October 14, 2021
With a good hunting forecast for the Upper Plains, not to mention good opening weekend expectations from at least one well-known pheasant-hunting guru, how can you go about getting an opening weekend limit of ringnecks this fall?
According to Bob St. Pierre, the vice president of marketing and communications for Pheasants Forever, it all starts with scouting, as it does with most other forms of serious hunting.
"There's no doubt about it, I really believe that the opening days of the season this year will be tremendous," said St. Pierre. "But you'll have to be diligent about putting on a little bit of the big-game hunter’s philosophy into your bird-hunting activities. What I mean is scouting, something that not too many bird hunters think about like those who chase whitetails, elk, or other big game species do."
But in a year fueled by significant drought, St. Pierre stresses that the most successful pheasant hunters will be the ones who put in some homework time.
"This year, you really need to get out and find out where the birds are concentrated in the good habitat, make a game plan, and operate with some real stealth," he said. "If you do things a little bit different than everyone else will in 2021, then I think you're going to have a tremendous season."
The reason that doing things differently is necessary this fall is, of course, related to the rough stretch of dry weather in recent months. And that drought is likely to mean that smaller, more intimate corners (especially on walk-in hunting areas that are popular in many of the pheasant-hunting states) are likely to be the ones most impacted by emergency grazing and haying orders this summer.
"As with other forms of hunting, those who are using something like the onX maps app will have a leg up on others," said St. Pierre. "But this year, instead of looking for those little off the beaten path areas, I think you'll want to focus in on bigger blocks of grassland habitat, more so than normal.
"This year is probably not going to be the best of years for those little section corners, but instead, you'll want to focus on the bigger complexes like wildlife management areas, waterfowl production areas, game production areas, and big complexes of CRP cover that have 1,000 acres or more. Those will be the best this fall, I think."
With that idea noted, St. Pierre thinks that group hunting (think of the orange clad army of drivers and blockers) will produce early in the season while the more intimate chases of a hunter and a bird dog or two will work better as the season deepens.
"I think that there's a place for both styles of hunting this year," he said. "For those walking a line, big groups will be good early on. But as the season progresses, the most productive method of operating, in my opinion, will then go to the stealthy hunters, one or two of them, who are quietly moving about with their dogs. Quintessentially, they'll be simply taking the line where the dog's nose leads them."
Notice the emphasis on being quiet, something that will be especially important in this year's reduced cover.
"That's true each year, the fact that you've got to be quiet when pheasant hunting," said St. Pierre. "But that's especially true this year because of the drought's effect of reducing cover and grass on the landscape.
"If you're going to always go to the same parking spot, always shut the radio off as you open the door, and then slam your truck door, you're giving fair warning to every rooster that lives nearby," he continued.
"This year, park in harder to find and more unusual parking spots like alongside a ditch, come into a field from a completely different angle than you usually do, don't slam the door, don't talk to your buddy as you get out of the truck, and don't chat up the bird dogs as you let them out of the kennel.
"Pheasants can sense vibrations and they can hear better than most hunters think. And when they hear something that sounds threatening, they are going to put on their track shoes and they are off to the races. They certainly will know the game again by Day Two."
Another tip that St. Pierre gives as opening day approaches on the prairies is to think in reverse in terms of what you’ll typically do later on in the season. In other words, it pays to think food rather than cover right now.
"Early in the season, pheasants aren't always in the thickest cover," he said. "Find some nice grass, a few flowering plants, and spots where the birds are still transitioning out of their brood cover and you'll likely find early season pheasants."
While birds will gravitate towards thicker cover (cattails, shelterbelts, thick brush, dense bushes, plum thickets, stands of thick willows, etc.) as the autumn season deepens, for now, think mid-length and tall grass prairie locations.
Especially when those spots are located next to an agricultural field.
"I'd urge two things on opening day," said St. Pierre. "First, you want to be adjacent to harvested crops, like a corn field that was harvested recently. Better yet, you would like to be next to a corn field that is being combined on opening day while you and your dogs are out there. There's probably no better recipe than corn coming out while you're walking the grass next to it."
Second, the upland bird hunting guru at Pheasants Forever wants to be out as early and late in the day as the legal shooting hours will allow. In addition to knowing where the birds are feeding early and late, hunters who get out in the golden hour lighting will know where they've come from and where they are likely to be going.
In fact, finding those intersections of feeding areas, roosting areas, and travel corridors is often the golden ticket or the Magic 8-Ball in St. Pierre's mind.
"If you find them and get there (near such intersections of daily needs and good habitat), I can almost guarantee that you'll put two or three roosters in your game bag," chuckled St. Pierre, a pheasant hunter who always has a chance at a limit of roosters because of how he thinks about the upland game as well as the hard-charging German shorthaired pointers that he runs.
When he gets to such locations, St. Pierre is a simple, minimalist style of hunter, opting for the start-to-finish consistency of the same shotgun, the same Federal Prairie Storm #4 steel shotshell loads, and the same open shotgun choke as he anticipates the rise of a rooster in front of his bird dogs.
Another tip St. Pierre gives the opening-bell pheasant hunter is to simply relax, to hunt safely, to enjoy the experience, and anticipate the post-hunt meals and celebrations to come. He says that even if you miss an easy shot on opening weekend, there's usually another rooster-busting opportunity just over the horizon.
And finally, he says to use opening day as fuel to think ahead about what's still yet to come this year.
"I'd say next week, go ahead and have a conversation with your employer," laughed St. Pierre. "Because whenever the first real day of snowfall happens, you need that day off."
"Because next to opening day, the first snowfall day is probably the second best day to go pheasant hunting in a given year," said St. Pierre. "For whatever the reason, the first real snow of any kind seems to paralyze pheasants. It's like going pheasant hunting in an amusement park, especially for the pointing dogs, since most roosters that typically want to run will now hold tight.
"On those days, you'll probably have some of your most glorious days out there on the landscape while pheasant hunting."
And it all starts now as the golden days of October usher in yet another year of rooster busting on the high plains.
Don't be late and don't miss the upland bird hunting party, because its wingshooting as good as it gets.