Pheasant hunting can be a challenge, but when you get right down to it, the ringneck is a bird with a little tiny bird brain, and with or without the help of a bird dog, you can find a way to have the colorful bird for dinner (and I do mean as a menu item). Here are just some of the tactics I’ve discovered along the way that put you in a position to better use a few pocketfuls of high-brass No. 5s.
1. Pre-season scout, just like you would for deer. Drive around in September, October, and early November, taking note of what crops are being harvested. Do this at dusk and sunrise, and you’ll quickly figure out which ones are becoming bird magnets. When you do locate what looks to be a pheasant stronghold, you also get the advantage of seeing where they’re flying into and out of, as they come to feed and then leave again to roost. Best way to do this? Get up on a road that offers a vantage over several fields, if possible, and actually glass with a binocular. This can give a better overall picture of bird movement and patterns in a particular area.
2. Resist opening day—if you can. As successful a day as it can be, given the birds’ uneducated status at this stage of the season, it’s also one where elbow room between you and other hunters and dogs is at a premium. If you can deny the urge, skip the actual hunting and use the day to scout. Pause at the fields loaded up with lots of blaze orange, watch how much get up and not shot, and then hit those areas the next day when the glamour of Day No. 2 isn’t as grand.
3. Hunt mid-day and late afternoons on the weekends. Pheasant season is also football season, and in rural America, the pigskin rules Saturday and Sunday afternoons—and that means the morning’s hunters will be long gone and the birds will have ventured back into fields after being flushed out in the A.M.
4. Hunt Wednesday afternoon. Or Monday afternoon, or Thursday. I used to bail out of work 30 minutes early during the season, speed home, load up the dogs, and hit a couple of public land tracts close by my house for the last 45 minutes or an hour of legal light. I almost never went home empty-handed, and I had those places all to myself.
5. You do not need to put the squeeze on a big field with a group of 20 hunters. Sure, that’s a great and traditional tactic, but it’s not the only way to tackle big real estate. You and a buddy, with a dog working between you, can produce magic on those same big pieces of habitat by simply using your head and dividing those acres into smaller chunks. Start on one side, your buddy up to the same side 50 to 75 yards away, and work a big track sideways (again, with the dog between you), instead of pinching the field from end to end as you would if there was a big party of you. When you get to the other side, slide up 75 yards and work the field back sideways the other way, repeating and working back and forth in tandem until you’ve covered the entire parcel.
6. Stop running towards a dog when you see him on point! The noise you and your friends make crashing through crop stubble and head-high prairie grasses gets interpreted by any gawd-fearing pheasant as being nothing less than a charging herd of cattle about to run him over. And that, in turn, is nothing but an incentive for the bird to run his happy little feathered ass off into the next county. So try a softer, quieter approach. If your dog hasn’t crowded the bird and is holding a point as he should, then you should be able to walk into the general area he’s pointing to and produce a flush. Bird gone? Let the dog relocate—the bird probably hasn’t gone that far if you’ve been stealthy.
7. No dog? Hunt smaller tracts with just you and a couple friends, but approach the land as the dog would. Instead of all of you making a march straight through from end to end, keep one friend on each outside line, with you in the middle zig-zagging across the field like the dog. You can also do this on small habitats, with the middle man working from the opposite end of a tract (a reduced-man version of the opening day squeeze), or use the side-to-side method I suggested in No. 3 for big real estate.
8. Unconventional areas are the place to be as the season wears on. Tree-line buffers, ditches, swamp edges, creek sides, and other places you’d think would be more likely to hold a rabbit than a ringneck are prime candidates for birds that have gotten smart and survived the onslaught of hunters who have come before you. Think more like a grouse—or even a duck—than a pheasant.
9. Hunt crappy weather. Bundle up, pull on all the Filson Double-Tin garments you own, and head for the fields when no one else will. “A,” you will have everything all to yourself, and “B,” you will actually be able to hunt where the weather least affects you. Sleet, snow, rain, and high winds force pheasants to shelter belts. Find where the wind gets cut down by a line of trees, a hedgerow corner, or a natural dip in the land, and, if it’s snowing, behind where it’s drifted, and you’ll find birds. A bonus? Your dog will be happy to be hunting no matter what weather you let him off the truck in, and when he’s that stupid-happy to be outside, you can’t help but grin a little, too.
10. Don’t bail on the season in the end. Yes, the birds have been shot at and are more wary. Yes, the weather has probably gone to hell and come back in the form of a new ice age. But the birds are still there. So gather up your friends, kennel up the hounds, and give the big group effort a try again as the season comes to a close. You’ll all shoot something, ending the season with an appropriate bang, and all of you will have a story to tell about how good the last day of the season was.