When I started to show some interest in upland bird hunting, my dad, with good intentions in mind, decided to forgo the pheasant release areas of Washington state, which were overcrowded with hunters chasing a few pen raised, rainsoaked birds, and took me to the Mecca of the Pheasant world; South Dakota.
We stayed with family friends, enjoyed great cooking and even better hospitality. We started hunting around 10 a.m. and were usually limited out by early afternoon. During that week, we killed birds in millet fields, brush choked river bottoms, and steep hillside breaks.
The first day we hunted, we kicked up over 200 birds from one section of milo. It took me awhile, but I got over the initial rush of birds erupting at my feet, trained my eye and eventually killed my share of birds. There were no trespass fees or guides, just friends and farmer permission.
While my father took me to Gregory with the best of intentions, it may have been the worst thing for me-it spoiled me. I came back to Washington and quickly learned that two bird days were good days, that permission didn't come with a shake of a hand the morning of the hunt and 200 birds in an entire county was more realistic than 200 birds in a 640-acre section.
While initially I was disappointed with the pheasant hunting back home, I did learn a lot about hunting pheasants in tough conditions. I found some good areas, learned how to get permission and have developed some techniques that are more applicable to "real world" pheasant hunting. More importantly I have learned that no matter where you hunt, if you follow some basic procedures, success can be had.
The first step to a successful pheasant hunt is obtaining good land. Some good public land is out there, but a few private honey holes never hurt. Many land owners are starting to charge "trespass fees" or have their ground leased out, but free permission can still be had-it just takes more work than it used to.
The days of knocking on a door before you want to hunt are pretty much over - even in South Dakota. Start asking around early in the year and stick with it. Don't be disappointed if you don't get upland bird permission right away.
This exact topic arose in the office the other day and everyone had the same experience and noticed that most farmers have a sliding scale and a different reaction depending upon the permission sought.
"Coyotes and Prairie Dogs? Go right ahead," is a common answer from most farmers.
"Antelope? - Kill them all." This answer comes about 99% of the time from ranchers. Evidently there is no love lost between ranchers and speed goats.
"Deer?" Depending on the farmer-the answer may vary, but usually it is, "Go ahead - they are eating my crops."
"Pheasants? Well - I don't know, (accompanied by much feet shuffling and staring at the ground) I kinda save those for myself and the family."
Don't be discouraged by this response-it is common, and who can blame them? If you owned a piece of prime pheasant real estate, would you jump at the chance to let every Tom, Dick and Harry who knocked on the door take a crack at them?
The trick is turning these coyote contacts into a pheasant free - for - all. Take them up on their offer to eliminate coyotes and prairie dogs. Demonstrate to them that you respect them and their property, you are safe and don't take pot shots at the cows.
Gifts always go over well. Deer sausage, smoked gift pack salmon or a gift certificate to a nice restaurant in town are always well accepted. After a time (it may take a couple of years) broach the pheasant subject again-while you may not get top billing you are more than likely to come out with a few days at your disposal.
The Different Seasons
The difference between pheasant hunting in your shirt sleeves and pheasant hunting in the snow with a 35 - mile - an - hour gale pounding down the back of your neck is like the difference between a new born kitten and a Bengal tiger - same family but an entirely different game.
In the early-season, you can expect the birds to be around crops, cover and water. They tend to be a lot less spooky and the shots will often be close. Lighter loads can be used (I prefer 1 1/8 ounce of 6's) with an improved cylinder choke.
When the northerns start to blow, look for the thickest cover you can find. Shelterbelts, brush rows, fence lines and snow covered long grass are all prime pheasant spots. Depending upon the conditions some birds may hold tight, but by this time in the year, the birds that survived the early season onslaught of hunters have learned to run as far away as possible before flying. For this reason, I switch to a modified choke and a heavy load of 4's or 5's.
The most common technique for hunting pheasants is with a pointing or flushing dog. If the birds are holding tight, a good dog is not only productive but also a pleasure to hunt behind. As the season progresses and the birds become wilder, only a well-trained dog can be used with much success, as the birds tend to run, with the dog in hot pursuit, only to flush wildly well out of shotgun range. However, if a dog responds well to commands and hunts close, it still can be a valuable asset throughout the year.
Without a dog, likely looking cover still can be pushed with good results. Concentrate on narrow brush row, patches of cover and fence lines. If there is too much cover it is all too easy to walk by a bird or have one circle around behind you. The key is to find enough cover, but not too much.
If large fields and brush patches are to be successfully hunted, without the aid of a good dog, large numbers of hunters are required. This is a common South Dakota technique; I can't say it is my favorite way of hunting, but it is productive. Groups of four to 12 guys line up across a crop field about 30 yards apart and begin walking, keeping abreast of each other. Blockers are placed on the end of the fields to keep birds from running to the end of the world.
If you do use this technique, keep safety at the forefront of your mind and only hunt with hunters you can completely trust. Pheasants can be unpredictable and do not always fly in the direction they are "supposed" to go. Blaze Orange, knowing where everyone is at and keeping your wits about you is a must to ensure everyone's safety.
Guns and Loads
Pheasants have been killed by about every style of shotgun made. From single shots to semi-autos, almost any shotgun will work. But what is the best?
Over the years, I have used everything from single shot .410's to good grade English doubles, but my personal preference is something that is lightweight, has a fast second shot and has the ability to change chokes. More often than not, I find myself carrying a Beretta 16-ga. side by side or a Benelli 12-ga. M1 field.
I like the balance of the 16-ga., the quick pointing ability, and the versatility of having two different chokes instantly accessible. However, the 12 gauge shines for those late season birds that are getting up just outside of the range of the 16 or when I want to have an additional shell at my disposal.
My opinions aside, guns really are a personal thing; choose whatever you are comfortable with, shoot well and you will be in the birds.
Load selection can be a bit more tricky, and you need to pattern individual loads in your gun to see which gives the optimum results. For early season birds, you don't need as heavy a load as for late season, wily roosters. A normal load of 6's will work fine for most applications, but for the late season I prefer to switch to a premium "magnum" load such as Federal Premiums or Winchester Supremes.
I have hunted all kinds of game birds in many different areas, but every time I step into a field with a bird vest and a shotgun I think of South Dakota. While nothing may ever compare to the quality of that first trip, the excitement of a bird flushing underfoot foot is still as strong as it always was.
I hope it never changes.