— By Andrew Johnson
When many people think of hunting pheasants in the Dakotas, their minds drift to waltzing through golden fields of manicured, knee-high cover that’s caressed by a clear-blue, warm October sky.
However, I’m not most people, and the places I love to hunt are far from being anything close to manicured.
While I love the month of October, the true hunter in me longs for the short, colder days of late-season pheasant hunting any time after Thanksgiving when the birds are bunched up in the thick stuff and fewer hunters are afield. In fact, part of me believes more hunters should be aware of the benefits of pursuing late-season roosters. Selfishly, the other part of me wants to keep it a secret.
Pheasant seasons in the Dakotas kick off in early to mid-October, and the pheasant “opener” is a veritable holiday in both states, as the pheasant fields are flooded with blaze orange from opening day through the first few weeks of the season when the weather is often more tolerable. However, it’s a simple fact that when the mercury drops as the season progresses, fewer and fewer pheasant hunters head afield.
In reality, chasing pheasants is a fair-weather affair for a majority of hunters — both residents and nonresidents.
But for those willing to head out later in the season when there is potential for cold and snow, the chance at a high-quality longtail hunt is more than worth the effort.
Process of Elimination
It boils down to a process of elimination, really. First, harvest season in the Dakotas runs concurrently with the first month of pheasant season, and as the corn, sunflowers and beans are all taken out, that means the birds have much less cover where they can hide during daylight hours.
Snow can be your best friend during late season for a number of reasons, but the main reason it helps a hunter is it reduces the amount of suitable cover pheasants have at their disposal even further. Ditches, pasture ground with pockets of marginal cover, CRP and other grassland areas are no longer an option for pheasants because they don’t offer enough protection from the elements or become too drifted over to offer a pheasant a place to hide.
With daily temps dipping lower and lower each day, cover is more important in the late season than ever. Temperatures around 40 degrees are still within a pheasant’s “thermoneutral” zone, meaning pheasants do not need to use more energy to stay warm or keep cool. That means in temps below 40 degrees pheasants must start consuming more food for energy to stay warm and find appropriate, thermal cover that helps them stay warm and conserve energy if they want to survive.
Thermal cover such as cattail sloughs are pheasant magnets in late season, especially if they are near a reliable food source. Also, shetlerbelts and groves that have thick underbrush offer a perfect haven for weather-weary birds. Willows, thickets and cane strong enough to withstand a blanket of drifting show are also ideal hotspots to target.
Secondly, the fact that there are fewer hunters in the fields opens up more ground on both private and public land. There is simply less competition and more opportunity from late November through the season’s closing bell when hunters can often head out and have their choice at hunting the best locations.
Regardless of time of year, the biggest mistake many hunters make is not respecting how good pheasants are at surviving. Keep in mind that any birds that have made it into November and December have likely been hunted before, and the primary lament of pheasant hunters during the last month of season is that the birds are often jumpy and will head for parts unknown when they see or hear anything that could potentially pose a threat to their well-being.
During late season, park a significant distance from where you plan on hunting and take extra precautions never to slam car doors or tailgates. Depending on the situation, I often park more than a half-mile from where I plan on hunting. When it’s late season, I want to give myself every chance at scoring, so literally going the extra mile to get to a field is a good place to start.
Also, make sure you’re prepared to hunt as soon as you hit the field. Any additional time spent loading guns, bundling up in additional jackets or anything else gives any bird in that field a chance to edge a few extra steps away from you toward safety.
If possible, start the day near food sources. Any remaining standing corn or milo is a good bet, but draws and sloughs with enough pockets of thermal cover that wander through a combined field are still areas pheasants gravitate toward as they continue with their daily feeding and loafing routines.
Many hunters will spend money on clothing, gas, licenses and whatever else but fall short when it comes time to feed their gun properly. It makes no sense to spend money on everything else but get cheap when it comes to shells.
Don’t take your choice of shotshell for granted or buy the same load your grandfather swore by years ago. When comparing shells, an extra 250 fps on a shotshell box might not seem like much at first blush, but it could mean all the difference in the field as a rooster rides a blustery, winter wind.
Today’s high-velocity shotshells made by reputable manufacturers are game-changers in the field at the moment of truth when a rooster flushes in range, and knowing your shotshell will perform will undoubtedly help your confidence in the field.
Some argue that higher velocity shells don’t pattern as well, or they might say they “kick” too much. While there might be truth to both of these claims, I don’t really care, because I’ve seen first-hand how the extra knockdown power of higher-velocity loads delivers. Before you head out this late season, carefully examine what shells you’re carrying into the field and make sure you’re packing enough punch to drop a bird that gets up just on the edge of shotgun range.
Always Use Blockers
No matter if you’re hunting in a small group or with 10 of your best hunting buddies, always take the necessary steps to block the field or patch of cover you’re working, regardless of size.
Late-season birds are an entirely different animal than pheasants you’ve hunted during the first few months of the pheasant season. December roosters are notorious for vacating an area at the first sign of foreign activity, often piling out the opposite ends of a field before any boots hit the cover.
Take special care to quickly and quietly post blockers on the opposite end of the cover you intend to push. Blockers should move as silently as possible to their posts and get ready for the action prior to when walkers hit the cover.
And it’s always important for walkers to have the patience to make sure all of the blockers are in position prior to entering a field. All too often, walkers jump the gun and end up pushing birds before the blockers are set up. My best advice is to just hold your horses and do it right, because you only get one shot.
Blockers should try to cover as much of the cover’s perimeter as possible, as pheasants will inevitably try to split the gap between blockers in an equidistant manner. It really is quite something, and quite frustrating, to see birds flush and fly exactly in between blockers.
Try to cut them off, but if you’re blocker numbers are limited, try to post between the cover you’re walking and any other type of security cover in the area.
Also, don’t forget to play the wind. Pheasants will often ride the winter wind, but only if they have a destination in mind, thus making cover considerations more important than wind direction.
On their approach, blockers should use terrain features to their advantage, even if it means walking an extra half-mile or so to arrive at their post. Pheasants have keen eyesight, and they quickly identify any humans they see as danger, especially after they’ve been shot at a few times.
Choosing how to effectively block a field presents a Catch-22 of sorts, as hunters are often faced with the dilemma of posting an adequate number of blockers versus having enough walkers to efficiently push the cover.
In my experience, I believe more birds take flight in December than sit tight, unless you’re hunting in extreme wind or driving sleet or snow that helps hold birds in their foxholes. I advise to err on the side of caution and use more blockers whenever it’s feasible.
Then, when you’re done making your initial push all the way through the field, turn around and take everyone, blockers included, back through the same piece of cover you just walked. Chances are a wily rooster will have tried to sit tight and the unexpected, additional pressure might force it to flush.
Find Pheasant Sign
It’s no secret that late-season birds typically bunch up as the temperatures drop and snow covers a majority of the landscape. The reduced amount of both thermal cover and available food sources forces them to congregate in areas that will sustain them with enough food and warmth to survive winter weather.
After you find suitable cover, preferably next to a viable food source, make sure to check for pheasant sign in and around the edges of cover. Droppings, feathers or tracks in mud or snow are always a good thing. The absence of pheasant sign should be a red flag, though some hunters, including me, often hedge their bets thinking all cattail stands are created the same.
A few years ago during the first weekend of December, some friends visiting from Wisconsin and I headed out to chase roosters in central South Dakota. We hunted some old family ground where, historically, I always had success. The combination of freezing temps and recent snow had us excited to hunt, and I had some ideal cattail sloughs earmarked where I thought birds would be hunkered in tight.
The first day, however, didn’t pan out as expected. We walked close to six miles through some of the thickest cattails and cover Sanborn County had to offer. At day’s end, however, we only had three birds to show for our effort.
We were all stumped, but one thing we all agreed on was there was a noticeable lack of pheasant sign anywhere in the freshly fallen snow in and around the sloughs we walked.
We returned to the same general area two days later, but instead of pounding the same spots in hopes the birds would be there, we scouted some other areas until we found pheasant tracks racing up and down the ditches where birds had come to the road.
After a quick check with the landowner, we dove into yet another cattail slough in the middle of a cut cornfield and immediately saw tracks mixed in with signs of scratching where birds had been digging through the snow to get at the leftover corn left behind by the combine. Two hours later, we had nine birds in hand, which can make any subzero day seem balmy.
Moral of the story? Instead of heading to traditional areas where you’ve shot birds in the past, swallow your pride, don’t hunt memories, do your homework and know without a doubt that there are birds in the area.
Once again, a fresh snow overnight, even a dusting, is undoubtedly your best friend. Anything that acts to cover up yesterday’s tracks and helps tell you that birds were in that area within the last 24 hours will only increase your chances.
The weather might be colder and drifting snow might be make the walk seem a little longer, but the combination of fewer hunters and bunched-up birds make hunting late-season pheasants worth the effort. Give it a try and see if you have the stamina and willpower to run the anchor leg.
About the Author: Andrew Johnson is editor of Outdoor Forum. Follow @OutdoorForumMag on Twitter.