I’m not an anti-social person. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. I often enjoy the company of other folks. That is, until the final days of pheasant season. Then, just like the great Hollywood actress Greta Garbo did, I want to be alone.
Many folks believe that pheasant hunting—at least successful pheasant hunting—is synonymous with long lines of orange-clad shotgunners walking back and forth through ideal cover behind a pack of dogs. And while this scenario is quite common throughout much of pheasant country and often does produce well, it’s certainly not the only way to bag ringnecks. The myth that the solitary pheasant hunter isn’t nearly as effective as the collective, or at the very best will kill far fewer birds over the course of any one season, is just that: a myth. However, the switch from the group mentality to the school of solitary pheasant hunting does require a bit of relearning.
Going one on one with ringnecks means realizing that brains, not brawn, will rule the day, particularly as you move later into the season. Like any successful venture, solo pheasant hunting requires forethought—a plan of attack, if you will. Within this plan, there lie three important variables, those being scouting, strategy and implementation.
Sound complicated? Well, it can be, but it need not be, if you remember one simple concept: As soon as you begin treating pheasants the way an archer treats a trophy whitetail, the more successful you’re going to become. Period.
SCOUTING AND STRATEGY
While a 100-acre parcel of set-aside or Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) ground might be just fine for a skirmish line sort of group pheasant hunt, it presents obstacles that, when taken as a whole, are for all intents and purposes insurmountable to the solitary hunter. Why? It’s simple. One-hundred acres is just too much for one hunter.
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So, does this mean that the single hunter should simply ignore such large tracts of prime cover? Certainly not, but what it does mean is instead of looking at and seeing 100 acres of cover, solitary hunters must train themselves to see the eight or 10 best 1-acre tracts within that 100 acres, and then hunt each as though it stood alone.
Scouting, then, factors in whenever the hunter takes time to study, learn and evaluate just such a situation, effectively cutting a large parcel into several manageable pieces, any one of which can be just as good as the whole.
The process works on private land, but will this scouting-to-downsize tactic work on public land? To be honest, there’s absolutely no difference between going solo on private land and hunting alone on public land, except for that one uncontrollable variable: competition. Still, competition doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing, and in fact, the solitary pheasant hunter can use the acts of others to his advantage.
WHERE TO BEGIN
When hunting public land alone, scouting becomes even more important. Most state wildlife agencies provide detailed maps of their public hunting areas. Using these tools, the solitary hunter will want to look for three things in addition to the overall lay of the land and those places that just look birdy. First, they’ll want to note those sections that contain cover best described as nasty. Or terrible. Or impenetrable. Second are those acres in agricultural production, harvested or not. And third, parking areas and trails that provide access to the interior.
The reason behind focusing on thick, almost impenetrable cover is obvious. Birds like it, and few hunters will ever consider beating bushes big enough to hide an Abrams tank. In many cases, though, seemingly impossible coverts can be broken into sections, much like downsizing 100 acres to one. Here, it’s a case of breaking down the whole, and looking not at a quarter-acre of tangles and briars, but a finger of cover or a corner, either of which can be worked out slowly and thoroughly.
Those parts of a public area in agricultural production attract hunters quicker than a blue-light special in the camouflage clothes aisle. And while it’s not wise to ignore such areas totally, it’s often more effective to skirt the standing or harvested ground and focus instead on the most unsuitable-looking cover immediately downwind.
Downwind? Yes, you read that correctly. Pheasants—particularly late-season pressured roosters, just like some crafty whitetails—will often tend to seek cover in the most unlikely of places. It’s not because they’re thinking, per se, that no one will look for them there, but simply because no one looks for them there. And, also much like a whitetail, a rooster will use the wind to his advantage, not in the same olfactory sense, but rather as an early warning device. To a rooster in November, the sound of a truck door shutting and a shotgun bolt slamming mean only one thing: run.
To combat this, the solo hunter can employ two tactics, either individually or in tandem. The first is stealth. This applies not only to the slamming of doors and other unnatural sounds, but also to the amount of noise the hunter makes getting into position to begin working the chosen parcel of cover.
A second technique that often proves effective once a hunting location has been chosen is to park in an out-of-the-way place, where permissible, as opposed to the traditional parking areas. The hunter then approaches the cover from a non-traditional, and preferably downwind, direction that isn’t expected by pheasants used to the routine employed by the masses. It may require a longer walk, but it may also catch roosters off guard.
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But wait. Isn’t all this preparation—all this planning and strategy and sneaking around—going overboard? They are, after all, just pheasants.
Just pheasants? Yes, but whether wild creatures have ringed necks or antlered scalps, they are very wary and oftentimes very frustrating. These animals have four very elemental requirements: food, water, cover and staying away from predators, of which we are but one of many. Those who regularly hunt pheasants know it doesn’t take the avian survivors of opening week long to figure out the program. Still, these same, long-spurred veterans aren’t invincible, especially for those willing to leave the muscle of the masses standing at the field gate and opt instead for slugging it out with the birds one on one.
GOING SOLO WITH ROVER
For solopheasant hunters with canine companions, success is summarized in one word: control. Of course a well-trained dog that stays close, looks back often, and reacts to non-verbal commands (whistles or hand signals) is ideal. A hunter-dog team working in this way is coordinated, quiet and highly effective on roosters.
A hunter can, however, allow the dog to mostly determine the course of action. My wife’s Lab, Jet, is a people dog: She stays close and constantly comes back to check on her people. I’ve capitalized on this by keeping her at heel until reaching the parcel we plan to hunt, then turning her loose and following her lead. It took only a handful of outings before she realized what I expected, and for me to translate her body language into pheasant-finding information. Using this tactic, Jet accounted for 58 roosters during one Iowa season and more than 40 ringnecks the following year.
FEDERAL PREMIUM HI-BIRD
These shotshells are all about the wad. Federal houses the shells’ payloads in a two-piece wad that uses SoftCell technology, which reportedly reduces felt recoil and improves pattern consistency at long ranges. Both are benefits for solo pheasant hunters, as is the price in these days of ultra-premium (read expensive) shotshells. Hi-Bird is available in 1 1/8- and 1 1/4-ounce loads of No. 4, 5, 6, 7.5 and 8 lead shot. MSRP: $10.95-$14.95 per 25 rounds; federalpremium.com