By Dennis Foster
In general, most pheasant hunters know and follow the basics such as working into the wind, trusting the dog’s nose and only shooting the pretty, colorful ones, but knowing and utilizing a few lesser-known strategies will increase your chances of success. You’ll also become a more well-rounded hunter in the process.
Here are three things to consider the next time you venture afield that will help you bag more birds, regardless of where you choose to hunt.
1. Keep up the Pace
In full disclosure, I grew up hunting in Spink County where pheasants were first introduced into South Dakota and, therefore, have some strong opinions on the subject. I now guide hunters here, chasing wild pheasants from mid-October until early January when our season closes. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over time is that a group of hunters working at a steady pace consistently kills more birds than a group that dallies around or even comes to a complete stop as they meander through a field.
Conventional wisdom and much of what has been portrayed in countless articles and TV shows over the years has been the mantra to work slowly and meticulously through the cover to find your birds. I believe that’s more often a route to take if you want to turn your hunt into a spectator sport, watching wild birds flush out of range versus providing you and your party with reasonable shots.
I’ll admit that stopping isn’t a bad option for solo hunters or those without the aid of good dogs, as picking off a tight-holding bird in a large patch of cover is often the best route you can take in these scenarios. However, if you’re hunting in a group with the benefit of competent canines, it pays to keep in mind that a wild pheasant’s first instinct is to run, and they never really sit still until they’re out of room at the end of a field or run out of suitable cover.
Pheasants have incredibly keen eyesight and hearing, and when you top their heightened awareness off with a sprinter’s lower body, it just doesn’t make much sense for them to lounge around and wait for a hunter to catch up with and ultimately kill them.
It’s true that changing your pace rattles a pheasants nerves and causes them to anxiously flush, but stopping midfield allows them to do so way out in front of you. Occasionally you’ll get a bird to sit tight or an old, cagey rooster will try to backtrack on you, but if you have seasoned dogs you will get them anyway.
Believe me, every single bird in the cover you’re hunting is fully aware of your presence and intentions. They are most certainly going to be progressing at a pace that’s always a bit faster than yours.
Working too slowly or stopping here and there just serves to make the birds jumpy, as they can no longer hear you coming and will flush as you would expect them to. It’s just that more often than not they’ll be well out of range, and nearly all, if not every bird, will find and exploit the the gaps in your hunting spread.
Do not grant them this life-saving luxury, as it makes no sense to stop and hope for a single rooster to bust loose within range and end up with several escaping at unacceptable distances. Just stay the course and keep steadily working, and your reward will be waiting for you at the end of the field.
2. Get out in Front
The biggest failure I see all too frequently is hunters on the edges of a group not starting far enough ahead of the guys walking through the middle of the cover. To be more successful, you need to have your edge hunters out in front — way out in front.
If there is one aspect that I continually have trouble communicating to new hunters that I guide, this is most definitely it. Thankfully, the seasoned veterans often take the lead in helping educate the rookies as to the best course of action. They have witnessed first-hand the positive results of adhering to proven strategies and help ensure any newcomers fall in line quickly.
It’s important to explain this strategy in detail well in advance and not as you’re standing at the field’s edge. Safety and common sense are paramount, as wingmen will have their backs to the walkers a majority of the time, and everybody needs to be on the same page.
When you break down a patch of cover and decide on your strategy, keep in mind that staying ahead is relative. If you’re walking a narrow food plot that’s only 200 yards long, the hunters on the wings should be 40-50 yards in front.
If you’re walking a half-mile-long tree strip, however, 50 yards is often too small of a distance. In this scenario, edge hunters should be anywhere from 80-100 yards ahead, if not more.
As with anything, always be ready to adapt to daily conditions. If the birds are flaring 100 yards ahead of your wingmen, stop your walkers and allow the wings to hustle up to where they need to be. I know earlier in this article I mentioned that walkers should never stop, but this an exception to the rule.
Having wing hunters way out in front accomplishes two things. First, it allows the other hunters pushing the middle of the cover the ability to safely shoot at close-flushing roosters that jet sideways behind the edge hunters. Having hunters far enough ahead also hems in running birds that are scampering ahead of the main group, keeping them from dodging out the sides with a few seen flushing and many more simply running away unnoticed.
The goal of any walk or push is to efficiently cover as much ground as possible, thereby maximizing the group’s effective range. If you think about it, a shotgun’s maximum range for pheasants is roughly 40-50 yards depending on gauge and load. With that being said, hunters need to realize that being 30 yards ahead of the group is illogical and reduces the group’s effective range.
In reality, wingmen should be far enough ahead where the edge of their shotgun’s range — their shooting radius — meets up or just barely overlaps with the shooting range of hunters pushing the middle of the cover behind them.
While afield, visualize your shooting radius. This helps you evenly space yourselves and maximize your effective range not only individually, but also as a group.
By doing this correctly, a group of four or five hunters can cover up to a 150-yard stretch of cover or more at a time, as any bird that gets up within that zone will likely be in range of at least one hunter. Remember, good dogs — not the hunters — are the key to thoroughly working the cover between hunters and keeping the birds moving.
For this strategy to be effective, hunters walking through the middle of the cover need to wait until the edge hunters are far enough ahead before entering the field. All too often a group will jump the gun and try to hit the cover at the same time, not allowing the wingmen enough time to advance into proper position. Wild birds will instinctively and immediately take advantage of this flaw, busting out of harm’s way the minute you step into the field.
The same principle applies for blockers. Before entering the field, it’s imperative the group allows the blockers to find their place at the end of the field or at likely escape routes and pinch points along the cover’s edge. Why even have blockers if the main group decides to immediately push the cover and send birds sailing over the blockers’ intended positions before they are ready?
Again, pace is everything, and working at a steady clip instead of stopping or working too slowly ensures the group maneuvers through the field with structure. If hunters stop or slow down at random times, the integrity and pace of the push are compromised, which allows birds to find the gaps and get away unscathed.
Wild birds will absolutely find these windows of opportunity every single time. They have plenty of built-in survival advantages, so it pays to not give them another unearned one.
At the end of the field, hunters on the wings essentially turn into blockers and should fan out in an equidistant manner and surround the edges, ensuring that any flushing pheasant is in range of at least one gun. All too often hunters will clump up at the end of a field, minimizing their effective range.
Once the end of the field — the last 50 yards or so — is effectively surrounded by the edge hunters and blockers is the time for a slow and deliberate finish. Hunters and dogs should zigzag through the remaining cover and stop often, making sure no clump or patch of cover goes undisturbed. You have now effectively sealed off all escape routes and have any remaining birds hunkering down and hoping you head for the truck with your dog and a few of their inferior and unfortunate kin in your game bag.
Any birds that didn’t flush know they’re pinned in place, so now is the proper time to turn their nervous nature against them. They are acutely aware of where all the hunters and the dogs are, and with flight their only remaining option, they will explosively flush. It is critical to have your gun and your mind ready to instantly react. Don’t ever give up on the end of the field until you and your dogs are satisfied all the birds have been discovered.
Another important aspect to consider is that edge hunters and blockers shouldn’t only be used in spots that you can cover in one fell swoop. They also need to be used when it will take the group two or three passes to cover a field.
In other words, don’t sacrifice having a wing presence or hunters blocking the exit routes just to have another hunter or two walk in line with the group. All that accomplishes is leaving the side doors open for more birds to escape.
3. Make the Shot Count
One of pheasant hunting’s biggest draws is that anyone with a license, shotgun and the will to hunt can head out and have a chance at shooting a bird. While that’s all fine and good, it makes no sense to spend hundreds of dollars on everything else — gas, guns, licenses, clothing, etc. — if you plan to skimp on shells. After all, a thousand-dollar gun is only as valuable as the shotshells you’re willing to feed it.
Simply stated, a pheasant doesn’t care what you look like or what kind of gun you shoot, but I can guarantee you their survival unquestionably depends on what kind of shells you’re packing.
Don’t take your choice of shotshell for granted or buy the same load your grandfather swore by years ago. Today’s high-velocity shotshells made by reputable manufacturers, such as Federal Premium, Remington, Winchester, Fiocchi, or the loads I and my hunters use from relative newcomer Rio Ammunition, are game-changers in the field at the moment of truth when a rooster flushes in range. Knowing your shotshell will perform will undoubtedly help your confidence in the field, and they also ensure cleaner, more ethical kills.
Also, when a bird presents a shot, you need to maintain singular focus. This is easy to do when a lone rooster breaks cover, but it’s hard for many hunters to single out an individual bird if several get up with the ensuing shouts of “rooster” and friendly fire popping off all around.
It’s not a race, and you shouldn’t be rushing your shot to beat your friends to the punch. Rushing a shot results in misses and frustration, but, more importantly, it presents a safety issue. Take your time, lock on a bird and make a quality shot.
This is especially true later in the season when larger flushes become common with birds grouping up around quality habitat and food sources. I see it all the time where a hunter pulls up on a bird but then switches to another bird as more continue to spiral upward. Oftentimes, a dozen or more birds flush within range, but the hunter is, unfortunately, incapable of firing a well-placed shot. They end up flock shooting (missing) the entire group of birds.
Mental preparation in the down time when birds aren’t flushing and staying alert at all times is key to avoiding this all too common mistake. A day spent pheasant hunting is often filled with hours of walking interspersed with brief flurries of activity. The unpredictability and rush of adrenaline generated by the distinctive sounds of powerful wingbeats or a “cocky cackle” when roosters fly is exactly why we love to hunt them and is no doubt one of the most compelling elements of pheasant hunting’s universal allure.
Failing to be primed or lacking focus leads to misses, frustration and, ultimately, to not fully enjoying the unique and wonderful experience that pheasant hunting truly is. To that end, always be prepared and give your shot the proper attention that our most beautiful of game birds fully deserves.
About the Author: Dennis Foster is an outdoor communicator and pheasant guide. He welcomes input, and questions and comments can be directed to dakotapheasantguide.com.