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October Game Plan to Take More Early Season Pheasants

Get out there, because there are plenty of roosters waiting in the field.

October Game Plan to Take More Early Season Pheasants

Keying in on crop harvests will help you figure out what you and your dog need to do to bag a limit of pheasants. (Shutterstock image)

A few days ago, Bob St. Pierre, the chief marketing and communications officer for Minneapolis-based Pheasants Forever, relayed the good news to Game & Fish readers that the 2022 pheasant season—which began in a few states over this past weekend—would likely be a good one.

That forecast from St. Pierre looked to be good in many spots over the weekend, including Minnesota and South Dakota. If the ample social-media posts showing lots of opening-weekend smiles and roosters were any indication, that is. St. Pierre himself got into the opening day act, finding public-land rooster-busting success that turned into a field-to-table meal shared with his wife Meredith (grilled bacon-wrapped pheasant breasts, Brussels sprouts, a few king trumpeter mushrooms, and hard cider to wash it all down).

But now that the opening bell has sounded in some places—God's country, as one South Dakota hunter put it—and the season will be off and running soon in other places like Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, how does a pheasant hunter find consistent early season success for those mid- and late-October days ahead?

That depends on the answer to a simple question, according to St. Pierre. Are the crops out yet? Because if they're not harvested yet, if they're currently coming out, or if they're already combined and headed down the road in big trucks, then that will be the first clue an upland bird hunter needs to have in order to get going toward an early season limit.


"Crop harvest is probably the single biggest factor for [opening weekend and just beyond]," said St. Pierre. "Based on those three possibilities [crops still in, crops coming out, or crops already harvested], you can figure out what you and your dogs need to do. If the crops are not ready to come out where you're hunting, then you know the birds are likely to be in the crops after early morning.

"That makes it incredibly important to hunt the first two or three hours of the day and the final two or three hours of the day, the golden light hours. Those hours are important for early season hunters to take advantage of because at midday when the crops are still in the field, the roosters are going to be in the middle of those ag fields and all but impossible to get too."

While St. Pierre says it's always worth hunting for an exception to this rule—and there is one possibility that we'll visit in just a moment—he also notes that in general, "you’ll have a nice nature walk if you aren't there early and late, but you're probably not going to put too many pheasants into the vest."


If your early season wingshooting plans happen to find you in pheasant country while farmers are actually hard at work taking their ag crops out, then you're about to be in business. In other words, be sure you maintain your composure, get around the border of those ag fields as they turn into grassland cover, and have plenty of shells handy because the hunting is about to get very good.

"If you're there as the crops are coming out, then you're probably going to hit the jackpot if you've got permission to hunt on a piece of property where that is happening, or if you can get permission as the John Deere machinery is out working," said St. Pierre. "While it's true that there are never more birds in a year than there are on opening day, if you're there when they are getting pushed out of the crop fields [and into the grassland areas], that can be the hunt of a lifetime."




What about when the crops are already out of the fields?

"That third element, which often bridges the time between opening day and mid-season, that's when the crops are already out," said St. Pierre, noting that many hunters will find this scenario to be true earlier than normal this year due to recent warm and dry weather. "If that's the case where you're hunting, then you need to focus in on standing grassland habitat the rest of the fall and on towards winter. Really, as the season moves along, it's all about those differences between fall and winter habitat types and pheasant needs."

In a good year like this one, St. Pierre has a couple of thoughts for opening weekend and the days shortly thereafter, if the hunting pressure isn't too terribly intense.

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"Keep in mind that broods and family groups may still be together right now," he said. "Since a mother hen's average clutch of eggs is around 11, keep that in mind. Because when you get that first flush, and maybe you miss that shot, that's OK. Calm yourself down, because generally around the opener, and especially on opening day, you're going to find groups of birds together and they may start flushing like popcorn around you. So if you hit or miss on a shot opportunity in the early days of the season, maintain your composure because there's a chance a few more are about to flush."

While sounding a strong warning about how this next idea can go wrong, St. Pierre also notes a key component of pheasant biology that can make a difference during the early season.

"Pheasants are determined re-nesters," he said. "That means that if that first clutch of eggs fails, they'll try again multiple times. Because of that, it can mean that early season birds may not be fully feathered and colored out yet. So on and around opening day, you can easily encounter roosters that are going through puberty. Those puberty roosters will cackle and sound like a 15-year-old teenager, but they won't necessarily look like the gaudy-colored roosters of mid and late season.

Hunting Dog with Pheasant
Shutterstock image

"You've got to be careful not to shoot a hen, of course, but if you'll really focus and concentrate, then there could be some poorly colored early season roosters that you can still add to the bag if you're careful. You've got to focus on that cackle and focus on that head, and you should see the emerging colors. If you can't do that, then of course, don't shoot because it may be a hen."

In a year like this one, St. Pierre also offers another suggestion, harkening back to the idea of agricultural crops—whether they're corn, soybeans, milo, or whatever—still being in the fields.

Noting that this year's Great Plains' grasshopper crop is almost Biblical in its density, it does add one trick to the idea of hunting early and late around the edges of crops.

"That's early and late, that's still the key strategy," said St. Pierre, who has already seen countless grasshoppers on sharptail hunts out west in September. "But you can still find a few birds around the borders at midday because some roosters are going to be hanging around the edge eating a few of those plump and juicy grasshoppers. Still, be mindful of not burning your legs or your dog's legs out before that golden hour in the late afternoon."

St. Pierre also urges upland bird hunters in areas that get a lot of hunting pressure to realize how quickly things can change from naïve roosters at dawn on opening day, to wise old veterans only 24 hours later. That often necessitates switching things up a little bit. But every once in a while, the opening day and early season stars all line up properly, and there's a hunt that won't soon be forgotten.

"Several years ago, I was on an opening day hunt that was almost the perfect storm in western Minnesota," said St. Pierre, who co-hosts a Saturday morning radio show on the Twin City's KFAN radio station. "We pulled up at midday into an area that had already been hunted and where most had already gotten their limits. Across the border from this public land spot, though, there was a corn field getting harvested, and we watched rooster after rooster boil out of that corn field and go diving into the grass."

Before long, St. Pierre was walking up on the point of his late German shorthair, Trammel, and making sure that he had a couple of loads of Federal Prairie Storm steel #5s tucked away in the twin-tubes of his Beretta over-and-under.

"She was a veteran dog, and while it wasn’t her last hunt, I knew it wasn't far over the horizon," said St. Pierre. "We got two roosters at mid-day on opening day, which is the early limit, and I had a very memorable hunt with my pup Trammel. It was a super memorable hunt, especially because I didn't know how many more of those there were going to be. That happened when she was 11 and she died last winter at the age of 14."

Whether there's an aging pointer involved or not, that's the way that early season pheasant hunting can go in a good year, providing memories that will last a lifetime, as the sky fills with roosters angrily cackling their complaints into the cool autumn air. Get out there and make a few of those early season memories this fall, because there's plenty of roosters waiting in the field.

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