By Nick Simonson
While much of pheasant country remains free and clear of snow cover at the moment, it’s likely that at some point in the back stretch of the season we’ll be looking at a white Christmas and a frosty finish to the upland hunting calendar. Even when there isn’t snow on the ground, these chilly and often windy days of the final month force pheasants into the deepest cover, and finding them can produce some amazing shooting gallery style moments where dozens of birds get up at once. Knowing where to look for pheasants in this final stretch, especially after it snows, is key to putting a bow on a great hunting season.
When the nights get cold, pheasants will seek shelter in places that provide good thermal cover, and perhaps the best is the gnarled and matted expanse of a cattail slough. In this odd time, with little snow on the ground, those partially frozen swamps with good grass around the edges make ideal places for pheasants to hang out and bunker down in the chilly evenings and often into morning until the sun begins to warm the landscape and trigger a movement toward food sources such as cut soybean and corn fields. Be prepared to stomp into these thick areas, particularly early in the hunting day or in more inhospitable and windy conditions to send birds skyward. Better yet, let the dogs do the hard work and rumble through the thick cover, especially if the area isn’t quite firm enough yet for human foot travel. Be ready on the windward end of a cattail walk, as birds are frequently holding just on the edge, or have been pushed there through the efforts of both dog and hunter.
In the Thick of It
Willow thickets are commonly associated with the edge of large, swampy areas and provide a good combination of thin, branchy frames that hold up reeds, grasses and other low vegetation, forming a near perfect overnight home for pheasants. It’s common to wander up to a stand of these brushy areas and watch their yellow branches explode with a series of beating wings in all directions. Pheasants will use willow thickets as nighttime cover and as daytime loafing areas in winter because they’re often a transition point between grass and swamp and because they provide just the right amount of visibility and escape screen for the birds to feel safe. Check the ground for trails leading into the willows, as a light snow will give away important clues as to usage, as will the hidey-holes under their bases where feathers, scat and other sign accumulate from where the birds bunker in.
Shelterbelts still provide one of the best late season opportunities for pheasants, however not all tree lines are created equal. A well-maintained single row of mature elms or other tall species probably isn’t going to hold as many birds as that beaten-down stretch of trees that have branches, deadfalls, volunteer saplings and small bushes growing in and around it. Those belts with more of this naturally occurring junk are a treasure for walking upland hunters, as pheasants will tuck themselves into the created hiding spots and take off running down the line. Find a wider belt system consisting of pine and spruce trees with low base branches, or those with caragana and buffalo berry bushes in them for even better hunting. The birds feel safer in the denser and lower cover, and they’re more likely to be there during this late season stretch. Send the dog down the middle and put a hunter on each side to cover all the exits and watch for the multi-bird flush at the end of the line. Oftentimes, if there’s one shelterbelt going out on a farm property, it’s likely there’s another one that provides a return trip to the truck. Walk the one that looks best into the wind.
While there may not be snow on the ground just yet, it’s coming; and when things get chilly, it matters little to the birds, as they return to their favorite cold weather places. Look to find pheasants tucked up in and against these classic late-season haunts for the one of the best holiday gifts of all: heavy game pouches for you and your hunting buddies…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Whether there’s snow on the ground or not, pheasants will seek shelter from the cold and wind in key cover. Know where to go at the end of the season to up your odds in the field. Simonson Photo.