January 29, 2021
It's hard to believe, but the end is at hand for pheasant hunters across the nation. In some states, the season may have already closed, in others it’s about to.
So, what do you do if everyone else is sipping something warm, huddled by the fireplace inside, and watching football on the big screen? You bundle up, load up the bird dog, and go hunting one more time in Roosterville, that's what.
So says Bob St. Pierre, the chief marketing and communications officer for Pheasants Forever. In fact, in some ways, the Minnesota resident actually prefers the end of the season challenge versus the early season hunts every fall.
"Absolutely, because the alternative is not going out and you owe it to yourself to close out the season strong," said St. Pierre, who also doubles as the On the Wing podcasting guru for PF.
To be sure, a January pheasant adventure is a rare upland bird hunting delicacy known only to a few. If you're a pheasant hunter and you want to chase roosters closer to the Super Bowl than the World Series, the state's currently open for early year rooster busting are Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota.
But the principles of January success contained here will apply in other states next fall as their seasons end, too. Basically, whenever Old Man Winter is in firm command of the landscape, St. Pierre says a key component to late-season success is to start off being as quiet as a church mouse.
"When you’re hunting late-season birds, a key component is stealth, being quiet," said the PF marketing man. "And for me, that means as much as I can, I like to hunt alone in the late season. The camaraderie of that big 8- or 10-person push with walkers and blockers, leave that in November. When you're talking January, it's you and your most trusted bird dog."
St. Pierre, who also co-hosts an outdoors radio show on Twin Cities radio station KFAN, says that being quiet starts with the drive into a hunting area.
"Park somewhere where you normally don't park on a wildlife area," he said. "When you get to the parking lot and get out, for heaven's sake, don't slam your door. Very quietly, get your dog out of the kennel, put the collar on, quietly load your shotgun, and then dive deep into that wildlife area."
St. Pierre is big on doing what you can to change the game up on late-season birds—particularly on hard-hunted public land parcels like the ones he frequents—to keep the birds in Roosterville always guessing.
And that often means starting on the backside of a property, near thick cover as opposed to the food sources that tend to attract the biggest crowds.
"Where you're going to look (for January birds), the key is thermal cover, since we've usually got snow on the ground in some of those more northern states," said St. Pierre. "Thermal cover, like over in South Dakota, I'm thinking cattail sloughs.
"They love that really gnarly stuff (in late season)."
Further south in Nebraska, Kansas, and down into northwestern Oklahoma, upland bird hunters will be targeting something else.
"You can certainly find some cattail sloughs elsewhere, but you start to lose that kind of habitat the further south you go," said St. Pierre. "I do look for more plum thickets, for brambles, and sorghum, it’s a great place (to hunt) if you can find some sorghum food plots."
The longtime PF employee says that sorghum fields, and the cover that surrounds them, is a great place to search because if there have been any winter storms visiting, it creates an ideal situation for January roosters.
"If there has been some snow, sorghum tends to collapse into itself a little bit, so those berries at the top (of the stalk) collapse down," said St. Pierre.
"The vertical sorghum stalks (remain upright) and that tends to create winter cover for the birds while the berries drop down to the ground and provide food. So, a lot of places in Kanas and Nebraska, that have sorghum food plots, can be an absolute pheasant Valhalla in January."
The odd thing about this winter, according to St. Pierre, is how the snow has come, melted, and then come again in places like the Dakotas and near his Minnesota home. But he says that oddly, that's not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to late-season roosters.
"That first wave of fresh snow (hitting the ground) often seems to paralyze pheasants and make them hold tight to cover," he said. "It just makes them wonderful birds to hunt and the snow is soft, powdery, and quiet and you can sneak up and get close to them, which makes for good shooting and good dog work."
The trouble comes in late season pheasant hunting when the cycle of snowfall turns into a daily recipe of daytime melting and nighttime refreezing, leading to crunchy top layer that is all but impossible to walk in without making rooster-alerting noise.
"It's loud and it's really, really hard for you or your bird dogs to get close to them, because they are going to hear you. So again, the name of the game for January roosters is stealth. Put on your Navy Seals hat and you've got to think about a really quiet entry and incognito hunting mission to find those birds."
If that's one key to finding late-season success in Roosterville, another is what you use to shoot at these birds. While some shotgunning experts advocate bumping up shotshells to more powerful loads with bigger shot pellets, St. Pierre takes the opposite approach.
In fact, even in pheasant hunting's final days, he sticks with the same 12-gauge Beretta 686 over-and-under, open chokes on both barrels, and Federal Prairie Storm steel #4s that he has used all season long.
"I believe the consistency of using the same chokes, same shells, and the same shotgun creates a better shooter than constantly tweaking the knobs on a dial," said St. Pierre. "I'm a person that believes in consistency when it comes to shooting."
A final component of January success is to get your bird-hunting clothes just right. While it might seem counterproductive to dress lighter on a bitter January day, St. Pierre says that it's actually the right approach.
"The key to late-season hunting clothes is layering," he said. "You're invariably going to be cool at the start of a hunt, and that's OK. You want to be a little cool, but not cold."
Why? Because when it comes to busting late-season roosters, hunters will often walk extra hard in the snowy conditions. That causes sweat, which is the real enemy to a hunter in late season. And the more bundled up you are, the more you're going to sweat, and the more you sweat in January, the colder you're going to be in what becomes a viscous cycle.
"You don't want to look like Ralphie from ‘A Christmas Story,’" chuckles St. Pierre.
For veteran pheasant hunter, the right late-season clothing system is a moisture-wicking layer against the skin, a layer of merino wool over the top of that, some quiet hunting pants (going an extra size larger never hurts when wearing one or two base layers), a quiet flannel shirt, and some sort of wind-shedding softshell hunting jacket over the top of everything else.
To top things off—pun intended—the PF marketing man will add a heavy neck gaiter and a wool hat that will help keep the upper part of his body warm.
"If you can add a wool hat like a Stormy Kromer and a Buff style (neck gaiter), that helps tremendously since those are two places where you lose a lot of heat," said St. Pierre. "If you can keep those two parts of your body warm, you can really wear and get by with a lot less clothing than you’d think."
St. Pierre also opts for a strap-style bird-hunting vest, not the big heavy coats that you'll often see in a catalog. Why? Because as he warms up trekking through the wintertime uplands, he'll shed layers as necessary (and put them into the back of the vest) and maintain his core temperature at just the right level.
The hard part for a late-season bird hunter is figuring out which gloves to wear, according to the PF marketing man.
"The combination of working your e-collar for your dog, and, most importantly the safety and the trigger on your gun (makes glove selection challenging)," admits St. Pierre. "The recipe that I've found that works for me is a relatively thin leather glove that I can feel the trigger relatively well with on my index finger.
"But then I'll put one of those disposable, 24-hour heat warmers on the backside of my hand in my glove, and that heats up the backside of my hand and warms up my blood that is moving through into my fingers. But it still doesn’t interfere with my trigger finger or with working the safety.
"It's not going to solve cold hands at 15 below, but at 15 above, it's a pretty good recipe."
All of this might seem like a bit of a fuss, but St. Pierre relishes the challenge of a late season, solo hunting adventure, one that will provide a lot of smiles on a cold late winter night and get him through the long off-season ahead in the spring and summer months to come.
"No doubt about it," he said. "A January bird is a pure trophy, not only for the meal, since pheasants are so wonderful on the plate, but also for that magical photo. You know that photo of you, your bird dog, and a fully plumed out rooster with a long tail and incredible colors, all showing up magnificently against the background of a snowy landscape."
And that's what makes January pheasant hunting so tough to beat in St. Pierre's mind.
"You're not likely to shoot a limit of birds at this time of year, but that one lone longtail, it can be enough," he said. "It shows that you outsmarted one of the few birds that has outsmarted every other hunter up to that point. And i'’s a true accomplishment, for sure, when you get a late-season longtail."
And that's all of the reason anyone needs to bundle up, skip the football game, and head out the door for one final rooster in Roosterville.