December 21, 2020
By Scott Mackenthun
You found roosters blissfully ignorant on opening day and filled your brace for a few weeks as farmers emptied crop fields and birds became bunched up on a shrinking landscape.
But now it's colder and birds are harder to come by. Late-season pheasant hunting can be challenging, but with a little forethought it can also be some of the best hunting of the year. Cover the best ground as fall turns to winter and late-season birds become more wily.
EYES IN THE SKY
Between training dogs and honing your shooting skills at the trap range, you already do a fair amount of prep for pheasant season, but it’s time to add remote scouting to your preparedness list. If you have a milk run of properties to hunt, you likely know where birds are hanging and what kind of cover options each parcel offers.
If you're hunting a new area, you have to start at the very beginning. That means examining aerial photography to determine access points, changes in terrain and which portions will present the biggest challenges.
"It's a pretty easy formula," says Pheasants Forever public relations manager and avid hunter Jared Wiklund. "You're looking for thermal cover next to the kitchen. If you can find cattails, brambles or [downed] trees next to cut corn, soybeans or wheat, for example, you can find birds bunched up."
Bob St. Pierre, also an upland addict and vice president of marketing and communications for Pheasants Forever, agrees. He likes to search for these critical habitat components in waterfowl production areas.
Cover contrasts can be useful in finding bunched birds. Summer aerial photography might show seas of green grasses, bushes and forbs, but you can still spot irregularities that show where plant species transition from one to another, or shadows showing a change in plant height. A patch of common reeds in a sea of switchgrass, the dried frames of sweet clover amidst a monoculture of shorter brome grasses or big bluestem's tall and thick shoots next to last year's foxtails are the kinds of places where dogs get birdy and roosters erupt.
Hunters should also think about how they can use the cold to their advantage when reviewing potential pheasant parcels. Those with water features that freeze will open access deeper into properties that were otherwise landlocked. Slough edges and irrigation ditches become access roads to the interior of properties that satisfy the food and thermal cover needs of pheasants.
PASSING THE TEST
Both Wiklund and St. Pierre want to know one thing upon arrival at a new parcel they've scouted remotely. Does it pass the eye test? Are there a bunch of boot and dog tracks in the parking lot, or does the parcel seem to see light traffic?
"You want the small chunks that get passed up, where there are little pockets of cover that don't get bothered,” St. Pierre says.
Going where others won't can be hard if it means crossing thick brush or heavy, rigid cattails. Roosters killed in these spots are hard-earned. Sometimes, though, going where others won't is easy.
"You'd be surprised how many people won't hunt public parcels that prohibit lead shot," St. Pierre says. Whether they don't have steel on hand or have an ideological hang-up, some hunters skip the nontoxic-only parcels, like waterfowl production areas, in favor of private lands or state wildlife management areas that still allow lead shot. With fewer visitors come less-pressured birds.
Review state and federal parcels for pheasant hunting closures, too. Some federal refuges permit deer hunting only for several weeks, then open later for upland birds. These prolonged hunter absences can cause roosters to let their guard down.
Call wildlife managers in an area you plan to visit and see if any parcels have food plots planted. Often, cooperative agriculture food plots are used as a tool to draw whitetail or mule deer away from private property where they cause damage. Food plots attract deer and pheasants alike, so use them to your advantage. Hitting a food plot at midday could help you surprise a rooster or two.
One last-ditch, Hail Mary way to salvage a late-season hunt is to wait at the roost for fly-ins. Check state law for when daily hunting hours end; many states allow hunting up to sunset. Post up along thick grass or cattails adjacent to private thin grass or picked crop fields and wait patiently. You can salvage a poor day in a short, 15-minute shoot as birds glide into their roost of choice.
Remember, too, that late-season birds have heard countless hunters come and go and associate the slamming of truck doors and unnecessarily loud talking with danger. Watch the weather, plan ahead and be willing to be mobile to stay on birds.
Late-season hunters grasp the importance of quality habitat. Remote scouting is done to find the best habitats that will hold birds. Throughout the year, pheasants need nesting, brood, forage and winter-cover habitat. Consider doing your part by joining a habitat organization like Pheasants Forever to ensure there will continue to be parcels that provide exceptional habitat and the hunting opportunities that accompany them.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service administers many big chunks of land with public hunting access across pheasant country. Usually, these areas adhere to the season and limit structures of the states in which they fall. Check out these Midwestern refuges for exceptional pheasant hunting opportunities.
Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge showcases 10,778 acres in the hills and valleys surrounding the Solomon River. Nearly two thirds of the acreage is open to hunting in one form or another, and the entire refuge is full of premium pheasant habitat, as it sits at an intersection of tallgrass and shortgrass prairie. Check maps and regulations provided by the refuge for full details.
Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge offers 11,586 acres of prairie, wetlands and wooded stream corridor. Big Stone is at the headwaters of the Minnesota River, and 11 miles of it flow through the refuge. The tract is surrounded by a mix of corn, soybeans and pasture areas for grazing.
Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge comprises 21,498 acres and is famous as a breeding and resting ground for migratory waterfowl. The many wetlands and grasslands are naturally well suited for upland birds, too, including the ring-necked pheasant. The refuge opens in December following successive whitetail seasons.