By Nick Simonson
While some autumn days feel more like an extension of summer, it won’t be long until colder temperatures start impacting the way animals behave, move, and identify their seasonal safe havens. Pheasants are no different, and when things get cold – whether it’s an unseasonal dusting of snow on opening weekend, or those chilly stretches deep into December near the end of the hunting calendar – knowing where they’re located for their overnight rests helps figure out where to go when the hunting day starts the next morning. Targeting some classic thermal cover, and the edges around it, will help heat the hunting action up when things get chilly this fall.
By the Tail
Cattails are classic thermal cover for pheasants. From vast swampy expanses to a few scattered pockets in lower stretches of an area filled with otherwise grassy CRP plantings, matted cattails provide cover, warmth and at times a roof overhead for precipitation that pheasants love to bunker down in when nights start to get cold. The colder it gets, the deeper and thicker the cattails, the better for a starting point in a morning hunt. Birds often remain tucked away in the pockets of reeds well after dawn, and into the morning trying to stay warm, and in the process generate intense pockets of scent for a dog making its way into the cover.
Start on the edges of a slough and follow any pheasant-track trails that look fairly fresh into the thicker stuff, if snow cover or mud allows for such visible sign. Let dogs do their thing, and be quiet as the crackling of the dried blades and stalks of the plants will provide plenty of warning that you are on the way. Move in as trails, thickness, and the positioning of the birds allow, or hug the edge if the morning warms a bit quicker and pheasants are looking for less-dense loafing cover or moving to feeding areas. Avoid stands of cattails that are too tall to provide a clean shot, or have some hunters position around those areas that tower over the rest of the slough.
Cane stands are also good havens for pheasants in colder times, as the towering tops and brushy heads prevent viewing from avian predators and the slimmer stalks allow for freer movement by roosters on the run. With cracked cane stalks on the ground and sometimes a denser growth of grass or tangles of other vegetation at their bases, stands of these golden autumn plants also provide some thermal protection.
Like with too-tall cattails, hunters should let the dogs do the work in the cane, and position themselves on the far end of the vegetation, awaiting a flush. Going into a pocket of cane isn’t the best idea, unless a couple extra hunters are along to take the overhead shots of flushing roosters. A pocket of cane in an otherwise grassy hunting area is a sure stop early in the morning, and running a good dog through it the right way can provide the best possible shot at limiting out.
Volunteer and man-made plantings of conifers, willows, plum and berry thickets and other low-to-the-ground shrubs and trees are great thermal hideouts for pheasants as well. The branches of blue spruce and the tangle of weeds around a willow thicket or pocket of buckbrush provide places for pheasants to hole up, and often provide a leeward side that keeps the bite of the wind off the birds. Let dogs work the downwind side of a shelterbelt of these plantings and do their things in the nooks and crannies of shrub clusters to get birds in the air.
Be ready for a flush on all sides, but especially the upwind side as the birds scoot away from the pursuit. Here multiple hunters can make a difference in preparing for a likely flush of birds en masse, but when hunting alone, take what you can get and position yourself on the upwind side of a cluster of shrubs if a dog gets hot on a trail or starts getting birdy when hitting these other areas of thermal cover.
As the season gets ready to roll with the approaching pheasant openers around the region, keep in mind those spaces where pheasants go when things get cold. From the early stretch to winter’s start, deep thermal cover that offers warmth, concealment, and easy escape routes for pheasants on the ground and in the air, is where roosters will be on those opening walks where your breath hangs heavy.
Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.
Featured Photo: Pheasants will utilize thermal cover provided by cattails, cane, shrubs and conifers in those unseasonably cool days in October and those ultra-cold days in November and December. Simonson Photo.