By Tom Carpenter
Pheasant hunters with unlimited access to private land generally fall into one of three broad categories: They’re either rich or fortunate … or some of both.
With enough money, it’s easy to pay for guided hunts or maybe even own or lease private hunting land. With enough luck — being born right or living in the same pheasant-rich rural area for much of your life — getting access to prime hunting acreage can be somewhat easy.
Most of us have some money and a little bit of luck, but not enough of either to keep us busy for an entire pheasant season. What’s the option? Public land. Enter the protests: Overhunted. Crowded. Spooky birds.
Public-land pheasants are never easy, whether you choose to hunt a game production area, waterfowl production area, walk-in area, school land or other accessible acreage in either of the Dakotas or Nebraska. If you and your dog love to hunt challenging roosters, heed these secrets, which are hereby made public.
Make Phone Calls
Finding public land is easy with online tools. What’s hard is selecting a productive place to start hunting. The solution? Talk to a local expert.
Start with the county game warden or conservation officer. He or she can best direct you to some of the better areas. Find this person’s name and phone number on each state’s wildlife department website, or call the department’s general information line.
I have yet to contact an unfriendly or unhelpful conservation officer. Be polite, and don’t ask exactly where to go. You’ll get more consideration by simply saying you’re coming out to hunt pheasants and would like to get a couple of ideas on areas where a hunter might start looking for birds.
Forget the Opener
Public land is not the place to be during opening weekend’s circus. It’s hard to ignore early season’s inexperienced birds, but dealing with crowds and avoiding the maneuvers of other hunting groups just isn’t enjoyable, especially if good dog work matters to you.
Don’t worry, because opening weekend’s hunting pressure isn’t as efficient as you think at killing birds. When you show up a few weeks later, maybe in early or mid-November, the fair-weather hunters will be gone.
Wait Out the Harvest
There’s another reason to avoid early season hunting, as the crop harvest on surrounding farmland near the areas you plan to hunt may not be complete until a couple of weeks into pheasant season. Standing fields of corn, soybeans and sunflowers provide pheasants with shelter, refuge and food.
Once the crops are down, birds that were chased out of the public grasslands and wetlands earlier in the season come streaming back in … along with formerly private-land birds that now need cover.
Timing the crop harvest is simple. Watch news reports, check websites and call county agricultural agencies. Conservation officers usually know what’s going on in the fields, too. Once the harvest nears 80 or 90 percent completion, get out there and hunt.
Hunt on Weekdays
To get your dog on birds while having a chance at solitude, hunt during the week. Yes, it eats vacation time, but if you’re serious about pheasant hunting, this is the time go.
Friday isn’t a weekday. Everybody gets a jump on the weekend then. Mondays are bad because the cover just got pounded Saturday and Sunday. Time your jaunts to start on a Tuesday afternoon, then hunt Wednesday and Thursday, too.
Scout (Yes, Scout)
If you’re not hunting until sunset, you must already have your limit of birds or the dog must be pooped out for the day. Either way, don’t waste that last hour of daylight. Cruise back roads around public areas and look for birds walking or flying into cover for the night. This will give you ideas on where to start hunting the next day.
Here’s another evening scouting technique: Get to some kind of vantage point, then look and listen through sunset. Most evenings, especially calm ones with little wind, some roosters will cackle as they go to roost and give away their bedtime locations. You can often learn the whereabouts of several birds. They should be somewhere nearby in the morning.
Optionally, do some early morning reconnaissance before shooting hours. Cruise the roads while looking and stopping to listen for birds to hunt later. Sleeping in would be nice, but I’d rather find a few pheasants to hunt.
The afternoon’s last hour can be the most productive time to hunt public land roosters. Public acreage often holds an area’s best nighttime roosting cover for pheasants. The birds will glide in during the last hour of daylight to hunker in. Mark these spots, and go after them.
If you’re hunting late in the day, look for grassy cover as opposed to the cattails or brush you might hunt at other times of day. This a great time for dog work, because scenting conditions improve as the evening air cools, moistens and sinks into the cover. Birds will hold tighter, too, and it’s a perfect time for both pointing dogs and flushers to go to work.
Take Different Approaches
Don’t approach the cover the same way as everybody else. Designated parking areas, road intersections and other easy parking spots are notorious for one or two trails leading out from them. Everybody travels basically the same circuit, and pheasants catch on to the routine.
Instead, park somewhere else or snap a lead to your dog, skirt the area and then come at the cover from a totally different direction. This ploy is even better when it positions the wind just right for your first pass, allowing your dog to work into the breeze. Make your first swing your best swing.
Hunt the Far End
If the area is just too big to skirt before starting to hunt, spend the time and effort needed to walk your way to the back reaches and corners of the property. Many pheasants live a relatively hassle-free life where soft hunters never bother to go.
Hunt hard and far, and criss-cross good areas thoroughly. By doing so, you’ll get more birds than you will by driving around looking for a new spot every half-hour. Field time is more productive.
Know Pheasant Habits and Habitat
Rather than wander and hope, think about what the weather conditions are and how pheasants will react at that time of day, then gear your hunting approach and route appropriately.
In the morning, and again during mid-afternoon, work in and around food plots and other feeding areas. This is when pheasants will be out and about, laying down scent.
Midday, go to cattails and heavy cover. Late in the day, head to the grasslands with lighter cover, where birds like to roost up for the evening.
Hunt Out-of-the-Way Spots
I can’t tell you how many pheasants I have shot by literally going the extra mile to hit a tiny patch of cover way over there, a ring of cattails right here, the brush around that distant and dilapidated windmill. A rooster is always worth the extra mile and effort. Just go and do it …
On public land, shooting opportunities don’t come easily. And they are not unlimited. Too many misses on public land birds will haunt you.
There’s only one solution. Get out and shoot beforehand. Re-familiarize yourself with your shotgun, and get in the groove of swinging on a moving target. That’s all it takes.
A few rounds of trap or even some hand-thrown clay birds in a gravel pit or the field out back will get you limbered up and accustomed to your shotgun. Sporting clays are also a great option.
Pheasants aren’t hard to hit, but they’re easy to miss. Comfort and familiarity with your shotgun are key.
Line up your expectations with the realities of the challenge. You can get birds, and with effort, you will. However, it’s important to realize you won’t be limiting out in an hour or shooting up boxes of shells.
All that said, here are a things to remember when you hit the public fields:
• Be happy just to be hunting.
• The dog, if you own one, is getting a workout.
• You’ll probably get to hunt all day.
• Things will get tough.
• Wild, public-land roosters are real trophies.
• One bird in hand is a bonus, and a limit is a blessing.
No single breed of dog is perfect for all the types of cover you’ll run into while hunting public-land pheasants, so you have to adapt as a team.
For instance, I’m not afraid to take Rascal, my little Brittany, into the cattails or other nasty, thick cover where flushing dogs are better suited.
Thick stuff is not traditional pointing-dog cover, so in the thick stuff I keep her close, within flushing-dog range. That way if she bumps a rooster, I can shoot it. Yes, I will shoot a bumped bird. With pheasants, especially smart public-land birds, don’t be a purist. Take them when you can get them.
If the dog’s bell stops on a point, I creep and sneak around slowly and carefully to find her. It sure is exciting to peek around a corner and see her quivering body on point. Many times the bird will flush before I actually see the dog on point, but because she’s close by, I still have a shot.
On the other hand, flushing dogs like Labs and springers can do fine in big, expansive fields where pointing dogs are traditionally better suited. Let your dog adapt, with your help.
The trick is keeping that flusher close from the start and working slowly and systematically back and forth through all the areas you want to hit. Stop and wait in dips or hollows, and pause at ridgetops and hillocks, to give the dog some extra time to try and work out a scent. Pheasants frequent both kinds of spots — for the thicker cover where moisture accumulates in the hollows, and for the vision afforded at the high points.
Also, be patient and don’t expect immediate returns even when you’re hunting with a dog. To put things into perspective, I looked at my hunting journals for a personal statistic on pheasant hunts and discovered that Rascal and I average three to four hours of work per public-land rooster in the bag.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see how there are few hunting rewards as satisfying as a brace of hard-earned, public-land longtails for you and your dog at the end of a long day.
The November sun was hanging low as Rascal and I trudged across one last field of South Dakota prairie grass. It had been a good day, with over a dozen birds seen (mostly hens), one rooster missed (it happens) and one rooster in the game bag (gun still works).
For some reason I looked up from the dog’s work. A rapidly moving speck was gliding toward us from the cut cornfields a half-mile away — a pheasant! As it sailed closer and got bigger, I knew it was a rooster. The bird lit into cover not a hundred yards away. The wind was perfect. I whistled the Brittany in, waved her in the bird’s direction and followed. Soon she slammed on point, head cocked and stub tail quivering, right about where I thought it should happen.
I walked in and the shot was easy, but of course it took two of them. Roosters do that to a guy, and that’s why I love to hunt them. As I picked up our bird from the happy dog, I said some thanks to the fading sun — for the energy and attitude to be out there hunting hard and for the splendid, long-tailed gift that our efforts had brought us.
About the Author: Tom Carpenter is a freelance writer who focuses his outdoor year on the Dakotas and northern plains. His favorite thing to hunt or fish for is … whatever he’s hunting or fishing for.