Best Tips for Pheasant Hunting with Dogs
November 21, 2013
Consider this typical pheasant hunting with dogs.
A truck pulls into a field. Two men pile out, talking freely and laughing. Doors slam. A tailgate squeaks open. Two bird dogs jump down and rumble away.
Out come the whistles and shouts. Five minutes later the dogs are truckside, panting. "No harm done," the hunters figure, since no birds flushed.
The hunters move out. They holler back and forth. The dogs are gone again. A couple of cackling roosters flush a quarter-mile ahead, flying to property that is off-limits. Guess where the dogs are?
Soon the carefree gang reaches a CRP field. The wind is at their backs but they don't bother circling around the field to hunt it into the wind.
Soon they're back at the truck, their quick and haphazard circuit over. Birdless, they load up the panting dogs and head for town, blaming the bad hunting on the three-week old season.
THE RIGHT WAY
Contrast that hunt with this one.
A truck pulls off the road in good pheasant country, far from the area its occupants want to hunt. The hunters shut their doors gently, talking only in whispers for the short minute it takes them to get ready.
One dog is eased out of her kennel, clipped to a lead, and shushed to heel. The tailgate shuts softly, and the threesome heads out. When they reach a brushy fenceline, the dog is unclipped from her lead. She goes to work immediately, having run off her excess energy earlier in the morning, before shooting hours.
A hen and rooster pheasant were feeding nearby. Soon the pointing dog has them pinned. The hunters walk quietly up and the birds flush. Two shots ring out and the rooster goes down. Another bird flushes wild ahead, and the hunters watch it land in a CRP field.
Later at the CRP field, the hunters clip the dog on her lead and swing far around the cover before entering. With the wind in the dog's nose and their faces, the trio quarters through the field, working it slowly and thoroughly, giving the dog plenty of time to unravel the rich scents.
Soon the dog starts acting birdy. The point isn't classic because the pheasant is edgy and on the move, but the hunters are ready. One shot sounds out when the rooster flushes. On a second swing through the field, the hunters pick up another rooster that had doubled back on them the first time they had worked their way through.
After two total hours of quality hunting time, the group reaches the truck. They're carrying three roosters and feeling good after a relaxing but effective hunt through the autumn cover.
RESPECT THE BIRD
We'd never dream of hunting deer or turkeys the way we often pursue pheasants — loud and carefree, like the hunters in the first example.
Yet an old, native rooster is as cagey and wild as any whitetail buck or mature gobbler. A pheasant's senses of hearing and sight are incredibly keen. Coupled with his well-muscled runner's legs, you have a bird that is not going to sit around and wait for you to walk up and shoot him. You have to take a stealthy approach that respects his ability to know you're coming and either flush wild or run to the next county.
To shoot more pheasants this fall, you have to respect their evasion skills, hunt with more care and thought, and apply stealth and strategy to the pursuit. Just like you do with big game. Here's how.
A STEALTHY START
Don't slam doors or tailgates. The thumps and vibrations will alert every ringneck in the area and send them running.
Nothing scares pheasants more than the human voice, so whisper or talk only very softly as you get ready and discuss a strategy.
Keep your dog under control. That often means keeping it on a lead until you're actually in the area you want to hunt.
Have all your gear ready in your vehicle. Once on site, get hunting as quickly and quietly as possible; it doesn't take pheasants long to figure out what is going on.
Nothing's worse than seeing your dog erupt through the very cover you want to hunt before you can even get there. That's why giving it a little pre-hunt run can be a great idea.
A close-working dog is the best pheasant-hunting companion. This is true for a flushing dog because it needs to be close enough so that you have a shot at any flushing bird. If your Lab, spaniel or retriever works more than 20 yards out from you, that's probably too far, and that's because the pheasants will flush from farther out than that.
As for pointing dogs, I also prefer a dog that works close. Pheasants are just downright wild and fidgety, and don't always hold well for pointing dogs of any type. I want my little Brittany close so that if a rooster does flush while she's working it but before she can point it, I can shoot.
No matter the type of dog, work it before the season, teaching it to stay in close. Train with a long check cord so that you can jerk the animal in when it gets too far out, or use tiny little tickles or vibrations on a training collar. Teach the dog to come back in, or redirect, to a light toot on the whistle or a soft "hup" from your voice. Screams and whistle blasts have no place in the pheasant fields.
A fast and careless approach is a loud and non-stealthy one that surely will send birds scurrying. Birds that do stay put are easily walked past by hunter and dog alike. Why cover your hunting ground at breakneck speed?
A better approach is a slow, cautious, thorough and meandering one. This strategy gets the birds nervous but doesn't send them sprinting, confuses them so they hold better, and gives your dog time to work cover thoroughly.
Quarter back and forth. Zigzag. Don't walk a straight line. Loop back and re-work good territory again. Swing through corners and edges of cover that might hold birds. Take your time. Weave around and through habitat. Wander this way and that. Make pauses. It all works to keep the pheasants off balance and guessing at your whereabouts.
For your best passes, strive to work into, or quartering into, the breeze. That gives the dog a better chance of picking up scent before it passes the birds. It also masks your approach and helps carry away any noise you might make.
Don't shout or talk to partners. Instead, work out a set of hand signals for "straight," "left," "right," "slow down," "there's a bird up ahead," "watch the dog," and other essential communications.
Good pheasant cover is diverse, containing a combination of grassland, cropfields (standing and harvested), marshes, cattail patches, brushy fencelines, woodlots, abandoned or lightly used pastures, and fallow fields.
In the morning, start hunting near feeding areas of harvested cropfields and open meadows, working the edges between cover and food source. As morning starts becoming afternoon, shift your attention to marshes, cattail swamps, brush and other thick cover that pheasants retreat to.
When the sun starts descending, head back to lightly grassed fields on the edges of feeding grounds. This is where pheasants will go for roosting.
Among all the other pursuits that fill the season, pheasant hunting is one of fall's finest pastimes. Walking the autumn countryside is pure joy. A rooster makes a pleasing "thump" when he hits the ground after you've made a good shot. And a mature bird is absolutely beautiful to behold, resplendent in all his fine-feathered, long-tailed glory.
Experience it all more often this fall when you put these stealth tactics to work on big-game ringnecks.
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