By Nick Simonson
The unpredictable nature of October in the upper Midwest means one year kids are sprinting down the street in their Halloween costumes, and the next those outfits wear costumes of their own, consisting of snow pants, boots and thick down jackets. With all its unpredictability, the tenth month on the calendar keeps sportsmen on their toes – especially pheasant hunters who have just hit the fields in search of their favorite quarry. There have been opening days in the last decade or so that have been buried under three-foot snow drifts, and those that have been enjoyed in t-shirts and a solid sweat by the end of the morning walk. This season’s early stretch (which if you blinked, you may have missed it in the last five days) has quickly taken on a “late-in-the-fall” feel, as snow and strong winds have suggested the early onset of winter.
These conditions, however, don’t mean that pheasant hunting has to end; it just means the rules have changed for the time being (one never knows how the last two weeks of October will shape up) and hunters need only adjust their tactics to find pheasants in the field. What follows are some tips to increase success with the added challenges the region has experienced.
1. Hunt the Heavy Habitat. In areas where recent wet and heavy snowfalls have accumulated, abandon the thoughts of easy strolls through the grasses of CRP that remain on the landscape. Instead, go where the birds have bailed to – the thick stuff. Following heavy snows, even early in the season, pheasants will seek cover in cattail sloughs, dense brushy areas of willows and shrubs, and lines of pines planted in shelterbelts, or volunteer cedar stands. Focus on these areas of thermal cover and work them as you would in late season.
2. See the Signs. Snow gives hunters one big advantage over pheasants, the ability to see those four-toed tracks along the edges of sloughs, running from feeding areas on the edges of fields to cover and other areas of high traffic. This at least provides hunters with the suggestion that birds are using the deeper habitat and provide ideas as to pheasants’ daily movements in the altered conditions. Remember that crisper tracks signify recent movement into or out of cover and those wider melted or iced-in tracks suggest travel from more than a day or two ago, depending on conditions. Let the dogs’ noses be the judge and when they get on a fresh set, be ready for an exciting flush.
3. A Late Season Approach. Even if the calendar says October, cold weather and snow may cause birds to bunch up in heavy cover and to flush at the faintest noise that may signal a threat. With that in mind, keep conversations to a minimum and work with dogs using hand signals, or at most a slight whistle when possible in place of verbal commands. Limiting the sound of human voices will help hold birds in place, as even in this short time they’ve learned what to listen for. Watch for melted and refrozen snow which crackles and crunches underfoot and find less noisy paths in and around cover to limit the sound of pursuit.
4. Where Others Fear to Tread. Look for distant pocket sloughs, far-off ravines, or stands of brush and low trees using an aerial map or binoculars and go long for better success following early-season snows. While this late-season trick of going deeper into a hunting area than anyone else is typically reserved for the harsh hikes in December, it will pay off now as snow piles up in some areas of the state. Typically, even in good years where winter holds back, smaller pockets of habitat that are overlooked by others hold pheasants. Find these spots and get to them first with a little extra effort in current conditions.
5. Choke Up. With farther flushing birds the norm in colder, snowy conditions, consider tightening a shotgun’s choke to adjust for the distance. Move up from that improved cylinder used in last week’s opener to a modified choke for the time being, these tighter patterns will carry longer and help adjust to far-flushing pheasants.
6. Permanent Record. The shift in pheasant patterns and where they are located now might not change much between the back half of October and the last days of the season, even if a warm spell melts most of the snow. While they’ll take advantage of grasses and more open spaces again if things do warm up, odds are heavy recent snows will have impacted the quality of the areas of light habitat, and if things stay cold, the thermal cover is where birds will need to be in order to survive.
While keeping these tips in mind and adjusting hunting tactics on the fly should help put more pheasants in the bag during this chilly, snowy start to the season, one thing is for certain, no one should be expecting any t-shirt-style hunting walks from this point forward!
Featured Photo: Don’t Flake Out. Despite recent snows, there are pheasants to be found and adjusting tactics to a late-season program a bit earlier than normal will help increase success. Simonson Photo.