By Nick Simonson
In this season where populations of pheasants are noticeably lower, finding birds has sometimes been a challenge. When stumbled upon, the pockets of survivors have been jumpy, seemingly in the know that they are what remains as the target of the pursuit from the most devout upland hunters and their dogs. Now, in the final month of pheasant season, those grizzled roosters, including the young ones who had the instincts and luck to survive the conditions leading up to it, are even more challenging.
Late season strategies need to be upped to the highest level, and adherence to silent pursuit in this week’s recent snow is of the utmost importance. Finding where birds are this time of year will provide a better chance at getting them in the air, and putting the best shot possible on them will help reward a dog for a job well done.
The importance of being quiet in the field this time of year while pursuing pheasants cannot be overstressed. When identifying parcels of habitat to hunt, try also to pick out the best and quietest way to approach them. Typically, this is done by walking around them and into the wind. Where areas of soft snow or even dirt field persist in the approach, plan the path toward the prime habitat to these areas which don’t offer up a resounding “crunch” with each footstep. Avoid melted-and-thawed drifts, or areas of taller crop stalks which will generate more noise when they are walked through.
In cover, don’t talk. Communicate with hunting dogs through a series of whistles or hand commands, directing them where to go. Even when a bird flushes, and especially when hunting with just one or two other people, avoid the audible call. By this point in the season, roosters are fully colored and more easily identifiable by a party; a shout from the group for one or two can send dozens of pheasants into a panicked flush far ahead and out of range.
Identify Holding Habitat
Depending on region, recent storms may have dumped half an inch of snow, or nearly half a foot. The amount of snow on the landscape changes where pheasants locate this time of year. In deeper, drifted areas, look for pheasants to hole up in thick cattail sloughs. Even with the persistent dry conditions, look for these areas to still hold water, and with recent thaws, they may still be wet and sport unstable ice, giving roosters the advantage this year. As more solid ice sets up, explore these pockets and focus on the thickest cover during morning, the coldest part of the hunting day.
Additionally, in areas where a trace of snow is on the ground, pheasants may still be able to utilize grassy stretches with some sort of adjacent heavier cover. Look for them early in shelterbelts, treeclaims and cover locks with cedars, pines or spruces that provide buffers along these open spaces, and explore the grasses as the day warms up, especially if there isn’t much snow on the ground.
Pheasants still eat and seek grit as they did earlier in the season, so locating habitat near food sources such as a late-harvested corn field and gravel roads is also key for success this time of year. Work these areas as the day wears on and birds do their browsing before heading off to hole up for the evening. Pheasant tracks in the snow will be your best indicator of travel routes and abundance of birds in a certain area. Get a dog on a stretch of sign to find fresh footprints and lead the hunt in the right direction.
Take Your Best Shot
It is a given that late season birds typically flush farther away. Now is the time to adjust shotgun chokes accordingly. Switch up from a modified to improved modified or full choke, or even go from that favorite 20-gauge to a reliable 12-gauge for late season hunting. Putting more pellets out there in a farther-reaching pattern will help connect with more birds. Remember that many specialty shells, such as Federal’s Prairie Storm or Winchester’s Rooster XR, are designed to dispense shot at a much farther range than conventional ammunition. Patterning a chosen shell after changing chokes helps detail pellet disbursement at varying ranges, and provides an idea at just how far away a legitimate shot can be had – sometimes 50 yards or more depending on choke – in this era of advanced ammo.
Many will argue that late season is the best time of year to hunt, and memorable adventures can still be had with the added challenges of cold, snow and wilier birds. Don’t miss out on the last month of the season as plenty of roosters still remain, despite lower numbers this season. With these tips and those figured out in the field, a successful stretch of hunting lays ahead through the holiday season.
(Featured Photo: The author’s lab, Ole with a rooster pheasant picked up from deep in the cattails of a public hunting area near Flasher, N.D. Simosnon Photo)