On paper the ring-necked pheasant shouldn't be all that tough to kill. He's a predictable fellow, feeding around the same time each morning and afternoon and rarely straying more than 800 yards from his roost. So, he's far from the most elusive bird in the uplands, and when flushed he isn't the swiftest creature either. (Though if given time to accelerate, pheasants can top out around 60 mph, just 5 mph shy of the powerful mallard.)
And yet the pheasant is in reality a terrific challenge. He can confound experienced dogs of the noblest pedigree, and more than once I've seen him make a mockery of dogs with "NFC" in front of their names. Put a few blockers at the end of a field and you may bag a few birds, but the smart old roosters still make their escapes, either flushing 100 yards away or high-tailing it underfoot never to be seen.
Even when roosters flush in range the game is far from over. I bore witness to an accomplished sporting-clays shot missing rooster after rooster to the point of red-faced exasperation. He expended every shell in his vest and then several of mine, but never scratched a single burnt-orange feather. Compared to pass-shooting waterfowl or low-gun skeet, shooting a ringneck ought to be like bringing down a floating beach ball—yet I miss him often enough to make it look routine. Do his colors confuse our vision? Perhaps it's his striking tail or guttural cackle that affects our senses. All I know is not a bird exists that can more quickly make a shotgun feel foreign in my hands.
Fortunately I occasionally get on target, because few upland birds rival the pheasant on the table. Terrific roasted whole or chopped, the breasts are impeccable sautéed in a thick cream sauce, pan fried with butter and olive oil or, best of all, baked in cheese and marinara sauce for my wife's pheasant parmesan. And the legs! Cooked at low heat with leftover broth or chicken stock, they make a soup that's only to be discussed in hushed tones.
Such flavor is enough to tempt a man into easing his truck toward the road's edge when pheasants are spotted filling their gizzards—but of course that wouldn't be right. The pheasant is a bird to be taken on the wing. He has earned our respect, so much so that the nickname "ditch chicken" seems a tad derogatory. It suggests a dimwitted fowl easily brought to bag. We may never know why, but that just isn't true.
Do This at the Range
Start range sessions with an understudy rifle
that mimics your deer rifle. You likely haven't fired a round in earnest in months, and no doubt your skills are rusty after the winter/spring layoff. So don't beat yourself up, waste expensive ammo or grow frustrated. Use a rimfire to concentrate on breathing, relaxing, squeezing the trigger and following-through on meaningful shots. Then move to your centerfire rifle of choice.
Bore-sight a new scope at close range.
Weighing 55-70 pounds, shorthairs push size limits, but they can make charming house pets if not overly hyperactive. They may not require as much exercise as setters or pointers, but probably need more than any dog on this list.
Move off the bench.
In preparation for hunting, a bench rest is good for one thing only—assuring your rifle is zeroed. There are no shooting benches in the woods, so why use one for practice? Instead, fire from the prone, sitting, kneeling and offhand positions most likely used while hunting.
Become proficient with artificial shooting rests.
The best field-shooting position can always be enhanced with a backpack, a pair of shooting sticks or a proper sling. Practice shooting with all three, make them part of your "kit" and never leave home without them.
Identify problems with rifles and ammo now.
Extractors break. Scope erectors grow weak and stop taking adjustments. Ammo misfires. Now, not November, is the time to wring out problems with equipment.
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Like the fossilized skeletons of its ancestors displayed in the Smithsonian, a 12-foot alligator can be scary even when it's dead—something that Shooting Illustrated's Adam Heggenstaller learned in person during a gator hunt in Florida. Read More »
Could 2011 be the year of the work truck? If so, the Ram Tradesman is ready to clock in. Equipped with a juiced-up HEMI® engine.... Read More »
The year that Sumner, Mo., erected a statue of "Maxie" to commemorate being the "Wild Goose Capital of the World."
Maxie sports a 65-foot wingspan while resting on a cinderblock building in a community park.
The number of cackling subspecies.
The cackling goose, a smaller-bodied goose prominent in Canada and Alaska, is a tundra-breeder with considerably more black plumage than the Canada. At one time, the cackling goose was considered the smallest subspecies of the Canada, but is now recognized as a separate species.