I remember my first rooster pheasant quite vividly. It was 1977; the place was Sam Gaston’s weed field, a wonderfully brushy place not far from my home
My pop was there. My Uncle Neal, too. As was often the case, I carried my father’s 1952 Winchester Model 24 side-by-side. A 16-gauge with short barrels and a beautifully refinished stock. Pop did that.
There was snow. And in the snow, a line of three-pronged pheasant tracks leading to a white-covered clump among the reed canary grass and blackberry brambles. There, the tracks ended at a black-and-gold barred tail. I backed off a step or two and called for my support team. “Just walk in there easy,” I remember my father coaching. “Be ready. I’ll back you up.”
That was 42 years ago, and I still remember the sound. The explosion of snow at the flush. The fumbled gun mount. The right barrel; the left. The feathers, those beautiful multicolored feathers, hanging in the air. Most of all, I remember my pop’s smile. The pat on the back of my Walls canvas coat; too big, but just right, it seemed, that morning. And the thump-thump-thump of that cockbird against my legs as I walked in search of an encore performance. I was, as Pop said, an official pheasant hunter.
A lot has changed for pheasants and pheasant hunters both in the past four decades. Sam Gaston is gone. Even his farm is gone. Uncle Neal’s gone, too.
But my Pop’s still around, and I still have that old Model 24.
And every now and again, I’ll uncase the Winchester, call the black lab to heel and head afield in search of one of North America’s most celebrated upland game birds, the wily ringneck pheasant.
THE BETTER TO HEAR YOU WITH!
The words “pheasant” and “defenseless” should never, ever be used in the same sentence. Why? Because he’s anything but defenseless. Roosters and hens, both, are strong fliers. But they’re crafty, too, often choosing to run far and fast rather than take wing. They know they’re more vulnerable to predators, man and beast alike, in the air than they are on the ground. Strong fliers, yes, but they’re no slouch when it comes to their eyesight, either. The truth is, no one but a pheasant knows exactly how well they can see; however, the familiar cliché — “eyes like a hawk” — probably isn’t all that far off.
And then there’s the pheasant’s sense of hearing, which is, in a word, extraordinary and one of their foremost means of evading danger. So what does this mean to the pheasant hunter? The short and sweet is simple — be quiet. Pheasants, especially those that are routinely pressured, know the difference between natural and unnatural — safe or dangerous — sounds. Wind through the willows? A mourning dove cooing? Geese honking? No cause for concern. But slam the truck door, close that semi-auto’s bolt noisily or start hollering at the dog the minute his feet hit the ground, and Mister Rooster, along with his lady-friends, is going to be headed in the opposite direction. And quickly. Didn’t flush a single bird? Good chance they were out of range before you ever started.
The solution is challenging, yet elemental. Hunt into the wind. Quiet with those doors. Those bolts. Those unnatural sounds. Keep Clyde, the black lab, at heel until you’re ready to begin the hunt, and then keep him close. Silently close. Think like a sneaky ninja and you’ll run into more birds as opposed to having them run from you.
THE DAILY ROUTINE
Good whitetail hunters know their quarry. They watch. They film. They take note of patterns. Waterfowlers, too, do their homework prior to the hunt. They know that geese roost at Point A, fly to Point B to feed, and then loaf at Pasture Pond One, or Point C, before returning to Point A for the evening. In essence, both deer and goose hunters know where their quarry are, where they’ll be, and how to precisely put themselves in the middle for the best chance of success.
There’s absolutely no reason why pheasant hunters can’t do the same thing — figure out the birds’ routine, and then plan to hunt them accordingly. But what is a rooster’s typical daily routine? That is dependent upon the time of year as well as the weather. A warm day during late summer means Mister Ringneck is enjoying life in thin cover to the fullest. Come December, with snow and cold, and birds are working to survive, roosting in a dense cattail marsh at night, scratching for spilled soybeans or waste corn under a frigid winter sky. The calendar changes the birds’ routine.
Let’s think mid-November, with clear skies and temperatures ranging from the high 30s at night to high 40s during the day. Around sunrise, birds will be moving from roosting cover to the morning’s feed, preferably corn, beans, milo, sunflowers and other high-energy food. By mid-morning they’re headed to transitional cover, which is where you’re likely going to find them as your hunt begins. This could be goldenrod, switch grass, stubble, reed canary grass, light cattails, or standing corn, depending on the part of the country. By late afternoon, birds are again on the feed before going to roost just prior to dusk. With this knowledge and an accurate wristwatch, a strategy focusing on the element of where to begin can be drawn up.
ROOSTERS AND THE SOLO HUNTER
One classic method of hunting pheasants involves about 20 orange-clad individuals, 15 of them designated as walkers, and the reminder as standers. Or blockers. Or posters, depending on where you’re from or where you’re hunting. Hunters line up and walk through the field, making sure not to get ahead of the shooter to the left or right. Birds flush everywhere; straight, back, overhead. Can it be an effective and very social way to hunt roosters? Absolutely. But it’s not the only way to hunt these birds.
Me, I’m a huge fan of going it alone when it comes to pheasants. Alone, that is, except for one or two well-behaved black dogs. But how do you approach a 40-acre, 80-acre, or, heaven forbid, a half section by your lonesome and have any hope of pinning down one or two of these rambunctious, hard-running, cockbirds?
First things first. Be quiet. Work into the wind. No dog? That’s all right. Break the cover into manageable parcels. Look it over as you plot and scheme. The trick is to run the birds out of cover; that is, from heavy to light. Canary grass or cattails into corn stubble. He doesn’t want to oblige; he’d rather go from sparse cover into the nasty stuff. Your job is to eliminate that option, if possible. Work the cover slowly. Thoroughly, and in random, zig-zag pattern, stopping often. Veterans will tell you -— stop, and that rooster thinks he’s been discovered. He might flush; he might not, but there’s a chance. And be ready. Mister Ringneck’s the master of surprise. Still, I’ve not found a cockbird that can outfly an ounce of No. 5s moving at 1,500 feet-per-second. Yet.