By Dennis Foster
Pheasant hunting is a pretty simple sport. For the most part, all you really need to do is find an area with good habitat that will hold birds and have enough ambition to get out and stretch your legs. However, somewhere in that seemingly simple process, the human element becomes involved and screws things up.
Every year I host a number of hunters through my outfitting and guide business near the birthplace of pheasants in South Dakota. Veteran hunters who return year after year know the drill, but I spend a large portion of my time explaining to new clients how we hunt and how to avoid simple mistakes to ensure we have a good day in the field.
Here are five problems I often encounter and how to avoid them to make sure the next time you hunt pheasants you give yourself the best opportunity at bagging more birds.
1. Good Dog Work
The first order of business is having good dogs and, beyond that, having them ready to go. Hunting dogs that also serve as family dogs are fine, but remember that you must you have them in far better than house shape. You owe it to them, as much as you owe it to yourself, to guarantee they are in proper hunting shape prior to hitting the field.
Far too often clients bring their dogs along to hunt, but the dogs are too out of shape to negotiate the thick cover and track down wild birds. And there is nothing worse or more frustrating than seeing furry friends struggling to do what they love and live to do — putting up and retrieving the most beautiful game birds there are.
2. Be in Shape
While on the shape subject, this means you, too. Every year a few guests arrive for their hunt but can hardly make it through the first walk because they’re out of shape or they tweak an ankle or a knee.
Remember, quality pheasant habitat that promotes wild-bird production usually doesn’t take the shape of manicured walkways that are easy to navigate. It’s thick, tangled mats of prairie grass, cattails and more that pheasants need for survival, and to dig them out of the heavy cover you need to be willing and able to do the work.
Building up your cardio training is one thing, but preparing your body for uneven terrain while pulling your legs through thick cover requires other types of conditioning. To that end, forget working out on the treadmill at the local gym and concentrating on the pretty little thing exercising next to you. Instead, you should be out walking and working with your dog, preferably in off-the-beaten-path areas where they can be a dog instead of a well-heeled trick pony.
Walking and pulling your legs through various types of cover will undoubtedly help you prepare for the season. Even walking through a ditch can be useful, as it helps limber up and strengthen various ligaments and seldom-used muscles that you’ll need chasing pheasants.
This activity also serves to further the bonding process with your pup far beyond armchair parlor tricks in return for treats by giving them some much needed field work when available. In return for this quality time, they will reward you with the very best hunting skills they can muster, as they’ll be hunting hard for you instead of for themselves.
3. Have a Game Plan
Hunting pheasants is supposed to be relaxing, but in order to kill more birds you can’t take the birds or their senses for granted. Remember, you’re stepping into a world in which a wild bird lives year-round, and you’re playing by their rules.
Unfortunately, I see a similar scene occur time and time again each year as truck doors and tailgates slam, dog whistles blow or however else hunters start their haphazard hunt off on the wrong and loud foot. At the first foreign noise, the opposite end of the field explodes with roosters, and the hunt is over before it really started.
To avoid these common mistakes, have a firm game plan in place that is completely understood by each and every one of your players before even entering the field. Once you arrive, everyone needs to get out of the vehicles as quickly as possible and take their respective places in one smooth and relatively quiet motion.
Everything you need, which isn’t much, should be ready to roll before arrival. Coats, vests, gloves and hats need to be on before you step out of the vehicle. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who aren’t ready all the time. Not being ready not only shows a shallow disrespect for pheasants, but also for hunting partners who often have to wait for slowpokes to go through an entire pregame workout between each field. Don’t be that guy. Always make sure you’re ready to go.
Dogs should be ready to go at all times, as well. Putting on e-collars, fashionable vests, watering, treat time and general grab-ass activities need to be left for lodge time. It makes no sense to give the pheasants a good laugh as they are high-tailing it to the next county before your dog circus even gets started.4. Load Up and Follow Up
Have plenty of shells on your person, as well. And not just any old shell, but high-quality shells that carry some lethal knock-down power.
Wild birds, while as large as fryer chickens, are deceptively hard to hit and bring down, especially when they’re riding the high winds of the prairie. They are deceivingly fast and much tougher than most folks realize.
After it’s shot, if the bird does not immediately plummet to the ground or if you can see its head is still upright, quick and decisive follow-up shots are not only called for, but warranted. If not, they will literally hit the ground running and be difficult to find, particularly without dogs that have several seasons of tracking down running or wounded birds on their resumes.
It is very common for my guests to proclaim the bird they shot fell completely dead and should be right where they think it hit the ground, only to have one of my dogs trotting back with the bird flapping wildly in their mouths from distances as great as 100 yards away.
This all leads to a discussion on the most avoidable mistake I continually witness, and that’s the use of shells that just are not up to the task. Ammunition manufacturers are beginning to take note of our needs as hunters of wild, tough-as-nails pheasants and have been coming out with loads that are far more effective than the standard dose of 6 shot that was so common for years.
wIt’s also one of the reasons why I provide high-quality shotshells from Rio Ammunition for my guests. Doing so means my clients don’t need to worry about shell choice for the stage of the pheasant season, weather conditions and so forth, which ultimately makes my job of helping them kill pheasants much easier.
There are several good options to choose from and spending a few bucks for quality is cheap insurance to ensure you have clean ethical kills and your hunt is as enjoyable as possible. It makes no sense to spend money on gas, gear and guns only to get cheap on perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle — quality ammunition.
5. Work Toward Pinch Points
When I evaluate a new piece of property, or if a field has changed appearance from one year to the next, I’m constantly looking for pinch points. Too often my clients want to work in one direction and in a straight line. While that’s fine for the most part, we’re hunting birds that would rather run than fly, and even veteran hunters are too quick to dismiss that fact.
Wild birds are getting wilder with each passing season — Darwinism in overdrive, if you will. Only the fittest survive each season to pass on the superior survival genes to the next generation, and I am firmly convinced they have become more difficult to corner over the last 20 years or so.
Simply put, wild birds seldom sit tight for picture-perfect points just because your pretty puppy got a whiff of them. They can and will run like hell, not just directly away from you but often circling back directly behind you only to pop up and take flight while giving you the long tail bye-bye salute. I look at this as their form of defiance to emphasize they just outsmarted you and your dog.
To corner them and put some birds up in range, we need to push them at a steady pace to pinch points where they get nervous with us within shooting range and will bust from cover. This strategy includes none of this start and stop stuff.
It may have sounded great in a romantic late 50s issue of Field and Stream magazine and probably even worked when the Elmer Fudd line of hunting attire was all the rage, but believe me when I tell you things have evolved, and here’s where staying in shape again pays dividends.
Push the field hard looking for pinch points. Any break in the action gives pheasants a side or back door to go through, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the eyes of my clients opened by how many birds we end up with by pushing hard through fields toward dedicated pinch points.
There isn’t much to say about pheasant hunting that hasn’t been said 100 times over in some way, shape or form, but hopefully this rundown of common mistakes helps you avoid them the next time you head to the field.
About the Author: Dennis Foster is an outdoor communicator and pheasant guide. He welcomes input, and questions and comments can be directed to his website, www.dakotapheasantguide.com.