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