, clean kills and not leave them out there."
But clay pigeon practice can only carry your scattergun technique so far. It also pays to give close attention to what you're actually shooting through that shotgun. "I use the same stuff all season long: open chokes and 7 1/2 shot," said Rick Young, vice-president of field operations for Pheasants Forever.
Why does this veteran pheasant hunter who has chased ringnecks for more than 30 years across a dozen states stick with the same stuff again and again? In a word, velocity.
"Most people tend to miss when they shoot shells at different velocities," he continued. "People go to trap loads (for pre-season practice) and shoot those loads with one velocity. When they go pheasant hunting, they'll switch to magnum loads that are traveling 20 percent slower, so they'll miss by shooting behind the bird or they'll cripple the bird.
"The reason for this is that you're not going to have the same lead then (with the Magnum loads) that you were shooting with all summer long (with the trap loads). I focus on velocity -- and I'm very conscious about it."
While the velocity numbers on the side of Young's shotgun shell box read 1,280 feet per second, what that number actually is isn't as important as that velocity number consistently staying the same.
"The key is to shoot the same velocity every time you pull the trigger at the range, when you're shooting at pheasant, quail, or grouse," Young said. "I'm shooting basically the same load and 7 1/2s work for all of those birds. This way, I have the same lead every single time and I don't have to compensate. If there's a bird out there, I know what the lead is and don't have to adjust."
If a hunter feels the need to go up in shot sizes, Young says that is certainly acceptable -- as long as one thing stays the same. "You can bump up to sixes if need be, just be sure that you're shooting the same velocity."
For those of you who might think that 7 1/2s are too light for pheasants, St. Pierre -- himself a veteran pheasant hunter who has chased roosters for a decade in six different states -- has seen first-hand proof of their effectiveness from his own upland hunting adventures with Young.
"I can confirm that Rick is successful with this at skeet, grouse, and pheasants," St. Pierre said. "He knows where he's leading them, knocks them in the head, and it works."
While consistent velocity from his 7 1/2 loads is one of Young's shooting keys to pheasant hunting success, there is another.
"If you put the bead in the middle of the bird, you're really going to be shooting at his tail-feather," Young said. "You've got to lead them. I like Mel Gibson's line from 'The Patriot' -- aim small and miss small. If you aim at the beak, if you miss, you'll probably hit them in the head."
Obviously, if you're reading this magazine, you must be a connoisseur of good reading material. But whether you like my outdoor expertise or not, it pays to learn to read pheasant cover if you want to bag more roosters.
"How do you read a field?" asked St. Pierre. "First, you've got to pay attention to what is happening around you. For instance, if you're hunting in the late season, you need to know where there is winter cover, where there are shrubs that can hold them in when it's really harsh. Second, you need to ask 'Where's the food?' "
When in doubt of where to start focusing his hunting efforts, St. Pierre gets a little on edge -- litera
"When I'm looking at a plain field on opening day, I'm looking at the edges," St. Pierre said. "Things like ditches or where a cornfield meets a little woody cover, pheasants like to focus on this edge type cover."
The reason for this, according to St. Pierre, is that edges often serve as a transition zone between where a bird is eating and where it is seeking security or rest.
"Between food and cover, that's a good focal point," St. Pierre said. "Pheasants spend a lot of time in edges, the transition habitat between food, cover, loafing areas, and roosting cover."
While the edges between a cornfield and a ditch might be obvious, don't forget to investigate any isolated patches of cover thoroughly, urged Young. "They're worth taking a gander at," he said, "especially later in the season. Areas that haven't been hit can be really amazing in the late season."
While reading a pheasant field correctly at the start of a hunt is important in Young's mind, so too is simply entering that field with the perseverance to exit the field hours later having left no stone unturned where a pheasant might be hiding.
"You can walk for six hours, put up a few hens here and there, and all of a sudden you can find a spot where there's 20, 30, or 40 pheasants, including 10 roosters," Young said. "When you tell your buddies, it will sound like a really good day, but there was a lot of hard work involved.
"You've got to keep after it," he added. "I've had a lot of experience here. The average guy may get discouraged and give up after four hours by thinking there aren't a lot of birds here. There could be a lot of birds, you just have to find that one spot."
In other words, there is often a price that hunters must be willing to pay if bagging a limit of roosters is the goal. What's that price? Keeping on keeping on!
"I'm a firm believer that if you want to shoot roosters, then you've got to get out there and put one foot in front of the other," Young said. "I enjoy getting out there and figuring it out. It's a game, in a way: You can't get frustrated; you've got to keep on going. If you put one foot in front of the other, repeat the process, then repeat it again 10,000 times if necessary, you'll eventually get into birds."
Just simply being determined to find roosters isn't enough however. That's especially true if a hunter isn't in proper position when the pheasants erupt from cover. And to get in that proper position, often enough you've got to use the gray matter between your ears a little bit.
"When you're solo hunting, you've really got to pay attention to your dog," St. Pierre said. "It's kind of like when you're playing hockey or basketball where you have to think ahead of the pass. It's the same thing in pheasant hunting. If your dog is starting to get birdy, look at the cover ahead of you and try and figure out where the bird is going to flush and how you can get into position to make an accurate, safe shot when that bird does flush."
Does this idea of thinking ahead apply when you're hunting with a partner? You bet, said St. Pierre.
"You've got to be spread out enough to cover a lot of ground, but not so far where you're leaving a big gap between each other. Pheasants, a lot of times, they will fly as the last means of escape. They're notorious for running circles around the dogs, so if you're too far spread out, they'll shoot that gap between dogs and hunters. You've got to cover a lot of ground, but not leave too many openings there."
This idea even applies to a couple of hunters working likely pheasant cover without the aid of a dog.
"You've got to know your buddy, but you can hunt 'together' by hunting apart," Young said. "This is where it's advantageous to hunt with a partner you've hunted with a long time. You know what he's going to do and can kind of read his mind. As you work a field edge, you can hunt toward each other and know he's not going to shoot you. Of course, you've got to be careful doing that, but you can pinch birds toward each other."
Even when hunting in a big block-and-drive group setting, this principle of thinking ahead can still apply. "Keep the birds guessing a bit, but be real conscious of where your buddies are at all times," Young said.
One reason for empty game vests in Young's mind is that too many pheasant hunters allow themselves to get stuck in a rut, so to speak.
"In general, people get locked in when hunting either public or private ground," Young said. "They have an area that has been productive in the past, so they keep going back to the well."
Not that there's anything wrong with such a strategy -- as long as it keeps working. But year in and year out, the variations of pheasant population dynamics, the weather, hunting pressure, and changing agricultural practices can turn what was a "Can't Miss" hotspot last year into a cricket-chirping dud this year.
"Don't get locked into the same-old, same-old every year," Young said. "Keep your options open more than that."
To do that, it is often necessary for hunters to seek out new hunting grounds, be they public or private.
How can a hunter do that?
"I think a big mistake that hunters make is not knocking on a farmer's door and simply asking permission," St. Pierre said. "Be polite, offer to share your take with the farmer, and you might get an invite. A lot of people get intimidated and never consider asking permission."
Another way to find new ground is to broaden your horizons. "Listen to where the bird numbers are good, where the numbers are better, and trust your ability to find birds," Young said.
To do this, Young suggests hunters keep rough tabs on weather conditions and pheasant prospects in various states across pheasant country.
"When the fall reports come out, it's pretty easy to make a phone call and talk to a state's pheasant biologist," Young said. "They'll give you the straight skinny on what it's going to be like this year. After that, you can decide to go back to your same old haunts or to try a new area where there are a lot of birds."
LESS IS MORE
Keep in mind that at times, less is more when it comes to pheasant hunting.
"A lot of people that go to different states want to go to the absolute best spot with the most birds," Young said. "I like to go to areas with medium numbers of birds. They have less hunting pressure, enough birds, and sometimes, more opportunity to get on private land."
While Young may have to work harder to fill his limit, because there are fewer pheasants to begin with, to him, the tradeoff
in high-quality, hard-earned hunting success is well worth it.
"I'm confident I can find birds," he said. "I know they're out there, so it's just a matter of hard work and keeping after it."
STAYING SAFE AND SOUND
The bottom line in pheasant hunting -- any hunting, for that matter -- is that safety is of paramount importance.
"There is no bird in the world that is worth anybody getting hurt over," Young said. "I've literally passed up 100 birds that I could have shot, and, in hindsight, there was no problem. But at the moment I didn't know, and I'm not willing to take any chances at all."
Wonder why there's so much of this fuss for pheasant hunting and its "Sizzling Seven" hunting techniques?
"It's a great game," Young said. "It's the greatest show on earth."
For those of us who have witnessed the cackle of a long-tailed rooster as it erupts from cover and claws for altitude, there's no doubt about that.