Hunting > Upland & Waterfowl

Sneaky Pheasant Tactics

Find where any decent escape cover abuts cropfields and you’re well on your way to finding ringnecks.

8/26/2011

Few birds are as easy to “program” as pheasants. While they can live seemingly anywhere from cornfields and cattails to sagebrush and swamplands, they gravitate toward agricultural edges. Find where any decent escape cover abuts cropfields and you’re well on your way to finding ringnecks.

Then all you have to do is hunt it correctly. Do it wrong and these feathered sprinters will run circles around you and your dogs.

A Pheasant’s Daily Routine
Timing is a big part of the equation. At dawn pheasants leave their nocturnal roosts—usually relatively short grass fields—and fly or walk toward preferred grain fields. Corn, milo, wheat, oats and similar grains are favored, but they’ll make do with seedy annual weeds, rose hips and similar “natural” fruits. So, in farm country where there are more than enough grain fields, you’re usually searching for those bordered by rarer grass, brush, cattails, bulrushes and CRP fields. Cover is the key.

The birds usually feed until mid-morning, then stroll or fly into cover near the field to rest up until their late afternoon feeding period. If undisturbed, they may stay nearby in the corn stubble or weedy fencelines and ditches. Where heavily hunted, they are apt to run or fly as far as a mile to hide in deeper cover or any place they’re left alone.

So your game plan is simple: At dawn walk the short grass fields; after sunup, switch to crop fields; by midmorning, move to denser hiding cover. As hunting pressure increases by mid- to late season, move to really deep or isolated cover.

Help Your Dog Do Its Job
Here’s where the dog work begins. Nearly any old mutt is happy to run, sniff and quarter through any cover you direct him to, but it’s your job to keep him from wasting time in the least likely places. Work the most appropriate covers at the most appropriate times. There’s little sense in wading through cattails an hour after sunup or an hour before dark when roosters have taken their dates out to dinner. Remember to work into or across the wind to maximize the dog’s chances, since breezes carry scent.

Pheasants are notorious runners, so it’s wise to push them toward habitat in which they are least likely to run—the long edge of a naked field, for instance, or the edge of a lake or river. Similarly, it’s good practice to nudge them toward narrow funnels or dense cover where they are more likely to hold until you’re close enough to shoot. Early season birds will probably hold in any cover until you get close, but a day or two of pressure is sufficient to encourage them to run, run and run some more. They won’t fly until you’d need a .270 to bring them down. So, you may want to teach your dog to hunt closely, no matter what, until conditions are right for birds to hold.

For example, if you and Billy walk a big CRP field 60 yards apart, encourage your pointing or flushing dog to quarter between you and perhaps 20 yards to either side as you drive the field toward smaller cover. Then converge on the smaller cover, pinching the birds into it, where they are more likely to hold until you’re in range for a shot. You’ll be amazed to see wild roosters flush 100 yards or more ahead in big fields, but then nearly knock your hat off as they flush under your boots in a tiny patch of weeds at the end of a grassy waterway. It’s all about using the cover to your advantage.

If the birds routinely flush wild or run excessively, try an old trusty tactic: Position at least one hunter at the end of a covert as a blocker and hunt toward him. Be extra careful with your shots. Dogs will often pin birds for you or flush them over the more distant shooter.

It also helps to keep noise to a minimum. Roosters will hear you walking, but yelling and whistling at dogs only spooks them further. Direct your dog with hand signals if possible, and encourage careful searching if your dog acts birdy but then gives up. Ringnecks have a way of burrowing into the skimpiest cover and hiding their scent.

Last December my pudelpointer trailed fresh tracks in the snow to the far side of a slough, then lost the trail before backtracking and slamming onto point not more than 10 feet from where I stood. The bird continued holding until I stuck my boot into its grassy snow hole. That’s nothing new in “pheasantland.”

A Sneaky Trick
One popular dog trick in great pheasant country is to surround a piece of cover with a few hunters and slowly walk toward the middle, keeping the dogs at heel as you nudge birds to the center. This might entail driving birds from several big fields so that they run or fly toward a central pocket of brush, cattails or other dense cover. Then the hunters surround the cover and send in the dogs. Flushing breeds are perfect, plunging into the densest hellholes to push out birds. Pointing dogs in these situations often come nose-to-beak with birds that refuse to fly until you wade in and give them the boot. Shots can be close. Sometimes a single shot will spook out the entire cover, but other times birds will hold until your dog has pinpointed each and every one individually at tennis-racket range. 

More than any other species, pheasants demand tactical hunting from both humans and their canine partners. Hunt hard, but hunt smart, too.

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