By Tom Carpenter
A wild ring-necked pheasant rooster is a true hunting trophy, yet we don’t always treat ringnecks with the respect they deserve — no, make that the respect they require. Pheasant hunts just don’t produce the intensity level of a deer or turkey hunt, but late-season birds are just as wary and equally keen on survival as any mature big-game animal.
If you want to shoot a few pheasants now that the season is well along, you must respect the birds’ evasion skills, hunt with more care and thought, and apply some stealth and strategy to the pursuit.
The Wrong Way
Consider this typical approach to pheasant hunting.
A truck pulls off a gravel road onto a field approach in good pheasant country. Two men and a boy pile out, talking freely and laughing. Doors slam. A tailgate squeaks open. Two bird dogs rumble out and sprint around.
Out come the whistles and shouts, and five minutes later the dogs are truckside, panting. “No harm done,” the hunters figure, because no birds were seen flushing.
A tailgate slams shut as one last warning to the already-retreating pheasants in the cover. The hunters move out. They holler back and forth. The dogs are nowhere to be seen. A couple cackling roosters flush a quarter-mile ahead, betraying the canines’ whereabouts, and fly to the adjacent property that is off-limits.
Whistles, electronic beepers and shouts come out again as the crew heads toward some slough ground. A couple birds flush wild during the commotion.
Soon, the speed-walking gang reaches a grassy field. The wind is at their backs, but they don’t bother with circling around the cover to hunt into the wind.
Barely a half-hour after leaving, they’re back at the truck, their haphazard circuit over. Birdless, they load up the panting dogs and head for town, blaming the bad hunting on poor pheasant numbers and the month-old season.
The Right Way
Contrast that hunt with this one.
A truck pulls off a gravel road onto a field approach in good pheasant country. The hunters carefully and quietly click their doors shut, talking in whispers for the short minute it takes them to get ready.
Only then is the pointer let out of her kennel, clipped to a lead and shushed to heel. The tailgate shuts softly, and two men and a boy head silently into the field. When they reach a brushy fenceline, the dog is unclipped from her lead. She’s a little energetic, but two vibrations on her e-collar bring her back to work.
A hen and rooster pheasant were feeding on the edge between cut corn and the fenceline only a couple hundred yards away. Before they know what’s going on, the pointing dog has them pinned. The hunters walk up quietly, and the birds flush. Two shots ring out, and the rooster goes down. Another bird flushes wild ahead, and the hunters watch it land in a grassy field.
After retrieving the boy’s bird, the dog casts back out as the group heads to a creek bottom. After some good dog work, two hens are flushed — good practice for future hunts.
At the grassy field, the hunters clip the dog on her lead and swing around the cover before entering. With the wind in the dog’s nose and their faces, the trio of hunters start moving slowly through the narrow field in one efficient pass.
A few minutes later the dog starts acting birdy. When it comes, the point isn’t classic because the pheasant is edgy and on the move, but the hunters are ready. One shot barks out when the rooster flushes.
After two total hours and making a shot at one more ringneck, the crew reaches the truck. They’re carrying a trio of roosters and feeling good after a relaxing and effective hunt through the late-season cover.
Respect the Bird
We’d never dream of hunting deer or turkeys the way we often pursue pheasants — loud and carefree, like the hunters in the first example.
Yet an old, native rooster is as cagey and wild as any whitetail buck or mature gobbler. A pheasant’s senses of hearing and sight are incredibly keen. Coupled with his well-muscled runner’s legs, you have a bird that is not going to sit around and wait for you to walk up and shoot him. You have to take a stealthy approach that respects his ability to know you’re coming and either flush wild or run to the next county.
That means taking a stealthier, more careful approach from the very start of your hunt.
A Stealthy Start
Don’t slam doors or tailgates. The thumps and vibrations will alert every ringneck in the area and send them running.
Nothing scares pheasants more than the human voice, so whisper or talk very softly as you get ready and discuss a strategy.
Do your best to keep your dog under control. Don’t let the pooch run wild through the very country you want to hunt. This often means keeping him on a lead until you’re actually in the field.
Have your gear ready. The more lollygagging you do around your vehicle, the more noise you will make. Start hunting as quickly and quietly as possible, as it doesn’t take wild pheasants long to figure out what is going on.
Nothing’s worse than seeing your dog erupt through the very cover you want to hunt before you even leave the vehicle. That’s why giving her a little pre-hunt run, and also keeping her on a lead until you’re ready to hunt, are good ideas.
A close-working dog is the best kind of pheasant dog. This is true for a flushing dog because he needs to be close enough so that you have a chance of being within shooting range of a flushing bird. If your Lab, spaniel, retriever or other flushing dog works more than 20 yards out from you, it’s probably too far.
As for pointing dogs, I also prefer a dog that works close. Many pointing dog “experts” would disagree, but they likely don’t hunt wild, skittish Dakota birds.
Pheasants are just downright paranoid and fidgety, and they often don’t hold well for pointing dogs of any type. Pointing-dog purists will again moan, but I want my little Brittany close enough that if a rooster flushes while she’s working it, but before she can point it, I can still shoot it. I love good dog work as much as the next guy, but at this point of the season I’m pheasant hunting, not dog training.
No matter the type of dog, work her before the season, teaching her to stay in close and hunt for you, not herself. One good training tool is a long check cord you can jerk on when she gets too far out. Teach her to come back in or redirect to a light toot on the whistle, an e-collar vibration or the soft “hup” of your voice.
Once you’re moving through pheasant cover, take a slow and thorough approach. Many pheasant hunters breeze on through the cover and get going to the next spot. Move, move, move is their marching cadence.
But a fast approach is often a loud and un-stealthy one that will send the birds scurrying. Birds that do stay put are easily walked past by hunter and dog alike.
A better approach is a slow, cautious, thorough and meandering one — a strategy that gets the birds nervous but doesn’t send them sprinting, confuses them a little bit so they hold better, and gives your dog time to work cover thoroughly. Whenever possible, work to take your best swing into, or quartering into, the breeze.
Quarter back and forth. Zig-zag. Don’t walk a straight line. Loop back and re-work good territory again. Swing through corners and edges of cover that might hold birds. Take your time. Weave around and through habitat. Wander this way and that. Check out likely tangles. Keep your dog close so you can flush birds he might move or so he can scent birds moving away from you.
In short, keep the pheasants off balance and guessing at your whereabouts.
Don’t shout or talk loudly to your hunting buddies. Instead, work out hand signals for straight, left, right, slow down, there’s a bird up ahead, watch the dog and other essential communications.
Make plenty of pauses; they are critical. Pauses make birds edgy. Pauses stop birds that are running, and they might flush at your next step and give you a shot. Pauses give your dog time to unravel scent trails a moving bird has laid down.
If you don’t hunt with a dog, frequent pauses are absolutely essential for holding birds, making them nervous and keeping them guessing.
Good pheasant cover is diverse, containing some combination of grassland, cropfields, marshes, cattails, brushy fencelines, thickets, woodlots, abandoned farmsteads, lightly used pastures, and fallow or forgotten fields.
In the morning, start near feeding areas of harvested crop fields and open meadows, working the edges between cover and food sources. As the day progresses and morning starts becoming afternoon, shift your attention to marshes, cattail swamps, brush and other thick daytime hiding cover.
In the late afternoon, work the edges of feeding grounds, such as harvested grain fields. Pheasants also like to “loaf” here and dust their feathers as they wile away some time until their evening feeding session.
When the sun starts descending, head to areas with appropriate roosting cover. In the early season this is likely areas with light grasses, but as the season wears on and temperatures drop, it’s likely thermal cover such as cattails or sections of heavy grass or tree belts that can withstand the cold and snow.
Two of my boys and I went to my friend Gene’s farm one afternoon. We quietly headed out, releasing Rascal the Brittany only once we reached the cover next to a cut cornfield. The russet-and-white dog minded well, but a couple roosters flushed wild from the other side of a small cattail marsh. The birds glided only a hundred yards into a marshy creek bottom. We marked their landing spot for later reference, then continued on with the wind in our favor.
We moved along slowly and carefully — not talking, pausing often to let the dog work, and then moving off in a new zig-zag fashion. The slightly marshy, lightly pastured cover was perfect for afternoon pheasants.
After traipsing through a hundred yards of cover, the little Brittany got birdy and flash pointed a couple times. A bird was on the move! When the cock flushed a few yards ahead of her nose, I was ready.
It hadn’t been a classic point, but the work was good for a young dog up against an old, hook-spurred rooster. My aim was true, and the little dog pounced on the flopping pheasant only a few seconds after it hit the ground. Our stealthy approach brought us close, then helped finish the job on a smart, old rooster.
The boys and I quietly admired the bird as we held it up to late afternoon sun, its iridescent feathers glimmering bronze, green, blue, purple and amber in November’s orange rays.
Then one of the rooster’s comrades cackled down in the creek bottom, and we moved off again in quiet pursuit.
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.