October 31, 2022
By Lynn Burkhead
Recently, we told readers that this might be a pheasant season to remember. That was the word from Pheasants Forever's chief marketing man, Bob St. Pierre, one of the most passionate pheasant hunters one can ever meet.
In fact, St. Pierre was downright giddy about 2022-23 hunting prospects as his own personal autumn upland-bird hunting campaign prepared to shift from September sharptails and early October ruffed grouse, to pheasants as seasons opened up all around the northern Great Plains and Upper Midwest.
There was the Minnesota pheasant opener for St. Pierre a few days ago, then the annual Pheasants Forever Rooster Road Trip in Montana from Oct. 18-24, and then maybe even hunts in the Dakotas, two famed pheasant-hunting states apparently awash with hard-running roosters ready to test the pointing abilities of bird dogs and the shooting reflexes of shotgunners.
"I think some people might be surprised about how good things might be in some places," said St. Pierre days before the season openers. "In parts of South Dakota and North Dakota, maybe it won't be generational numbers, but maybe the best numbers in the past decade.”
But as rosy as that prognostication might have been, it’s possible that even St. Pierre undersold how good things might possibly be. That seems to be the case after glowing early season reports from many corners of pheasant country, including a Halloween report by Travis Frank, co-host of The Flush television show each week on Outdoor Channel.
"Is this the year of the pheasant?" queried Frank, holding a brace of North Dakota roosters in an Instagram post featuring himself and his bird dog Daisy. "I've heard so many hunters say they've never seen it this good. North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Montana—the reports are all the same."
As good as the pheasant hunting has already been the back half of October, it could get even better in the days to come, provided you can be in the field on the right day. And according to St. Pierre, that day is the first good snow day of the season, a time when roosters will hold tight to cover, sit still instead of running as your bird dog’s nose closes in, and give hunters some magical wingshooting that's the upland scattergunner's version of going to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, the so-called happiest place on earth.
"Yes, whatever day that first snowfall happens each year, it's magical," said St. Pierre. "Sometimes, that’s been as early as October here in Minnesota, but in other years, it has happened later, sometime in November. Whenever it happens, I make sure I take that first snow day off from work because the pheasant hunting is that good. When snow is falling, clear your calendar and go pheasant hunting, because for some reason, the birds hold tighter on that day than on any other day of the year. It creates a playground for pheasant hunting. It's even better than opening day, even if the numbers are less."
And as mentioned above, those lesser numbers really aren't the case this year in many parts of pheasant country, which means that any snow-day pheasant hunting could be epic in a patch of farmland or upland cover near you. "Yes," St. Pierre has noted before. "In fact, if you're a pheasant hunter, there's a conversation you need to be having right now with your employer about getting off of work on that day of the first snow where you hunt. Because when that first snow falls, you’re definitely going to want—to need—that day off."
The primary reason for that, according to St. Pierre, is that roosters aren't dipping into their old bag of tricks because of the sudden change to cold, stormy conditions. "For whatever reason, that first snow sort of paralyzes pheasants," he said. "It's sort of amusement park-like, particularly for pointing dogs, since roosters that will typically run will now hold tight [to cover] on those days and you'll have some of your most glorious days out there on the landscape hunting."
How do you find and take advantage of roosters in such snowy conditions? For starters, it's always wise to think about edges in pheasant-hunting situations, especially the edges of grasslands and agricultural spots that birds might have been feeding in prior to the storm’s arrival. If the cover is sufficient enough, that's a good place to watch your bird dogs closely as they work back and forth.
If the weather isn't too extreme as October bleeds into November, or if a moderation of temperatures will follow on the heels of the first taste of winter, it's likely that pheasants will be living in and around CRP ground that has corn or milo somewhere nearby, food hotspots these wily upland birds can use again as they continue to fatten up for the coming challenges of real winter.
A second spot, particularly if the weather is getting frigid enough to cause ice to form on lakes and ponds, is going to be in and around thermal cover. While it's still early enough that pheasants might not be planning on an extended stay in such spots, never overlook them even now. "As summer and fall transitions into winter, focus on more thicker thermal cover," said St. Pierre. "Things like cattails, willow thickets, bushes, shrubbery, and other types of thicker cover they’ll move toward as the weather changes."
And last, but not least, don't overlook areas of isolated cover, brushy-creek bottoms, and even overgrown fence rows near an old farming homestead, sheltered spots that can quickly lure in a pheasant rooster when the snow starts flying for the first time. Think of the pheasant-hunting images painted up by sporting art masters like David Maass, Rosemary Millette, Michael Sieve and more, and you’ll know exactly what to look for.
Why? Because as I’ve noted before for Game & Fish Magazine’s sister publication Gun Dog, if food is the lifeblood of early season hunts, then thermal cover and protection from predators is the lifeblood of late-season hunts.
In all cases noted above, remember that, according to St. Pierre, roosters are likely to hold tighter than ever to cover when that first snow falls. So work thick spots slowly and thoroughly, not giving up on a point or a push into a thick cover spot until you've worked it sufficiently and kicked your boots into every square inch where a wily old rooster might be holed up and riding out the early season storm.
One final piece of advice here is what you'll need to shoot at roosters as the season starts to mature, the first snow flies, and your bird dog is happily working the cover with a snootful of Mr. Rooster coming in on the freshening breeze. "Honestly, I'm a person that believes in consistency with a shotgun, load, and choke combination," St. Pierre has told me previously. "I try to stick with everything being the same, as much as possible."
For St. Pierre, that's going to be a Beretta 686 12-gauge over-under, along with Federal Prairie Storm upland steel loads in #5 shot sizes, and open chokes as he walks behind his brace of German shorthaired pointers, Esky and Gitche. Early in the season, that will be a skeet tube in his No 1 barrel—St. Pierre says he typically shoots his bottom barrel first, his top barrel second—and an Improved cylinder in his No. 2 barrel. As midseason and late season arrives, he'll turn to a combination of an improved cylinder in the No. 1 barrel and a modified tube in his No. 2 barrel.
“As the season progresses, I'll go to a modified choke, but never a full choke," he said, even for the late-season push that is coming in a few weeks. And because he sometimes hunts Waterfowl Production Areas where steel shot is mandatory, he’s going to stick with steel loads even when it's not, for the sake of shooting consistency. "Steel is productive with open chokes, and Federal Prairie Storm is productive with open chokes. Plus, I'm hunting over pointers, and that means that in theory, I'm going to get closer shots at pheasants. Generally speaking, I'm going to ride that all season."
That includes the first snowfall of the season, a magical time when the first big flakes fall to the ground and the roosters go to cover and hold tight, with the end result being a collision of bird hunter, bird dogs, and a noisy upland bird that can’t help but make some noise as he vaults from his cozy shelter. And when that happens, St. Pierre is going to quickly shoulder his stack-barrel, swing smoothly through the long-tailed pheasant riding the wind, and smile big as he or someone else cries out "Rooster! Rooster!"
That’s a pronouncement that makes the chilly air come alive as old man winter pays an early visit to pheasant country, offering some of the year's best wingshooting prospects, even in a season that is better than advertised. Put simply, as fall soon melts into winter, the 2022-23 season just might be the good old days of pheasant hunting, especially as the weatherman starts talking about snow. Don't be late to the snow-day party because it’s going to be a good one!