Dakota Uplander: Fingers Crossed

By Nick Simonson

When pheasant hunting, few pieces of habitat excite me more than an area of grass or cattails which ends in a narrow taper in the middle of a harvested field.  These fingers of habitat point to success nearly every time I walk them.  They’re simple to identify and assess, generally easy to walk, and at the end, I have repeatedly found explosive flushes, ringing shots and tons of excitement.

Long before I had a dog, I made it a point to walk every finger slough I could locate as they are generally small, manageable pieces of habitat adjacent to easy feeding.  It was as simple as driving around a section, picking out the parts of the property that were small enough for me and a buddy and maybe had some proximity to bigger habitat nearby.  Now, in the age of satellite mapping at my fingertips, a quick overhead scouting mission lets me know of such places, and helps me find the nearby landowners to get permission to access the land.

Pointing to success.  A strip of habitat leading into a cutfield is a must-walk for pheasants. (Simonson Photo)

When I can’t find roadside connections, I pick out an arm on a bigger piece of habitat, like a large slough or a tapering corner of some CRP.  Cutting into the middle of that arm, I make a finger of habitat out of the walk, and press it to its completion.  Sure, some birds are obviously back behind the point where I started in the main habitat, but many times there are roosters that ran toward the point, or were there to begin with.  Plus the point is usually sandwiched between field edges – making it an ideal loafing area for pheasants, as it is surrounded by a food source.

I can recall an instance during the height of CRP where one farmer left three such pieces of habitat intact on the same cut bean field and a friend and I methodically worked each one slowly and carefully.  Occasionally we’d get flushes midway through the walk as we’d cut back and forth through the wider grass and cattails to cover it all effectively, but it was at the end of all three of them when most birds would attempt to make their departures.

Now, with an experienced hunting dog by my side, running a finger slough properly is much easier and usually more successful.  The added pressure of a canine in pursuit sends most pheasants forward, whereas walking the habitat alone allows some crafty roosters to double-back and return to the wider portions of the grass or cattails with a quick about-face and a burst of speed. Using a dog lets hunters focus on the action and detect birdiness, and does not require a lot of moving about on their part.  As with most hunts, working the habitat into the wind is the best way to play it. But remember that the finger should be worked from its widest point to the narrowest point, regardless of wind direction, to press those birds into the last available bit of cover.

As the real estate in a finger slough dries up, and room to run becomes scarce, hunters can expect flushes to become more frequent.  A key tip to finishing up any walk through such an area is what I call “the pause.”  The pause comes with about 15 yards of uncovered territory at the tip of the finger.  Here is where pheasants get nervous, and when the pursuit dies down some and things get quiet, it triggers the flight instinct in many birds.  I often do a second pause with just a yard or two left before walking out of the end of the grass, as some birds will hold until they feel forced out of the last possible inch of cover.  Expect pointing dogs to stiffen up in this final bit of habitat too; it really is one of the most exciting edges in the entire outdoors.

Locate a few finger sloughs to point you in the direction of good hunting.  Work the wide ends slowly in a zig-zag if you’re alone, or let your four-legged friend run through it all and push the birds forward.  As you wind up your walk, give those pauses near the end to trigger a flush.  My guess is these fingers of habitat will get a big thumbs up from you this season.

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