Success With Low-Density Pheasants
September 28, 2010
You don't need to find great numbers of ringnecks to have a successful hunting season. Here's how to score when and where the birds seem scarce. (November 2007)
As a good bout of bad weather will concentrate birds in the best cover available, that's a promising time to be hunting -- especially when you know exactly where that cover's located!
Photo by Mark Kayser.
Are you frustrated by the lack of pheasants in your back yard? Do you dream about traveling to some magical pheasant wonderland like those you read about and see on TV outdoors shows?
Quit dreaming. These destinations only have one major advantage over your backyard pheasant parcel: more pheasants. There are dozens of reasons for pheasant densities to drop or even crash. Weather, loss of habitat, hunting pressure, farming practices, predators and other factors can have a negative impact on localized populations, but you don't have to experience a flush of 50 birds or more to enjoy a high-quality pheasant hunt.
In fact, hunting the wonderland spots can even be anticlimactic: Who wants to end a hunt quickly, especially if you've invested years in polishing the demeanor of your pointer or retriever? Have you ever taken a look at the daily limit of most good pheasant states? It's two, maybe three birds a day, and in the flurry of a big flush, you can shoot a limit in seconds with a pump or autoloading shotgun. Through homework and networking, you'll find that even marginal states can produce daily limits with more than enough excitement to replace an extensive -- and possibly expensive -- road trip.
Most of our states sustain huntable populations of pheasants. Proper game management sustains the populations, but the federal Conservation Reserve Program kicked populations into high gear, especially in the 1990s. The program boosts wildlife populations by returning millions of acres of highly erodible land to a native state. That's your first clue to finding pheasants in low-density settings.
Because pheasant densities in these regions may be fewer than 10 pheasants per square mile, contact with state natural resource agencies is necessary. Many states produce pheasant density maps, giving you the first clue to a hunting hotspot. From there, contact with a local conservation officer can narrow your options even further. After that, you'll need to network, and the best place to start is with family and friends. From there, expand your interviews to include contact with farmers, rural mail carriers, utility repairmen and even school bus drivers. These folks live their lives in pheasant country. They know where birds congregate along gravel roads and where birds retreat to roost as the sun sets.
Why do the ringnecks hang out along the gravel roads in pheasant country? Often, the best habitat for them is in the ditches that cannot be farmed. Plus, pheasants require a daily dose of grit that comes in the form of gravel along back roads. Late in the summer, hens and their broods often seek gravel roads in the morning to escape the dew of dense roosting cover and they warm themselves in the rising sun. The folks driving these roads get a firsthand look at these locations during dawn and dusk when pheasants frequent roadsides.
After you pinpoint several potential public or private parcels that appear to hold pheasants you need to formulate a plan for success. Low-density pheasant parcels require a different approach than the mega fields holding dozens of pheasants in the pheasant wonderlands of the nation.
Your first order of business: Downsize your hunting group. Most of the parcels holding pheasants will be relatively small, some less than 10 acres in size, so you won't be driving pheasants in the way that hunters farther west do; in fact, two or three hunters are more than enough to attack low-density hotspots. A small group can not only sneak in more quietly but also shoot fewer pheasants to fill limits. You simply don't need an army for success on small plots.
Before you step into a low-density parcel, you need to take an analytical view of the cover and surrounding terrain to plan a strategy for success. First, look beyond your target cover and locate the next parcel of habitat that escapees will flee to if they evade your shot pattern.
This is important, even if it is on the neighbor's property. You need to recognize the natural escape route the birds will take and cut them off. Pheasants are strong flyers, but only for short distances. They'll ditch into cover a half mile away instead of trying to fly a mile or more. Plus, if the next available cover is on your side of the fence, you have the makings for another ambush.
Second, scout the perimeter of the cover. Does it provide you any natural blocking abilities that will prevent pheasants from escaping without flushing? Pheasants are natural runners and will look for any cover for a sneaky, speedy escape. A plowed field, harvested crops, a lake or even a road can stop pheasants cold. These features are a silent hunting partner and provide an extra blocker when you and your partner have your hands full. When you get to the end of such a setup, slow down and let your dog and the nerves of the pheasants work for you. I often stop when I'm down to the last 10 yards of cover or so and let the pheasants naturally flush from self-inflicted tension.
Finally, keep a watchful eye on what's happening on the neighbor's side of the fence. Hunting activities across the fence influence the amount of pheasants available to you. If the neighbors are planning a hunt, let them go first. They may move birds your way. Farming activities, habitat and other factors on the other side of the fence can influence birds numbers on your hunting spot so don't ignore it and study its affiliation to your property.
Cutting the size of your group may be difficult if you hunt alone, but you can still be successful. Whenever I find myself on a solo pheasant hunt I search for ditches or hedges next to plowed or harvested fields and paralleled by a road. Both restrict any escape routes on the sides and birds have nowhere to go, but forward. After pushing ahead 50 to 100 yards, back out and either get into the opposite ditch and dash quietly ahead, or backtrack to your truck and speed ahead 150 to 200 yards. Once ahead of the birds, jump back into the cover and push quickly back the way you started. The confused birds often think they are being pinched from both sides and stop to evaluate the danger, causing them to flush within shotgun range. B
RING A DOG
You might get by without a dog in a Disney-Land setting, but in low-density hunting areas, a dog is worth its Purina Dog Chow to roust birds and find cripples. Your hunting area may be ridiculously small, but hard-hunted birds can hold incredibly tight. In addition, many of the roosters have been hunted and learn tha
t flushing leads to danger, whereas sitting tight results in danger passing.
The best advice to follow is to slow down and give your dogs more time to work birds. If you don't you'll be walking by many of the birds. You find this a lot in overgrown pastures and sloughs where the cover creates tangles where pheasants can burrow in to escape. Slow down and cover every inch of your area for the best results.
Here's a tip I picked up long ago from a pheasant master. When I've been limited to small areas, I'll often hunt the same spot twice with interesting results. Hunt the field into the wind first to give your dog an advantage in smelling birds. Instead of leaving when you reach the end, turn around and hunt it back, again taking your time. You won't be flushing swarms of pheasants, but you stand a good chance of finishing out your limit with a tight-sitting rooster that let you pass the first time.
Flushing dogs are the species of choice in the main pheasant belt, but in low-density areas, pointers provide an effective combination against tight-sitting and experienced roosters. It's also not as frustrating for pointing dogs to hunt an area with fewer birds. In the hotspots, a pointer may literally go crazy trying to point dozens of spots steaming with fresh pheasant scent. When densities are lower, a pointer can actually hunt a single bird and shine in the process instead of chasing herds of running roosters trying to outdistance hunters. Through pre-season training and an electronic incentive, make sure your pointing dog stays close and hunts smart. Slow down and you'll shoot your limit while enjoying the fine action of your hunting dog.
HUNT NASTY COVER
A third rule to follow is never shy away from hunting the thickest, nastiest cover available. Search for the most overgrown, choked and weed-infested pastures adjacent to a food source, and you'll find the roosters. Pheasants in low-density areas are no different than those found in the wonderlands. When the pressure is on, they retreat to heavy cover. A fresh snow will reveal this trend. Simply look for tracks and they'll lead to the thickest cover on any property on any given day.
Since pheasants are birds of the farmland, many hunters target large farming fields believing they have the capacity to attract more pheasants, but there are more variables dictating pheasant density than triple-digit acreage numbers. Unfortunately, the bulk of farmland sees heavy tractor action several times a year to reap profit from the soil through crops. Although pheasants can reproduce in some agricultural settings, most common farming methods disrupt one or more of a pheasant's life cycles leading to reduced production.
Pheasants that thrive do so by seeking the small cover parcels of habitat farmers overlook because of tractor-stopping rough, thick, wet or rocky character. Moreover, if these pockets of cover are off the beaten path, you may stumble upon an overlooked pheasant condo with ample residents using the cover. Scattered clumps of grass may hold a bird or two, but brushy plum thickets, conifers, shrubs in steep ravines, cattails and other nasty tangles of cover afford the best attraction for pheasants.
Again, though these areas may only be a few acres in size, they can hold enough birds to begin or to fill a limit. Further, thick cover not only provides escape cover but also doubles as ideal winter habitat for snowbound birds -- and this can be critical for pheasants living in northern latitudes. It's also a great place for a last-minute hunt during the Christmas holiday.
Thick, nasty cover is your major factor to target, but if you scout and find such a location in a remote, off-the-beaten path area, you may be in for a surprise. Pheasants, like most wild things, avoid habitat that routinely is invaded by predators, including the orange-clad human predators. Those that do choose to stay often end up being part of the food pyramid.
Pockets of cover in the middle of agricultural fields, at the end of impassable roads and surrounded by wetlands harbor birds that may not be getting the hunting attention garnered by pheasants that are living near roads. H
A final rule you need to follow for success when pheasant densities are low is to hunt hard. Ringnecks in the bulk of the country may not be as plentiful as their relatives living elsewhere, but they do exist in ample numbers for a few exciting weekends during the season. With enough scouting and diligent hunting, you can get your limit. You won't get your limit by sticking close to your truck, bypassing thick cover, foregoing a hunt in snowy weather and quitting early.
As noted previously, pheasants, like most wildlife, like seclusion and seek out habitat that doesn't receive regular predation. You may have to hike farther and longer to reach these areas, but in most instances, you'll also be rewarded with more action.
The same goes for thorny and thick cover. If you bypass the cover, odds are your dog may skirt it as well, leaving several savvy roosters snickering in the cover. Dive in and get your dog to lead the charge.
If the cover is too thick for shooting opportunities, have your partner block the end while you drive the birds out. I've been in dozens of predicaments where I couldn't swing my shotgun because of thick cover, but my partner picked up his limit simply due to the forced movement I generated.
If The Weather Channel predicts snow, especially the first snow of the year, plan a hunt. Pheasants religiously sit tight during the first snow of the year, particularly birds hatched the previous spring. You'll also discover that heavy snow and nasty weather concentrates dozens of birds into thick habitat. Early in the season you might flush a pheasant or two from such a spot, but after the snow flies, birds scattered across two sections of land will congregate in the best cover. And since pheasants are gregarious, they will tolerate high densities of birds in small tracts of winter cover. In simple hunting terms, a small plot of winter cover may produce an unimaginable rush of wing beats even in areas with low pheasant densities
Equipping yourself with the right stuff to tackle nasty cover and inclement weather requires some planning. To turn thorns and burrs, you'll need to invest in a good pair of chaps, such as those manufactured by C.C. Filson Company, or, better yet, a pair of Wrangler Pro Gear brush pants faced with 1,000-denier Cordura nylon.
Don't get me wrong: The opportunity to hunt a pheasant El Dorado is definitely worth the trip; it's heartening just to see hundreds of birds flush from a single field. Still, you don't need pheasants living elbow to elbow in a field to enjoy a hunt. Regions with scattered pockets of pheasants have all the ingredients for a successful hunt. You may not skim a limit from every walk, but with the right scouting and attention to details, you certainly can get a limit with some good old-fashioned hard work.