December 05, 2022
With the calendar pushing deeper into the in-between period lying between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, times are getting tough for pheasant hunters.
The weather is changing, football games are getting serious with their late-season implications, and many pheasant hunters have called it good for the year, oiling the shotgun and putting it away into the gun safe until next fall.
Weeks beyond the opening-weekend barrage and easy hunts of October, a lot of upland bird hunters are now turning their attention to putting up the outside Christmas decorations, or maybe even making a quick trip through the garage to find their ice-fishing gear.
The reasons for all of the above are simple enough to understand: the autumn color and mild early season temperatures have washed out of the local landscape, the easy birds have been put on the dinner table, and pheasant season—while still remaining open for another few weeks to even a couple of more months depending on where you hunt—has grown increasingly difficult.
In fact, as the early days of December arrive, in many spots the pheasant hunting is quite tough. Long days filled with hard walking through brush and snow and not many shot opportunities, thanks to cagey late-season roosters who bury deep into the cover and elude the best efforts of pointing dogs and upland bird hunters.
But tough does not mean impossible, even in the late season according to Bob St. Pierre, marketing and public relations man for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. And that's especially true in the mind of the longtime Minnesota resident as long as you understand a couple of key seasonal components, and make the necessary adjustments from a tactical standpoint.
Find the Food, Cover
To start with, understand that for the ring-necked pheasant, finding food will always be a prime consideration, especially this deep into the season when the easy food stuff is disappearing from the landscape faster than Christmas hams leaving the local grocery store. For the gaudy upland roosters, everything from leftover grain in harvested agricultural fields to scattered natural food resources is now in play, meaning that pheasants will probably never be too terribly far from a spot where they can grab some high-caloric sustenance.
But December is also about the time those birds will go into survival mode and start looking for cozy spots to ride out the arctic cold fronts and snowstorms showing up on the weather map, so you'll need to factor that into your plans on where to turn the bird dogs loose this late in the season.
"As summer and fall transitions into winter, you’ll want to focus on more thicker, thermal type cover," said St. Pierre. "Things like cattails, willow thickets, bushes, shrubbery, etc. You’re definitely going to want to key on thicker cover as the weather changes."
St. Pierre says that part of the reason that roosters will start focusing on the thicker cover is because of the air temperature and the bird's wintertime thermal needs. But it's also because the birds are definitely looking for places to elude danger and feel more secure as the season progresses towards the finish line.
But while those are two primary considerations for the late-season wingshooter, St. Pierre laughs, points to his smartphone, and brings a little fantasy football thought into play.
"Yeah, when it comes to the late season, this is where my fantasy football theory comes into play," he chuckled. "You're going to want to do the opposite of conventional wisdom right about now. And that can actually produce some unconventional results. You're going to need to change your thinking since you're hunting birds that have survived the Joe Public game plan (for a few weeks now) and look for some alternative hunting methods."
Outside the Box … Quietly
Given my own meager results in fantasy football this year—my wife is beating me handily in our church league and this is the first year that she's ever played—maybe St. Pierre is on to something here. Because he says that this idea of thinking outside the box is especially true for those hunting on public land, spots that can offer great promise, but also big challenges as pickup trucks and SUVs pull out of the parking lot on a regular basis.
"When I'm pulling into a public-land hunting spot, I'm thinking that there’s a good chance that others have hunted this parcel up to three times a day," he said. "So I want to consider how did they hunt it, and then, how can I do the exact opposite?"
For St. Pierre, that will include doing things like not parking at the parking area, not hunting the easy perimeter stuff on a particular patch of public ground, and doing the opposite of what you might read in the outdoor media. In short, he goes into silent mode, trying to hunt and operate with the stealthy tactics of a Navy Seal on patrol.
"You've got to reduce your acoustic footprint," said St. Pierre. "These are tough, late-season roosters and if they hear the doors slam, the radio going, the dog kennel doors opening and shutting, then they are going to react accordingly."
And as survival experts, that means they're going to run and flush wild before you can ever even get close as a shotgun toting wingshooter. Sometimes, there's little you can do to reduce your noise footprint because of weather conditions. One of my sons and I found this out the hard way on a December pheasant hunt in Kansas a decade ago when an ice storm over the top of a snowstorm made it impossible to move across the frozen landscape without making noise. As a result, we watched dozens and dozens of roosters flush wild anytime we tried to make a move.
But other times, the weather conditions won’t be the culprit on noise and you’ll have to simply pay attention and go into stealth mode in an effort to get close to late-season wise guys with long pointed tailfeathers.
If all of this seems a bit much—and St. Pierre says he even goes into whisper mode to communicate with his hunting partners—remember that it's paying attention to the details can spell the difference between a late-season limit and a fruitless day.
"Yeah, you've got to go into stealth mode," he said. "Pheasants survive (this deep into the season) by being alert. They can hear you far better than you think and they can even feel in their feet the vibrations on the ground of your vehicle moving or you and your dogs walking. If you want success that day, you've got to be quiet."
Know the Landscape
But being stealthy is only one part of thinking outside the box, according to St. Pierre. Since these wise-guy roosters have learned a trick or two over the last few weeks as the orange-vested army pushed through the countryside, you've got to keep them off guard.
"When I'm hunting late-season birds, especially on public ground, I'll vary my cadence by walking slower at times, walking faster at other times, and walking in zig zag patterns rather than in straight lines," said St. Pierre. "I'd estimate that 80 percent of the hunters walk the entire boundary of land, public or private, and then walk back to the truck."
For St. Pierre, this style of pheasant hunting often means diving back into the nastiest cover and most difficult places to access, and certainly not hiking in straight lines when you get there. It also means paying close attention to your bird dogs, following them in whatever direction they want to go, even if it doesn't look all that good.
"At this time of year, you really want to key in on the dog," said the owner of two German shorthaired pointers named Gitche and Esky. "You can bring the dog to likely looking, birdy spots, for sure, but also don't be afraid to follow them to other spots [that don't look so good]. Their nose is certainly better than your eyes.”
Also better than your eyes is a modern method that St. Pierre and others put into play to find unknown gems for late-season hunting trips. "I'm always looking for those diamonds in the rough," he said. "And that's where something like onX is such a tremendous tool," he said. "[Using a GPS hunting map app] is one way to find a pheasant Valhalla, even on public land."
What he's specifically looking for are the spots that others might miss, or the ones that others aren't willing to even attempt to get into. "I really like finding places that are landlocked by water," said St. Pierre. "Right now, I'm thinking about a spot in western Minnesota. It's got a stream along the perimeter of it and there's a virtual island of hard-to-access habitat that exists in the center of this wildlife area. You simply can't get to it unless you're willing to walk through water up to your waist or wear hip boots. I wear hip boots and get out to this island of habitat, and when I do, I get to this area that 95 percent of the other hunters out there aren't willing to get to. But it's worth it because sometimes it's like opening day again. The birds there aren't pressured because they fly and gravitate to that hard-to-reach spot."
To find another preferred late-season spot for his special-ops style pheasant tactics, St. Pierre will also pull a page out of the deer hunter's handbook during the whitetail's November rut.
"On onX, I like looking for pinch points, spots that can be overlooked and surprisingly good," he said. "What I'm trying to do there is to identify a place where the bird has no other options but to flush."
The reason to find such spots, according to St. Pierre, is because for pheasants, unlike some other upland birds across the country, their first instinct in survival is to lace up their running shoes and not dust off their wings. "It's counterintuitive to most human beings, but a pheasant's first instinct is to run," said St. Pierre. "That's different than some other game birds, because a pheasant wants to try to run away from you rather than fly away from you.
"So, if you, your hunting partner, or your dog can push them to those pinch points and edges that funnel down their movement, and you don't pull off too soon around 20 yards from end of the field, you can push them to the end and cause any bird that is lingering to fly."
And that’'s where the full beauty of stealthy, special-ops style, late-season pheasant hunting comes to full fruition in a scene straight out of a painting by David Maass or the late Eldridge Hardy.
There's the end of cover, there's you clad in an orange hunting vest, there's a pointing dog making one final step towards a snootful of wild bird, and there's suddenly a gaudy, cackling upland game bird vaulting into a cobalt blue winter sky.
All that's left at that point is to shoot straight and get ready for a grinning selfie to end the day. St. Pierre specializes in such moments, and you can too, all because you're willing to think outside the late season box as others are back home checking their fantasy football scores.