By Nick Simonson
Ever since this season’s first blizzard, which fell on the weekend of pheasant opener, late season tactics have been front of mind for many hunters when it comes to upland adventures. Something about snow and the chill of the coming winter sets off pheasants and instantly seems to make them smarter and tougher. Here in the real late season, the start of which is unofficially marked by the Thanksgiving holiday, it is sometimes difficult to figure out how birds have been impacted by the conditions and what field stories are fact, fiction or some blend of hunter lore and hunter lie. We tackle a few of the topics that many uplanders encounter in the field and at post-hunt discussions this time of year, and put them up against this season’s conditions to determine truth and consequences.
Birds are Smarter
As a general rule, the intelligence of upland birds doesn’t change as the season goes along. They do, however, get more conditioned to the presence of hunters, dogs and the loud noises that often come at the end of the pursuit and often react differently than they did at the beginning of the season, giving the illusion of increased intelligence. Roosters will typically flush at greater distances and cover more area on the ground before taking flight in the late seasons, and overall just seem cagier than they were a few weeks ago, and these are all likely results of the pressure they have felt in the first six weeks of the season. Additionally, it will often seem like cocks will flush after a group of hens have taken to the air, providing them cover and taking away a clean shot. While this tactic seems like a learned evasion maneuver, it really is a function of changing population dynamics as more and more male birds are removed from the flock and hens remain. As a result, this smokescreen flush apparently utilized by rooster pheasants is more the result of a shift in numbers and less about the birds’ intelligence, though it certainly adds to their legendary wiliness.
This year, with weather impacting or outright cancelling many early season hunts, and pheasants having plenty of standing crops to hide in due to wet conditions, it’s likely pheasants will retain some early-season behaviors as the pressure of being moved by a good hunting dog just hasn’t been as great. Additionally, having both the buffet table and the bunker of rows and rows of beans, corn and sunflowers to run down has given them the advantage. As these fields slowly come down, roosters will be forced to use late season cover like sloughs and willow stands, providing better opportunities at this year’s less-pressured birds.
Birds are Tougher
How many times has a hunter just hammered a flushing rooster in the late season with a shot that sent a puff of feathers flying into the air, only to watch the bird cruise off over the horizon, apparently no worse for the wear? This scenario has probably played out dozens of times for die-hard uplanders, especially in the late season as roosters appear to have donned their iron underwear for the chilliest months of the year and helped add to the lore that somehow birds are just tougher in winter. There are three primary factors to consider in this phenomenon of tough-as-nails de-feathered roosters making an otherwise safe escape.
First, by this time in the year, most roosters – including those young birds recruited from this summer’s hatch – have developed all their adult plumage. These thicker and longer feathers now provide complete coverage of their bodies and will help keep them warm throughout the winter, especially the plentiful underplumes and wispy marabou feathers which provide insulation. These same feathers are often the ones found under the site of impact where the shot made contact, but the bird was able to fly off. The second factor in this scenario is that many flushes come at a greater distance in the late season for the reasons discussed above, so where patterns may have been tighter in October when a bird flushed at 25 yards, those same shot clouds will be less dense at 40 yards, and by a function of physics, may not make contact with the vital wing and head areas which almost certainly will put birds down. Finally, many hunters increase the shot size they utilize in the late season, going from 6 to 5, or 5 to 4. This in turn results in less pellets being put out with each shot, meaning statistically less chances of making contact with those same vital areas. Put it all together, and what felt like a sure shot can leave late-season hunters scratching their heads as they pick up the few fallen feathers out from the snow and cattails. The end result is the legend of tougher late-season birds.
This year, those far-flushing birds are still likely, but there will likely be many close encounters too, especially in areas where there isn’t a lot of snow. Depending on hunting style, it is possible to stick with the shot size and choke combination that was working in October, especially behind a pointing dog which pins birds down well, helps set up a close flush and a better chance of a direct hit from a tighter pattern. There are also shell options designed for this time of year and maximum impact at common late-season ranges of 40 or 50 yards or more. Consider these factors and hunting options before chalking up a de-feathered rooster to his increased toughness.
Hunters like to give their quarries human qualities such as intelligence and toughness. It’s part of the tradition and part of what helps build the narrative of man-versus-nature embodied in the hunt. While those legends build, it’s also important to consider the real-world factors at play which probably won’t diminish the lore of these late season birds but will most likely make for much better hunting and increased success.
Featured Photo: Tis the Season. A rooster pheasant sneaks along a farm planting decorated with Christmas lights. Late season birds seem smarter and tougher, but it may be a function of how hard they’ve been hunted, and how hunters pursue them. Simonson Photo.