Planning for Pheasant (Part II)

We all love when a plan comes together, but it can't until you make it. Too often pheasant hunters blunder through the fields without a plan.

How to Develop an Attack Plan
Knowing where and when you're going is only half the battle. You also need a plan of execution. In my experience, too many part-time ringneck chasers pursue them willy-nilly, paying little or no attention to terrain, cover and how pheasants relate to it. Plan your attack while bearing these general truths in mind:

1.) The later it is in the season, the thicker the cover pheasants seek.
2.) The greater the hunting pressure, the thicker the cover they seek. But, if that pressure concentrates on thick cover, birds will hide out in thinner, less-likely habitat.
3.) They'll be in the feed fields the first and last two hours of each day.
4.) They're in escape cover at midday.
5.) They slink or fly to big, grassy fields to roost at sunset, even if the grass is quite short.
6.) They use short-grass roosts more in mild weather than cold.
7.) An alarmed bird will escape by running in vegetation, often amazingly short vegetation such as mowed grass, following strips of this from one big field to another.
8.) Some alerted birds flush hundreds of yards from hunters, often unseen and unsuspected.
9.) A bird that detects danger from two or more directions at once is likely to stop and hide.
10.) They'd rather hide in an expansive patch of cover than a small patch because it provides more escape options, but undisturbed small patches can harbor amazing numbers.

Putting It All Together
With these rules in mind, here's how Greg and I might plan to hunt a 300-acre farm with a mix of plowed fields, short corn stubble, pasture, woodlot and several 2- to 15-acre potholes choked with cattails, bulrush and willows. Start time is 10 a.m., late December. The sun has been up an hour and a half.

"There's three flying low over the corn stubble," I announce as we near the property. "They're heading back to the day roost."
"Looks like the cattails."
"No, they flew right over them and lit in the trees. Should we try there first?"
"Makes more sense to push out the corn and then follow that fenceline to the CRP switchgrass. That'll put any stragglers into the middle with the rest of them."
"Sounds good. Nothing's likely to hold in the stubble, so to save time why don't you drive to the north end of the CRP. Check out that little weedy corner on the way, just in case anything's hunkered in there. Then wait at the end of the fenceline and I'll push it toward you. Then we can work the CRP toward the cattails."

As anticipated, I got no shots in the short corn stalks, but I did glimpse a half-dozen birds winging low out the far end, all but two heading to our biggest cattail pothole. At the grassy fenceline dividing the corn from a short-grass pasture, I found three-toed tracks in the snow with (be still my beating heart!) a tail drag between them. The maker was likely a long-tailed rooster, probably an old one that had learned that "he who flies last lives longest." From past experience I doubted the bird would hold in such thin cover, but I've been proven wrong before, so I marched with gun at port arms, thumb on the safety, ready to pounce.

I saw Greg marching toward the junction of this fence and a 5-acre CRP field we'd established just two years before. It was patchy, but there was enough vegetation in places to entice a bird or two to hold. Titus was prancing in anticipation, but heeling. This might prove enough of a worry to my running rooster that he'd hold on the fence-and he did, but just long enough for a "close but no cigar" flush at 50 yards. In hard times I might take that shot with an open field before me and a good retriever at heel, but I wasn't going to alert the entire field that hunters were bearing down on them. I watched the big cock pound toward our farthest and densest cattail slough, 15 acres of vegetative friction so hard to plow through that we'd save it for last if necessary.

"See anything?" Greg asked quietly.
"Pushed a few this way, two might have been roosters. One old cock was running the fenceline, heard you guys and squirted out the side. I saw him head for Swamp Hell. You?"
"Nothing in the corner. Let's push this toward the bulrushes."
"Okay, but then let's loop out through the pasture and go through the trees first to nudge whatever's in there into the open ground."

By "open ground" I meant waist- to head-high cattails and bulrushes that we could see and shoot over. Woods birds usually manage to put branches and cedar boughs between themselves and any guns.

Finally turned loose, Titus snorted and bounded through switchgrass, nosing up four hens that held beautifully under dense leaves at the base of the plants. It seems the tight sitters are hens 90 percent of the time. We assumed any roosters had sneaked into the denser cattail slough from the north. Many, if not most, would march right on through to the south side before settling down, as far from the disturbance as possible, yet still inside good hiding cover. If we'd continued pushing down from the north, they'd have launched escape flights out of range and into distant cover, so we made that big pasture loop as quietly as we could, then pushed through the trees from the south, hearing several birds launch.

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