By Nick Simonson
Since the cold end of last year’s pheasant season, hunters have eagerly awaited opening day, and now, mere hours away from it, we’re so close we can almost hear the crackling of the dry autumn grasses underfoot and the cackling of a flushing rooster in front of a hard-charging dog. The start of a new season, no matter the challenges hunters might be facing this year in terms of bird abundance, brings with it the hope, the rush and the ensuing memories that come with each step in the field and each bird that rises. Converting on those early trips isn’t always a given, and it’s important to know where pheasants can be found and how to hunt them as the season gets underway, especially with numbers being down across the board in the upper Midwest.
In the typically warmer start to the season pheasants can be found in thinner cover. Where grass stands tall – especially in areas that were subject to emergency haying this summer – birds will be found, and because of the mid-summer cuttings, more likely in greater densities this year. In those areas of brome, tall bluestem, or those nice, multi-species wildflower and conservation plantings, pheasants can move quickly and freely through the relatively thin cover. Take it slow and let the dogs do their thing, as scent trails will likely wind, curl and intersect with others as roosters and hens scatter in front of a hunting party. Birds aren’t as jumpy now and unless a new pup gets a bit ahead of things, expect a good number of flushes at close range.
Grassy areas adjacent to thicker cover, such as cattail sloughs, or sandwiched between them and field edges is the Boardwalk on the pheasant hunting Monopoly board. Park Place will be those with feeder strips of corn or milo or lanes of low brush like buffaloberry, Russian olive, dogwood and the like planted to provide additional cover. Strategically work any of these prime edges and lanes to find success, and play the wind lengthwise through them if possible to help dogs pick up the scent lines that run parallel.
Shallow & Deep
In the early morning hours, look for birds in cover near roads, clearings or openings as they move away from these airy places where they shake off the overnight dew and pick up the grit they need for digestion. Catching them in transition back into cover will provide great shooting opportunities and a clue as to where birds might be on the next walk in terms of timing.
As the day wears on, birds will be deeper in cover; not necessarily thicker stuff in the relative warmth of early season, but further in, away from the edges they were in the early morning light. If there are pocket sloughs, depressions, small hills or stands of brush, bee-line in that direction, following topographic contours which might serve as guidelines which birds relate to as they make their mid-morning move. In the afternoon and toward evening, the process will reverse, and birds will transition back toward the edges for grit, or toward field edges for food. Time a late hunt to help fill out a limit with this fact in mind.
Another fun thing about early season pheasant hunting is that birds tend to flush closely. Panicked roosters evading a pursuing dog may cut back and get pinned between the pup and the hunter, creating a scary sandwich and setting their flight instincts alight. This can send birds flying straight at or over hunters, providing closing shots at short range. Even standard straight-away and crossing shooting opportunities come in closer proximity early on, providing a chance to experiment with various chokes for a shotgun.
Particularly with pointing dogs, it’s not uncommon to use a more open choke option, like improved cylinder, to put a wider pattern out there when birds get up nearby. With many popular pheasant loads, like Federal’s Prairie Storm, touting better shot constriction out of the gun for denser patterns down range, opening those circles of lead up may be the ticket to better success at the start of the season. For over-under hunters, back that barrel up with a modified choke on the second one.
Early season is typically the easiest hunting of the year, with each weekend thereafter getting more challenging as some roosters are harvested and the others get smarter, but that doesn’t mean it’s a flat out walk in the park. Keying in on early season habitat, daily pheasant movements and adjusting to how they get up at this time of year will bring heightened success with the start of October’s most heralded season…in our outdoors.