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Author: Curt Hicken
A hunting acquaintance of mine has some interesting opinions regarding pheasant hunting. Though he annually bags his fair share of cock pheasants, you might be surprised to learn that he doesn't even head to the fields until the season is nearly half over.
A long-time hunting acquaintance of mine has some interesting opinions regarding pheasant hunting. Though he annually bags his fair share of cock pheasants, you might be surprised to learn that this dedicated ringneck hunter doesn't even head to the fields until the hunting season is nearly half over.
"I'm not really interested in all the typical opening-day festivities including participating in large drives with a bunch of people walking all over the place," he has told me on many occasions. "For me, the real pheasant hunting doesn't begin until long after the opening-day hunters are home in their easy chairs watching football games."
During my early years, I had some difficulty understanding these statements. Everyone knew the best pheasant hunting of the entire year came during the first few days of the season. I can still recall many of the local pheasant hunters returning from their opening day outings to boast of bagging limits of birds in less than an hour. To an impressionable young hunter, this sounded like the ideal hunting experience.
But, the old hunter doesn't see things this way. He says it's not the quantity of birds nor the ease in finding them that makes for a great outing. It's the challenge of the hunt that brings him the greatest satisfaction.
"Who wants to go out and return with a limit of pheasants before you ever get your boots wet," he argues. "I prefer tracking down those crafty old long-tailed birds that out-smart many of those opening day hunters."
While it has been some time since I have last seen the old hunter, his thoughts have stayed with me. In recent years I have begun to realize the wisdom in his words.
Late-season pheasants certainly offer a greater challenge for the hunter. I have been humbled more often on late-season outings for ringnecks than any other hunting trips. Still, with a little strategy and a whole lot of luck, I occasionally return home with a pheasant or two in the game bag. And, I must admit one enjoys a certain satisfaction from accomplishing this feat.
One of the greatest misconceptions about ringneck pheasants is that the first few days of the season is the only time of the year to successfully hunt these birds. Each year, during the first week or so of the pheasant season, hunters swarm to the fields in vast numbers only to hang up their shotguns for the remainder of the annual hunt. It almost gives the impression that every pheasant in the state has disappeared from the face of the earth.
While there is little doubt that a good many of these popular game birds have found their way to the table or freezer during the early days of the season, you can bet there are still plenty of pheasants in the field.
Of course, ringnecks tend to become a bit more wary and skittish after being herded up and down a cornfield, ditch or fence row a half-dozen times. Even a creature with a brain as small as a pheasant soon figures out that it's time to depart the fields when people and dogs show up on the scene.
That is why it becomes more important than ever to make as little noise as possible when arriving at your hunting area. Pheasants soon learn to head for cover when they hear approaching vehicles, car doors or voices.
Cover, to a pheasant, may mean anything from a long jaunt for a distant field to a simple escape to the nearest dense-cover sanctuary. Though they occasionally take to the air, ringnecks almost always prefer to utilize their highly efficient running abilities to retreat to safety.
Pheasants are very talented in this respect. I don't know how many times, while driving to a hunting destination, I've spotted a group of birds feeding in a field. However, after parking my vehicle and returning the area, I can find nary a one.
But, that's what makes late-season pheasant hunting so interesting. It requires more than physical stamina to bring home a limit of ringnecks. To be successful on a regular basis you need to know a something about the habits of these creatures and how they react under different conditions.
There are several things the late-season pheasant hunter should consider before aimlessly trudging off in pursuit of these wily birds. Weather conditions, the lay of the land, and even selecting the proper equipment all play an important role in the hunter's success. In the following paragraphs we'll look ways to improve your late-season pheasant hunting.
There are two basic weather-related conditions a hunter will encounter during the later weeks of the pheasant season. These usually determine the strategy required to successfully hunt late-season pheasants.
Obviously, a fresh coat of heavy snow greatly restricts the running abilities of these birds. Single hunters or relatively small groups generally experience their best success following a thick blanket of snow. A layer of snow is considered by many to be the optimum late season hunting scenario. The white background makes a hiding pheasant more visible to the hunter. And, fresh tracks will also reveal the presence of birds in the area.
However, snowfall doesn't necessarily mean the hunting will be easy. A pheasant that has survived this long also realizes it has become easy prey for virtually every predator in the area. Oftentimes, snow cover causes pheasants to flush well out of shotgun range.
The best way to counteract this typical ringneck trait is to concentrate on hunting the thickest cover available. Pheasants tend to feel more secure when well hidden in thick cover. Many times they will elect to remain motionless hoping danger will pass.
Hunters need to slow their pace when hunting thick brush or similar type areas. I have watched many hunters race through a likely area while the colorful inhabitants simply watch them pass. Regular pauses will often be enough to send a nervous long-tail rocketing skyward. A well-trained hunting dog can also greatly assist in uncovering their hiding places.
On the other hand, lack of snow cover presents a whole different situation. Pheasant will often take off like an Olympic sprinter at the first sign of danger. Considering the nature of this bird, your odds for success under these conditions greatly increase if hunting with a group.
Blockers strategically located along likely escape routes provide the bird with only two options. They will either tuck themselves under any available cover or take to the air before they are caught.
Once again, the assistance of a quality hunting dog will help with those birds that have chosen the option of hiding. And, if conducting a drive with blockers covering all escape routes, someone will likely have an opportunity to bag those birds taking to the air.
The other weather factor to consider is a cold, blustery day. With or without snow cover, pheasants often seek out areas offering some protection from the wind. Drainage ditches, brushy draws and low-lying areas are prime hunting areas on windy days.
Lay Of The Land
The general landscape should always be considered before beginning an attack on the ringneck population. This is extremely critical before undertaking any sort of organized late-season drive.
There seems to be a direct relationship between the type and amount of cover used by these birds and the passing of the hunting season. Pheasants, found in grainfields during the early weeks of the hunt, begin to rely more on thick grass, brushy areas and weed patches as the season wears on.
Thick briar patches and hedge rows offer protection from hunters and other predators. Hunters would be wise to begin their day searching out the brushy areas bordering the fields. Pheasants occupying these edges are likely the first to escape to another field when hunters arrive.
When driving a larger parcels of land, pheasant hunters often overlook small plots of marginal cover. Many times, particularly late in the season when there is snow on the ground, pheasants will bunch up in small patches of brush or other cover.
On more than one instance, I've flushed several cock pheasants from an area smaller than my back yard. Some of these spots appear as though they wouldn't hide a common garden snake. Still, pheasants make use of these areas especially if they have offered protection in the past.
Though fields of standing corn are rare during the later weeks of the season, there are times when this situation exist. An isolated field of standing corn can act like a huge pheasant magnet drawing birds from long distances. Brushy areas near standing corn can produce some excellent late-season action.
Marshy type areas are another often overlooked hiding place for crafty long-tailed roosters. Few hunters ever expect to find these birds tucked under a patch of cattails.
During a waterfowl hunting trip several years ago, my hunting partner and I waded into a small marshy area situated alongside the edge of a cornfield. After completing our hunt, we plodded our way back through of the thick layer of mud. During our return trek, several cackling pheasants rocketed to the sky from this area I thought was fit for only ducks and geese.
It was a lesson in the adaptability of this highly prized game bird. Pheasants will seek out and utilize any available cover even if it means low-lying marshy areas.
Keeping this in mind, the late-season pheasant hunter needs to concentrate their efforts to areas containing cover, particularly those adjacent to grainfields. Additionally, they should slow their pace and thoroughly search the area. A second pass through a likely looking area, only from a different direction, can also sometimes yield surprising results.
While every hunter enjoys the grace and style of the pointing breeds, wide-ranging dogs have no place in the pheasant field. I have seen common house pets better fit for pheasant hunting than freewheeling pointers who flush birds well out of shotgun range. During the final weeks of the season when game becomes tougher to find, a pheasant flushed prematurely by an out of control dog may be your only chance of the day.
However, this is not to say a close-working pointer or setter will not add greatly to the hunt. Control is the key factor here and any close-working dog with a nose for game birds will assist in the search for pheasants.
My choice is a Lab or similar type retriever. These breeds have a special knack for slowly and systematically covering a piece of ground. It is amazing how a bird as brilliantly colored as a ringneck can seem nearly invisible when hiding in relatively sparse cover. Retrievers will allow few, if any, hiding places go uncovered if given ample time to search an area.
In addition, retrievers are also among the best of the hunting breeds for recovering downed birds. In many instances, I have watched a persistent Lab return with a wing-tipped bird it had trailed for several hundred yards.
As any sportsman will tell you, it is the challenge that is most appealing about any hunting experience. It is only the degree of this challenge that separates the beginners from the more experienced hunters.
While I still enjoy the fast action found during the opening days of the pheasant season, I can also see the wisdom in the old hunter's words. Late-season pheasant hunting does bring with it a special challenge.
Now that I have seen a good many hunting seasons come and go, my pheasant hunting trips are no longer limited to the first week or so of the season. I, too, have found the challenge the best part of the pheasant hunting experience.
But, I must admit that isn't the only reason. I rate pheasants among the greatest game birds in the nation. A week or two of hunting is simply not enough for me. That is why I devote as many days as possible to pursuing these colorful long-tailed cock birds.