By Nick Simonson
The tail on the rooster pheasant flopped in the wind like a CB antenna on a country boy’s pickup, and I knew as my lab brought the bird to hand it was old. Inspecting the pointed ebony spurs, it was clear the pheasant was the first non-yearling to find its way into my game pouch this fall. Its late-season feathers glistened with a wonderful sheen and its long tail was hemmed in slight lavender hues around the normal brown and black barring. Back at the truck, I placed my fully-extended hands along the tail feathers – a quick field measurement of nine inches each, not that I’m running for President or anything – and as I shifted my first hand to the back third of the feathers, I realized the tail was longer than any I had seen in quite a while. This sparked the back-and-forth in my mind as I drove home: at what tail length – or other characteristics or combination thereof – is a pheasant considered a trophy worthy of the wall and the expense of putting it up there?
The internet was awash in suggested lengths and stories, and flamings about impossible 30-inch tails with requests for photos and sworn affidavits. I even discovered comments I had made on the subject archived in online forums from more than a decade ago, back when my eyes turned 16-inch smallies into 19-inchers and eater crappies into tales of endless true slabs and my accuracy in those youthful days had to be doubted.
Some measurements used in the long-and-winding explanations were based on the number of bars on a tailfeather, while others deemed the entire bird length from beak to tail should be the determining factor and some posters simply instructed the hunter to mount it if he wanted to mount it and felt good about doing so. Finding no definitive answer, I turned to a stable of regional experts with far more authority than me to help establish clarity on the subject and provide guidance for those who might have the same question. From the veteran upland hunter and PF Regional Representative to the biologist and taxidermist, a sliding scale of sorts came to be in my attempt to answer the question with the help of those in the know.
At what tailfeather length should a hunter consider mounting a rooster pheasant?
Dick Monson, Avid Uplander & Conservationist, Valley City, ND: “They look pretty nice at 22 inches, when you eyeball a mount, you can’t tell the difference between a 22- and a 24-incher.”
RJ Gross, ND Game & Fish Dept. Upland Game Biologist, Bismarck, ND: “I don’t like to put a length on it, but I would say that 22 inches is a good bird.”
Lance Johnson, Owner of Willow Creek Taxidermy, Casselton, ND: “I’d say 25 or 26 [inches] is a realistic number and is a pretty common size that I get.”
What other factors apply when considering mounting a rooster?
Renee Tomala, ND Pheasants Forever Regional Representative, Bismarck, ND: “The story that goes with the bird is important. I have one bird on the wall, but I have a lot of the back feathers and tails [displayed] that have good stories to go along with them; one of the best of them is a terrible tail, it’s shot up and chewed on, but it was my dog’s first retrieve,” she added that big spurs are a nice bonus and vivid coloration was a factor on her mounted bird.
Gross: “Unique color is a factor; I hear about some golden-phased roosters being taken, along with those that might have more blue, or a unique color to their head.”
Johnson: “I’d be looking for a pretty bird that’s not shot up with a good tailfeather and good spurs,” cautioning that “a lot of hunters are setting these numbers on whether they mount an animal or not, and it really should be about the memories.”
What’s the longest tailfeather you’ve personally harvested, and the longest you’ve seen?
Tomala: “I’ve never measured the tail of this bird on the wall that I’m looking at, but now that we’re talking about it, I’m curious,” she said with a laugh, “I think the biggest one I’ve seen is 23 or 23-and-a-half inches.”
Monson: “In all my years of hunting I’ve only gotten one that was a hair over 24 inches. The biggest one I’ve seen though was a 26-incher shot down in Mott by Gary Redman [also of Valley City] in 1989. He plucked it out of the bird and dropped it down the barrel of his gun and it stuck out an eighth of an inch, and we knew his barrel length was 26 inches.”
Gross: “22 inches is my biggest, but my dad shot a 26-incher and that’s on the wall – that one was ridiculous! I was still in college at the time and was sleeping in that morning; he walked into my room and showed it to me and asked if it was a big pheasant…it didn’t take long and he was off to Smith Taxidermy.”
Johnson: “I’ve mounted a 29-and-a-half-incher; that came from southwestern North Dakota in 2015 as I remember. I’ve never shot one over 27 inches.”
On the legendary “30-inch” tailfeather rumors, does such a rooster exist?
Gross: “That’s getting into ‘Bigfoot’ territory, but in the wild, I’ll never say never about anything, it could happen with a bird in prime condition with optimal food and having never been chased by a predator.”
Tomala: “If it does exist, I’d like to see it.”
Johnson: “I’m sure it’s somewhere out there” he stated, referencing the possibility is real having seen and mounted the one with the 29-and-a-half-inch tailfeather himself, and further advising that the hunter who shoots it should not let the dogs handle it, cool it down quickly and keep the feathers tight to the body to preserve it.
As I set the tape to the rooster upon my return home, the dark tips of the long tailfeathers eked across the 24-inch mark set in red on the yellow measuring stick. Under the glowing white LED lights of the garage the sheen of the late-season bird sparkled like the eyes of my lab, who twitched with the anticipation of getting one final sniff of his quarry, or perhaps a wing to chew on as he placed his front paws on the bumper of the truck. I nudged him back and advised we wouldn’t be cutting into this one after our long day of late-season walking and the sudden encounter at the end of the trek. This particular rooster was going to require a professional.
Featured Photo: The author’s lab, Ole, with a long-tailed rooster taken near St. Anthony, ND.