January 03, 2024
It's down to the so-called nitty-gritty, the final days, weeks and month of the 2023-24 pheasant season. In fact, in some of the sport's rooster producing grounds (Montana, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas), the season has already come to a close until next fall. In a few others like North Dakota (Jan. 7), Wisconsin (Jan. 7), Iowa (Jan. 10) and Missouri (Jan. 15), the season ends in a matter of days. And in a handful of others like South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma (Jan. 31), upland hunters have until the end of the month.
So, as the New Year begins, it's down to the wire for hunters as the pheasant season's hour glass begins to run out of sand. And that's not to even mention that the upland hunting is tough as nails right now since the young, naïve birds of October are gone, the January landscape is bleak and bare, and winter weather is starting to tighten its grip.
But none of this means that all hope is lost as we count down toward the Super Bowl. And that's especially true if you're willing to break a few rules (not legally, of course) and think outside of the box.
At least that's the contention of Bob St. Pierre, the chief marketing and communications officer for the Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever conservation organizations. And while he acknowledges that the best hunting of the year may be behind us for the season, he's never been one to back down from a wingshooting challenge or one last opportunity. In fact, St. Pierre firmly believes that in a timeframe reduced to so-called nook-and-cranny hunting, there's plenty of late-season smiles still to be had.
"Absolutely, there's joy in the struggle," said St. Pierre. "It's really a pet peeve of mine when people reduce the hunt to something like ‘I shot my limit of birds.' No, it shouldn't be about the body count and I would say ‘I shot a limit' instead because I'm not entitled to that limit. And more importantly, I'm out there chasing a moment anyway."
For St. Pierre, the beauty of upland bird hunting is how that moment changes through the course of fall and winter wingshooting campaigns. Always, there's the chase of birds, the pointing of dogs, and with some luck, a rooster or other upland bird vaulting into the sky.
"To see that flush of a rooster's color—and in terms of upland game birds, I've hunted them all and there's just no upland bird with that wide range of color—and to see them flushing into a robin's blue sky, it just doesn't get any better," said St. Pierre. "Unless, of course, I can make a good shot, see the bird fall, watch the dog retrieve it, and have the pup bring it back to me, those are the kind of moments I'm chasing each time I go out."
Whether it's a New Year's Eve bird that falls or one that succumbs to a shotshell's load on an ordinary weekday, St. Pierre really does relish the chase as much as what he's carrying in the back of his game vest. True all season long, those feelings are especially heightened at season's end.
"I label all of my birds for the freezer, writing on the packages so that later on, I can remember a few of the details of the hunt, which dog pointed it, which dog retrieved it, what the weather was like, and other stuff so that I can tell it all to my wife and friends as we dine on these birds," said St. Pierre. "To me, each pheasant tells a story, and all hunts have a story to tell."
The PF and QF communications and marketing guru relishes late-season hunts because he believes that challenge is a part of why we give heed to the late upland writer George Bird Evans' adage about a dog, a gun and time enough to hunt.
"We do it for the meal, certainly, but also because these are the moments that keep us going," he said. "Upland bird hunting is a part of my identity. My wife and I have never been able to have kids, so our bird dogs are a part of our family. And to be able to go into these places, to do these things with the dogs, and to create these memories with the people that I love, these stories are a part of that."
Often relying on heavily hunted public hunting ground to find his roosters, St. Pierre thinks about what other hunters are doing—where they park, where they hike and how much noise they make—and then does the exact opposite.
That can mean picking more obscure public land that has fewer birds and habitat, but also less pressure. He parks in out-of-the-way places, ignoring common entry points, avoiding heavily used trails, and being as quiet as a church mouse on Christmas Eve.
"I like to think about it like Special Forces getting inserted into a spot rather than storming the beach at Normandy," said St. Pierre, choosing quiet, stealthy, and obscure as his late-season hunting success tricks.
Another key is to be geared up properly. That means proper equipment for your bird dog, things like boots on rough ground, a protective vest when hunting cattails with sharp points, and some sort of GPS-tracking ability like a like a SportDOG TEK Series 2.0 GPS + E-Collar setup or combining the Garmin Alpha TT 25 Dog Collar and a Garmin Alpha 300/300i handheld unit.
For the hunter, there's the right shotgun (St. Pierre shoots a Beretta 686 12-gauge over-and-under), the right ammunition (he uses Federal Premium MeatEater Bismuth in #5's or Federal Premium Prairie Storm Steel in #4's), and the right chokes (St. Pierre uses a skeet choke on his first barrel, an Improved Cylinder on his second barrel).
Finally, there's the right clothing with St. Pierre starting with a wool base layer, a wool or heavy flannel shirt on top of that depending on the temps, and then a vest that's either wool or cotton, and a strap vest over that. Add in good boots, a heavier glove for his non-shooting hand and a lighter one for the trigger hand, a fleece or wool Buff neck gaiter, and a Stormy Kromer hat or a stocking cap and the clothing ensemble is complete.
"There aren't any fashion police out there," laughed St. Pierre. "I hunt in four or five layers, and as I heat up, it's easy to pull a layer off and then add back in as the day progresses. The key to proper late-season clothing is layers."
Once geared up and out there, a third key for late-season hunts is to properly interpret the habitat. This kind of hunting isn't the "orange army" pushing a big cornfield as some people think of when hunting pheasants, but a quieter and softer approach to find the tight spots where birds are holing up.
"You need to develop the skill of interpreting the habitat," said St. Pierre. "And in trusting the dog as you work that habitat. I've learned to trust the dogs, because their nose is better at finding bird than your highest hunting honor student is."
What does interpreting the habitat mean?
"What you're looking for is a few anomalies in the landscape," said St. Pierre. "In general, when I look out at a piece of land, if it's a homogenous sea of the same type of grass or cover, it doesn't turn me on. Really, I'm looking for a sea of habitat, but one that is a mosaic of different elements."
St. Pierre explains further: "First, I'm looking for food, maybe a picked corn field, a food plot, etc. Next, I'm looking for some shelter where will they weather a snowstorm, things like cattails and shelterbelts. And then, last, I'm looking for (travel corridors) where they can bounce from this to that and not get exposed. I'm looking for this mosaic of food and cover and (travel corridors) versus wandering aimlessly through a monoculture of the same kind of grass."
A final key for St. Pierre is to be willing to be a little lonely on late-season adventures. Because while he enjoys the camaraderie of early season—especially PF's much talked about "Rooster Road Trip" video series—he also knows that less is more in the late season.
"I think it's actually better to hunt solo as the season goes on," he said. "I think mid- to late-season is the best for this tactic. Earlier in the season, there are lots of birds, big pushes with plenty of people, finding numerous birds out in the crops, etc. But as crops get harvested, the birds get dispersed more across the landscape.
"And as I mentioned before, now you're looking at hunting the nooks and crannies," St. Pierre added. "These later season hunts in such tight, out-of-the-way spots can be really good, particularly if you can hit it right with the weather."
No, there aren't as many roosters now. And you may struggle to earn a limit, having to be satisfied with a hard-earned bird or two. But then again, as St. Pierre notes, a body-count social media photo really isn't the point of late season pheasant hunting anyway.
"Be willing to invite some suffering into your corner," he said. "The reason we lose a lot of folks in late season hunting is that it's hard work. You really have to love it, and I certainly do"