The calendar now reads October and that means thatit’s time.
It’s time to load up the hunting dogs,don the blaze orange vests and khaki brush pants, grab a box of high-brassFederal Pheasant Storm shotgun shells – two boxes if you’rea shooter like me – and the case containing your favoritescattergun.
Why? Because all across the grass-rich prairies ofthe Great Plains, the brushy river bottoms and draws of Rocky Mountainfoothills and the dense cornfields and adjoining CRP patches of the Midwest,it’s pheasant hunting season.
But before you lace up the upland hunting boots andhead afield, how about a few tips aimed at improving your in-the-field successrate this fall?
If you're interested in doing just that,then read on.
And that’s where we’ll start;with how to read a pheasant field. And the way to do that is to start payingattention to what's around you from the moment that you step out of thetruck.
“First, you’ve got to payattention to what is happening around you,” said Bob St. Pierre, vicepresident of marketing for Pheasants Forever, in a conversation we had a whileback.
“For instance, if you’rehunting in the late season, you need to know where there is winter cover, wherethere are shrubs that can hold them in when it’s really harsh."
In other words, before you ever lay down the firststep of boot leather, take a moment to observe the landscape and think aboutwhere birds are likely to be found.
Second, a hunter needs to ask:"Where’s the food at?"
And when in doubt about where to find the answer tothat question, St. Pierre admits that he gets a little edgy.
“(The edge) between food and cover,that’s a good focal point (to start with),” said St.Pierre. “Pheasants spend a lot of time in edges, the transitionhabitat between food, cover, loafing areas and roostingcover.”
While certain edges might be obvious,don’t forget to thoroughly investigate isolated patches of coverurges Rick Young, vice-president of field operations for PheasantsForever.
“They’re worth taking a ganderat, especially later in the season,” said Young. “Areasthat haven’t been hit can be really amazing in the lateseason.”
Get into Proper Position
Pheasants sometimes will only fly as a last ditch effort to escape. Closing the gaps between hunters and dogs is the key to flushing long-tail roosters. (Todd Sauers/PF photo)
Just simply roaming the edges mentioned aboveisn’t enough, mind you, to bag a limit of roosters. To get intoproper shooting position when a cackling pheasant goes airborne, a hunter hasgot to use the gray matter between their ears.
“When you’re solo hunting,you’ve really got to pay attention to your dog,” said St.Pierre.
“It’s kind of like whenyou’re playing hockey or basketball where you have to think ahead ofthe pass.
“It’s the same thing inpheasant hunting. If your dog is starting to get birdy, look at the cover aheadof you and try and figure out where the bird is going to flush and how you canget into position to make an accurate, safe shot when that bird doesflush.”
Does this idea of thinking ahead apply whenyou’re hunting with a partner? You bet it does.
“You’ve got to be spread outenough to cover a lot of ground, but not so far where you’re leavinga big gap between each other,” said St. Pierre.
“Pheasants, a lot of times, they will flyas the last means of escape. They’re notorious for running circlesaround the dogs, so if you’re too far spread out, they’llshoot that gap between dogs and hunters.
“You’ve got to cover a lot ofground, but not leave too many openings there.”
This idea also applies when an upland game birdenthusiast is hunting without the aid of a dog.
“You’ve got to know your buddy,but you can hunt ‘together’ by hunting apart,”said Young.
“This is where it’sadvantageous to hunt with a partner you’ve hunted with a long time.You know what he’s going to do and can kind of read hismind.”
“As you work a field edge, you can hunttowards each other and know he’s not going to shoot you. Of course,you’ve got to be careful doing that, but you can pinch birds towardseach other this way.”
Even when hunting in a big block-and-drive group setting,this principle of thinking ahead can still apply.
“Keep the birds guessing a bit, but bereal conscious of where your buddies are at all times,” saidYoung.
Year in and year out, the variations of pheasantpopulation dynamics, the weather, hunting pressure and changing agriculturalpractices can all conspire to turn last year’s“Can’t Miss!” hotspot into acricket chirping dud this year.
“Don’t get locked into the sameold same old every year,” said Young. “Keep your optionsopen more than that.”
To do that, it is often necessary for hunters toseek out new pheasant hunting ground.
How can a hunter do that?
“I think a big mistake that hunters makeis not knocking on a farmer’s door and simply askingpermission,” said St. Pierre.
“Be polite, offer to share your take withthe farmer and you might get an invite. A lot of people get intimidated andnever consider asking permission.”
Another way to find new ground is to broaden yourhorizons.
“Listen to where the bird numbers aregood, where the numbers are better and trust your ability to findbirds,” said Young.
To do this, Young suggests that hunters keep roughtabs on current weather conditions and this year's pheasant prospectsin various states across pheasant country.
A simple phone call to a state biologist, a localsporting goods store or an old friend in the area can do wonders to help youfind this year’s rooster hunting hotspot.
Less is More
Keep in mind that at times, going to thenon-hotspot areas can pay off when it comes to pheasant hunting.
“A lot of people that go to differentstates want to go to the absolute best spot with the most birds,”said Young.
“I like to go to areas with medium numbersof birds. They have less hunting pressure, enough birds, and sometimes, moreopportunity to get on private land.”
While Young may have to work harder to fill hislimit in such places, to him, the tradeoff in high quality, hard-earned huntingsuccess is well worth it.
“I’m confident I can findbirds,” he said. “I know they’re out there, soit’s just a matter of hard work and keeping afterit.”
Staying Safe andSound
The bottom line in pheasant hunting – anyhunting, for that matter – is safety, first and foremost.
“There is no bird in the world that isworth anybody getting hurt over,” said Young.
“I’ve literally passed up 100sof birds that I could have shot and in hindsight, there was noproblem.
“But at the moment (of truth), Ididn’t know (for sure) and I’m not willing to take anychances at all.”
And neither should you.
Why all of this fuss for a moderate-size devilishgamebird that loves to hide, run, backtrack and erupt with some of the worstupland game bird manners on the North American continent?
“It’s a great game,”said Young. “It’s the greatest show onearth.”
For those of us who have witnessed the cackle of along-tail rooster as he vaults from tight cover and claws for altitude into abrilliant blue sky, there can be little doubt about that.
Lace up the hunting boots, kennel up the dog andload up the shotgun this fall and see if you don't agree.