Pheasants Under Grass

After pheasants have "wised up" to hunters, your tactics must change a little. Here's the lowdown on understanding late-season pheasants and how to find them.

It doesn't take a pheasant long to figure out what's going on once the shooting starts. Birds that were a challenge on opening day become nearly impossible to find and tougher to shoot. It's time to hunt smarter.

Bill Ohde easily combines his personal interest in upland birds with his career as a wildlife biologist. His understanding of what makes a pheasant tick, along with a wealth of field experience, gives him a healthy appreciation for how to hunt the wary rooster once the season is underway.

"During late-season hunting, roosters definitely become runners, and in many cases, they're taking off long before dogs or hunters ever get close to them," Ohde said. "I received a good education on this a couple of years ago. I'd walked onto a public area before daylight to go on stand for deer.

"There was good snow cover on the ground, the area was being heavily hunted for pheasants and I was counting on the bird hunters to drive the deer to me. At about 8 a.m., the pheasant hunters fanned out from the parking lots and roads and I had 12 roosters run right by me in the timber, then flush on the opposite side of the woods. About 20 minutes later, a couple of bird dogs worked the edge of the timber where the birds had been and I caught a glimpse of the hunters. Those guys didn't have a clue they had moved all those roosters that far in front of them."

Those roosters had been through the drill many times. The birds flushed several hundred yards out on the opposite side of the timber because the hunters had been predictable. They had come from the same direction they always came from and the birds knew the escape route. These birds had definitely wised up and stood a good chance of seeing another season.

Whether you're a veteran shotgunner like Ohde or a novice, your first step to a successful hunt this far into the season is always the same. Pick the right place and if there are birds in the area, that's where they'll be. All pheasant habitat is not created equal. Some likely looking fields will be loaded with birds, while similar fields won't. It takes an eye from a pheasant's point of view to decide which fields are worth walking and which are only temporary stopovers for a straggler or two.

The second step to success is the willingness to fine-tune your tactics. Pheasants are paranoid and you stepping on their turf is all the invitation they need to leave. It's up to you to plan your approach accordingly.

Pheasants aren't particularly fussy about where they live as long as there's plenty of cover and food. Oddly, ringnecks will opt for cover over food if they have to choose. Hunting pressure or severe weather may force birds to hunker down in heavy cover for days without eating. But the best areas are always a combination of available sources of food, effective overhead cover and plenty of variation in the fields, high grass, woodland edges, fencerows, drainages and draws. The key is to pick the best available habitat in the woods and concentrate your efforts there.

An ideal situation would be tall prairie grass alongside a grain field. A drainage that supplies water, nourishes the grass and insect-encouraging vegetation is a plus. Combining the best of all worlds virtually guarantees that if birds live anywhere nearby, they'll be calling this spot home.

By November, make sure you're bringing the agricultural fields and wildlife food plots into the equation. Birds generally visit these sources of high-energy food early in the morning, and then return to their loafing areas and thick cover. Plants like corn and sorghum are among the most attractive crops to game birds because they weather well and the stalks remain standing throughout colder weather. Sorghum likewise offers both food and security.

Grain crops like wheat, milo, rye, buckwheat, soybeans and millet also qualify until they're buried by the first snows.

The addition of late-fall insects to their diet is another real draw you should consider. Hens are putting on weight not only for the lean months ahead but also for the rigors of nesting in the spring. Look for grasshoppers in heavy grass. Pheasants won't be far away.

Understanding these late-fall food sources is important. Pheasants are relating to them and you should be, too. Pheasants will travel a long way to visit crop fields, and even fields on private property can be your ticket to a limit of birds. Roosters usually return to the heavy cover typically found on public lands but often mown over on the private sector. When they cross the line, they're fair game.

As the season progresses, roosters prefer using woody cover for running and escape purposes, and if you're not planning your approach right, you'll never know they were there. The cover may be a willow thicket, a brushy draw or a strip of timber. There's no easy solution to the early running and flushing because these wooded spots keep the grass thin and usually won't hold birds for long.

If you're hunting without a dog, think in terms of forcing roosters into flight. Making birds think that going airborne is the only way out of their predicament is the goal. A running pheasant won't offer a good shot, so getting it in the air is the only way to score.

Bluestem grass provides the best hunting with the highest concentrations of roosters per acre. If the grassland is several hundred acres and close to a food source, you're onto some fast shooting. Don't overlook smaller tracts of grass. Some spots no larger than 30 or 40 acres can be loaded with birds.

When approaching a field that hasn't been hunted for a while, start on low ground and work your way up. Push ringnecks ahead of you onto higher ground, as they're less likely to see you below them because of the way their eyes are placed. This is especially important in prairie grass but applies to other types of cover as well.

At the same time, hunt the thin cover and work your way into the thick stuff. In sparse cover, roosters are more likely to run or flush early, and that's what you don't want them to do. Deep cover provides birds more concealment and a sense of security and they're more likely to hold until you're right on top of them.

Force roosters into flight by boxing them in. Flight is their second choice over running, but they won't hesitate to fly when the pressure kicks in. Boxing them in against open country, natural barriers, such as bluffs and banks or other hunters, takes s

ome planning, but it works. Keep your dog close and when the birds flush, you'll get your shot.

Normally, field noise is your enemy, but you can make it work in your favor. Other hunters should let the birds know they're present, which will help force the birds into flight.

By this time, birds have seen plenty of hunters and dogs. We're an excitable bunch and usually start hunting right next to the parking lot. Some guys yell at their dogs, slam car doors and talk a lot. A better approach is to walk in as far as the area goes and target the outside boundaries. Most shooters won't travel in this far, a fact pheasants aren't overlooking. Birds on adjoining private lands around public wildlife areas normally find their way into the heavier public-land cover at some point, especially if hunters are targeting the private property as well.

One easy change of tactics that may improve your success is to approach a public wildlife area from the opposite end hunters usually enter. That may mean walking a mile or so before you start hunting, but you can confuse and disorient birds by coming from the wrong direction.

If you're on a sizeable tract of upland habitat, try to figure out where the birds will go after their first flush. Heading them off at the pass with a hunting buddy is a useful concept if you can determine what the destination is going to be. Position a partner toward the likely spot and he may get several good shots.

Sometimes birds are more prone to sit tight after they've been flushed and broken out of the group. A dog may be a great help since you're looking for birds buried in grass or brush. Most of us have experienced the flush of a bird we were about to step on. A dog will pick up on many pheasants we would otherwise miss.

Whether you're moving in from a new direction or looking for birds that aren't planning on making a move, you're in for some extra guesswork.

"I once saw a group of pheasants flushing a quarter mile ahead of me and flying into a strip of timber," Ohde said. "I was just lucky to notice them that far ahead of me and see where they were going. When I reached their flushing point, there were tracks everywhere in the snow but no more birds. I headed into the timber and it seemed to turn into a grouse hunt. The birds were sitting tight in brushpiles and deadfalls all over the place. I shot three roosters and flushed three or four more on my way out. I never would have tried that location if I hadn't seen birds fly into the timber in the first place."

Public area pheasants that have been hunted continuously are usually in the thickest, nastiest and most gnarled cover. Look in places other hunters would never dream of checking because that's where the roosters are. When the pressure is on, pheasants burrow into cover that is impossible for hunters to get into. Let your dog really work the tough stuff even if it looks like a waste of time.

If you visit public areas during the week, you'll miss most of the weekend crowd. Hunting on blustery, rainy days is also a good idea. You'll probably have the field to yourself.

Pressured pheasants change their itineraries when the hunting pressure is turned up. Instead of visiting food plots early in the morning, they switch to an afternoon or evening schedule. Changing to an afternoon hunt will put you on the field when the birds are moving and most vulnerable.

Less attractive spots on public fields like willow thickets, brambles and second-growth stands that wouldn't normally be your first choice to hunt have probably been overlooked by other shotgunners. Like it or not, many public areas receive plenty of pressure, especially if they're located near a city. Good hunting can still be had on these areas if you know when and where to look.

A great fall hunt can be had in dense cattail marshes. Acres of cattails and willow cover along rivers, prairie potholes and CRP lands can be absolutely dynamite. Most upland bird hunters wouldn't think of walking into a cattail marsh because you'll sound like an elephant crashing through. Dogs and hunters in a marsh create a confusing explosion of sounds that birds with little experience in avoiding hunters don't know how to handle. Use some good planning to drive running birds up to the water's edge or out into the open where they'll flush. Dogs and a few extra hands will usually be called for in this type of dense cover.

If cattails border good pheasant habitat on public land, that's where the roosters are ending up. You must be willing to wade in if you want to find the birds. You'll be surprised how many pheasants are in the tangle.

With the possible exception of cattail marshes, the thickest and most difficult habitat to hunt is tall prairie grass. Original prairie grasses have been restored on thousands of acres of public lands. The romance of a prairie hunt draws a crowd, but moving through this stuff is hard going. It won't be long before you're hitting the water bottle and looking for a place to sit down and rest.

Bluestem grass provides the best hunting with the highest concentrations of roosters per acre. If the grassland is several hundred acres and close to a food source, you're onto some fast shooting. Don't overlook smaller tracts of grass. Some spots no larger than 30 or 40 acres can be loaded with birds.

The tallest grass is tough to hunt effectively and knee-deep grass doesn't hold high numbers of roosters. The shoulder-high fields afford great cover from both overhead predators and those on the ground and result in birds holding longer for the point or short flush.

Wading through head-high grass, willow thickets and cattail marshes puts all that money you've spent on vet bills into perspective. A dog is the ace in the hole you need to penetrate the nastiest habitat that late-season pheasants love. Your dog will be your eyes and ears with the added benefit of a great nose thrown in. A good pointer or flusher will earn its keep.

But there's far more that goes into using a dog than just letting it out of the car and hoping for the best.

Some breeds perform better simply because they're smaller framed and make less noise threading through the grass than larger dogs do. The more crashing your canine does, the more quickly birds will flush at out-of-range distances.

Dogs work best in the cold with lower winds and high humidity. These conditions allow the dog's scent glands to stay moist and it will do its work well. High winds and low humidity dry out a dog's nose and make it hard to pick up a scent.

Hunters can't do much about the wind, but they can keep their dog's nose in high gear. You do that by keeping your pointer or flusher well hydrated. Offer the dog plenty of water out in the field. Many shooters wouldn't think of forgetting a bottle of water for their hunting coat pocket but will completely overlook their dog.

Another common mistake made by well-intentioned bird dog owners is the overuse of a beeper collar on a point-

only dog. Set it to 10-second intervals so there won't be as much give-away noise. A bell helps the hunter keep an eye on his dog, but it also helps pheasants do the same. Too much noise and sight pressure, even from a well-trained dog, will cause birds to run and flush at too great a distance.

You can still get a limit of birds this late in the season if you're willing to hunt smarter. Hunt the best habitat and adjust your tactics. The rest will be history.

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