Most of us were taught to hunt by a father, uncle or maybe a best friend. Then we went afield and learned on our feet. And wasn’t that a fun learning curve! Only later did we learn to seek advice from masters, especially when hunting in a new region. We found that local advice speeds up the learning curve, especially when on a do-it-yourself adventure. We came to understand that years of struggling could be skipped with just a few kind words from someone who knows the local game and terrain. Wild flushes and runners taught us that pheasants know their habitat, that they’d rather run through their secret haven than flush at our feet. As many of us travel to the pheasant-rich Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, the open plains of eastern Montana and other public land pheasant destinations once or twice a year from Minneapolis or Chicago or from cities and towns farther east, we found we must quickly figure out these wily birds and their escape tactics. That’s what this article covers. To make this season’s visit to your favorite pheasant destination—whether local or out of state—more successful, here’s the inside advice from four pheasant masters.
Cody Warne, Push Toward the Center
For example, Warne begins by instructing his clients to sneak in silently to where he is sure birds are roosting or feeding. He even controls his dogs so he doesn’t alert birds far ahead. You won’t find Warne hollering nonsensically at his dogs. That is poor training anyway. A few whistles and a possible check from an e-collar are all he does, when hunting.He fully understands the alarm that goes out in pheasant country when handlers blow whistles and scream things at dogs that, if done in a home, would make a neighbor call the police sure in the fact someone was being beaten.
Instead, Warne relies on electronic training collars set on low to give his Labs a “tick” when he wants to redirect their efforts. His pack of yellow Labs stays close and looks to Warne for direction when they feel an electronic pulse. Why Labs? “They’re versatile. I can use them waterfowl hunting and the yellow ones don’t get as hot as black ones, plus yellow is a natural camouflage on the prairie.”
After Warne advises his clients about the importance of a silent approach, he maps out an attack plan. For him it’s all about moving birds inward to a central kill zone.
“I try to be methodical and to create a plan beforehand. From the beginning I know where I want to start and where I want to end. The entire process revolves around launching on the outside with a silent approach and slowly moving the birds inward to a central area, preferably thick cover where pheasants will hold for a final attack.”
To keep the cocks in an orderly retreat to a trap, Warne executes the hunt speedily, yet quietly. He instructs hunters to move to their positions by keeping low and moving fast. He adjusts their positions with hand signals to keep with the silent theme like a general on an 18th century battlefield. The extra effort brings an element of surprise to the majority of the pheasant population.
“I think hunters forget that pheasants are wild animals like deer,” notes Warne. “If they hear your approach or you yelling at dogs, they’ll figure out your location and slip away like deer. You’d never go into the whitetail woods making a lot of noise, so why would you do it when pheasant hunting?”
After two or more pushes Warne moves birds to cover such as a brush-choked windbreak or a dense food plot. Then he positions the bulk of the hunters to block escape routes for an explosive finale of flushing pheasants. Warne doesn’t mind some noise then. (Warne Ranches/Cody Warne; www.warneranches.com)
Jeff Moore, Pressure the Edges
“You don’t learn a property and the tendencies of the pheasants on it from one hunt,” stresses Moore. “It often takes two, three or more hunts to learn the escape patterns of the birds, the corners of the property they use for refuge and the best strategy for success. My friends and I typically never have enough bodies to effectively hunt many of the large fields we have access to, but with experience we hone our plans for successful hunts.”
Whether he’s hunting public lands for birds or renewing landowner relationships, Moore looks for certain features that early-season birds seek. The Dakotas often experience “Indian Summer” in October and the hot, sunny temperatures alter bird behavior like a childhood timeout alters a misbehaving toddler.
“Where I hunt in central South Dakota it’s often arid in the fall, and pheasants definitely need water to survive. That’s the first thing I look for when I’m scouting, and I follow that up with the hunt for shade,” says Moore.
Small reservoirs, muddy creeks, wetlands and even runoff from livestock water tanks provide pheasants with daily moisture. As for shade Moore inventories everything from pioneer-planted windbreaks to overgrown fields of kocha, also referred to as “fireweed.” When fall temperatures rise pheasants will be in close proximity to these elements.
Hunting in small groups requires good dog work and, like most Dakota hunters, Moore’s trusty Labrador leads the way. Moore is fond of Labradors for their resourcefulness and, as he says, “They are rough and tough, and not always taking a trip to the vet.”
He also embraces Labradors because they make great family pets and 90 percent of the time his dog is a family pet before a hunting dog. Even so, he keeps his dog tuned with as much field time as possible. And although Moore hunts wild pheasants during the traditional season, he keeps a membership at a hunting club to extend his dog’s training and conditioning. Between the two his dog gets nearly six months of field time annually, and that’s important when you subject your dog to early-season hunting extremes.
After Moore pinpoints bird densities based on water and cover he doesn’t race into the thick cover and stay there. He knows pheasants are runners and although they’ll hunker down in cover and flush at your feet, more often than not they’ll stampede to an edge. It’s the edges where Moore looks for the most action because pheasants will hold there until forced to fly.
“Pheasants are masters at finding escape routes,” declares Moore. “They’ll run first every time before they fly. They’re looking for a safe spot, oftentimes it’s an edge where they hold waiting for you to walk by. Edges also give them another option: a place to launch a flying getaway. You almost have to step on them. That’s why we always have someone working every edge. If you don’t pressure edges you may never see the majority of birds in a field.”
Chris Hipple, Break It Down
Chris Hipple’s passion for hunting ringnecks stemmed from childhood days of tottering behind his father in the field before he could legally hunt. When he and his friends could finally hunt on their own, no public property was left unexplored. Three decades later he’s already introduced his own kids to the rush of pheasant hunting.