Pheasant Hunting Basics
Breeding Habits Daily Movements Ring-neck Habitat
Tips for Early-Season Pheasant Hunting Tips for Late-Season Pheasant Hunting
Hunting Pheasants in Row crop Fields Hunting Pheasants in Tall Grass
Hunting Pheasants in the Snow
ROOSTERS have a dark reddish copper breast with lighter copper-colored sides and back, a powder blue rump patch and a vivid white ring around the neck. The head is iridescent greenish black, with a red wattle around the eye. The brownish tail measures 18 to 26 inches in length and has numerous black bars. The bright colors make roosters attractive to hens and visible to other roosters.
HENS (inset) are dull beige, with brown and cream-colored mottling from head to tail. The mottling fades to a uniform beige toward the underside of the body. The dull colors help to camouflage hens from nest and brood predators. A hen’s tail is considerably shorter than that of a rooster, ranging from 8 to 12 inches in length, but it has a similar barring pattern.
Breeding Habits Back up
You’ve probably heard the raspy "kaw kawk" call of a rooster pheasant on a spring morning or evening. The call, given at about three-minute intervals, serves to claim a territory and attract hens. Ring necks are polygamous, so one rooster may draw a harem of a dozen or more hens. This numerical imbalance explains why roosters-only hunting regulations are effective. Even if 90 percent of all the roosters are harvested, there are enough left to breed with the remaining hens.
Roosters entice hens to breed by strutting with feathers ruffled, ear tufts erect and wattles swollen and bright red. The eggs are laid in a small, oval-shaped depression scratched into the ground by the hen and lined with grasses and possibly some feathers.
Hay mowers destroy many pheasant nests, and predators, particularly skunks, raccoons and snakes, eat a large number of the eggs. House cats, foxes and hawks take many of the chicks. If the nest is destroyed or raided and the hen is not killed, she will usually nest again. If the second nest fails, she may try a third. But the number of eggs decreases each time.
The eggs hatch in early summer, and the hen stays with her brood for 2 to 3 months, until the birds approach full size. By the time hunting season starts, most roosters have fully colored plumage, unless they were hatched very late in the season.
Daily MovementsBack up
Hunters can greatly improve their success by understanding the ring neck's daily movement pattern. Cover that typically holds lots of pheasants in morning and evening, for instance, may hold only a straggler or two in midday. Although movement patterns vary in different habitat types, they’re fairly consistent in a given area, barring bad weather or exceptionally heavy hunting pressure. The most common scenario is as follows:
Just after sunrise, pheasants fly or walk out of their roosting cover, stopping to pick up gravel on the way to their morning feeding area, which is usually some type of crop field. After feeding for an hour or two, they move to loafing cover, such as the grassy fringe of a crop field, or they return to their roosting cover. They go out to feed again about an hour before sunset, then settle back into roosting cover for the night.
In most cases, daily movements take place within a surprisingly small area, usually no more than one-half mile in diameter. In some habitats, however, ring necks move even less than that. For instance, they may stay in a "dirty" (weedy) cornfield all day, because there’s plenty of food and ground cover. Similarly, they may stay in their roosting area all day, if there are enough weed seeds to provide adequate food.
A period of extreme cold or a heavy snow may keep the birds holding tight in dense cover for several days. Heavy dew, however, will keep birds out of the grass. On a warm winter day, they often stay out all day long, scratching for food. When hunting pressure is very heavy, they spend more time in thick cover than they otherwise would.
Ring-neck Habitat Back up
Ring neck pheasants are birds of the farm country. Ideal habitat consists of 55 to 70 percent crop fields, preferably corn, soybeans or small grains, with the remainder wetlands, undisturbed grasslands, small woodlots, thickets and brushy or grassy fence lines or ditches. Any of the following habitat types are likely to hold ring necks.
CATTAIL MARSHES provide excellent escape cover and winter cover. Pheasants can easily hear predators moving through the dense cover, and they can burrow under it during a severe blizzard.
WETLAND FRINGES make good nesting and roosting areas. Tall grasses grow there, because the ground is generally too wet to plow.
STREAM CORRIDORS furnish permanent pheasant cover. Because the low-lying ground adjacent to the stream does not make good cropland, it is rarely plowed.
DRAINAGE DITCHES may offer the only grassy cover in intensively farmed areas. Pheasants find loafing or roosting spots that are out of the wind along the slopes of the ditches.
ROADSIDE DITCHES that are not routinely mowed or burned provide loafing and roosting cover. Ditches with standing water often have a growth of cattails that make good winter cover.
RAILROAD RIGHTS-OF-WAY are usually allowed to grow into brushy cover that makes excellent pheasant habitat. Abandoned rights-of-way are best of all.
ABANDONED FARMSTEADS offer good escape cover and winter cover. Groves and buildings break the wind, and grasses and brush that develop in open areas furnish ground cover to protect the birds from predators.
BRUSHY FENCE LINES, especially wide strips with plenty of tall bushes or trees, make prime year-round pheasant cover.
GRASSY TERRACES, intended to reduce erosion of cropland, make good loafing and roosting sites close to feeding areas.
SHELTERBELTS provide tall, dense escape cover and prevent windblown snow from clogging the birds’ nostrils and suffocating them.
RETIRED CROP FIELDS that grow up to grassy cover are prime nesting areas. Unlike hay fields, they will not be mown during the nesting season.
GRASSY FRINGES of crop fields make good midday loafing sites and, if the grass is tall enough, the birds may roost there as well.
Pheasant Hunting BasicsBack up
Pheasant hunting requires some advance preparation. First, you’ll need to do a little preseason scouting; it will pay big dividends later. Most fish and game departments make annual pheasant counts in late summer and publicize the results before the season opens. Study this information; then do a little research of your own. Drive around in early morning or late afternoon watching for birds on the roadsides. When you find a promising area, talk to the landowners and ask for permission to hunt once the season begins.
Make sure you are properly outfitted. General-purpose pheasant-hunting garb consists of a blaze-orange hunting jacket with a good-sized game pouch, brush pants and a blaze-orange cap that makes iteasy for your companions to see you in tall cover. Comfortable boots that provide good ankle support are a must for long-distance walking.
Learn two take your time on the shot. When a gaudy rooster bursts from cover with a boisterous cackle, even veteran hunters lose their composure. If you make the mistake of rushing your shot, the bird will fly away unscathed. If you do manage to hit the bird at close range, there won’t be much left of it.
Statistics show that more than 3 times as many pheasants are taken in the first half of the season as in the last. That’s because most hunters want to get the "dumb" young birds. Hunting pressure is normally heaviest on opening weekend and tapers off steadily through the season.
Once the young birds are "educated," hunting becomes much tougher, but the competition for hunting spots decreases greatly. For this reason, many experienced hunters prefer the late season.
Because the birds’ behavior changes so much over the season, your success will improve greatly if you learn to tailor your hunting tactics accordingly.
Tips for Early-Season Pheasant Hunting Back up
Early in the season you can find pheasants most anywhere, including grass fields, cattail sloughs, cornfields, roadside ditches and brushy draws. They may be in light or heavy cover. Public hunting areas, though crowded, produce a lot of birds. Here are some early-season hunting tips:
•Wait until the initial opening-day barrage is over, and then go back through areas that have already been hunted. Birds flushed by hunters move between different fields throughout the day.
•Look for dense or hard-to-reach cover that would discourage all but die-hard hunters.
•Work short-grass loafing areas adjacent to crop-fields. These spots "burn out" early, however, and then hold only hens.
•For the close-range shooting likely in early season, most hunters prefer improved-cylinder or modified-choke shotguns with high brass, size 6 or 7 1/2shot.
Tips for Late-Season Pheasant Hunting Back up
Many veteran pheasant hunters would rather hunt in late season than fight the early-season crowds. Although the birds "wise up" in a hurry, you can still have good success in late season if you proceed as follows:
•Look for wetlands and other very dense cover areas. As the season progresses, birds seek heavier and heavier cover.
•Try to find offbeat spots, such as a small clump of trees and brush in the middle of a section. Most hunters are not willing to walk this far to work a small piece of cover, so these spots sometimes load up with birds.
• Check any road ditches with dense cover, such as cattails or horsetail. Ditches give the birds easy access to the gravel needed to grind food in their gizzard.
• Work grassy ditches, sloughs or other brushy cover adjacent to newly harvested crop fields. If you watch as a cornfield is being picked, for instance, you’ll often see birds flying into these areas.
• Keep noise to a minimum. Pheasants rely heavily on their hearing to detect danger and will often flush hundreds of yards ahead if you slam your car door or yell at your hunting partner or dog. The birds get jumpier as the season progresses. Noise is not as big a problem on windy days.
• For long-range shots often required in late season, use a modified or full-choke shotgun with high brass, size 4, 5 or 6 shot.
Hunting Pheasants in Row crop Fields Back up
Today’s clean, well-manicured row crop fields are less than ideal for pheasant hunting. The birds often begin running out one end of the field soon after hunters walk into the other.
In years past, hunting a row crop field was much like hunting a block of grassy cover. The crops were much shorter and there was considerably more weedy ground cover than is the case today. Pheasants held much longer, so one or two hunters could work the field and have a good chance of flushing birds at close range.
If you’re lucky, you may still find an occasional dirty field; if you do, it will probably hold more birds than other nearby fields.
The open rows in today’s clean fields make perfect running lanes for pheasants. The only practical way to hunt such a field is by driving it with a group of hunters and placing posters at the end.
Some hunters who own good bird dogs refuse to hunt clean fields because they’re not conducive to good dog work. Even a well-trained dog finds it hard to resist chasing a rooster down an open corn row. But in early season, when a high percentage of the crops are still standing, there may be no other choice, because that’s where the birds are.
Don’t ignore crop stubble, especially if it has scattered weed patches. The stubble makes a prime feeding area and is usually high enough to conceal a sneaking rooster.
Hunting row crop fields is most productive the first and last two hours of the day, although they may hold pheasants anytime. Avoid hunting these fields in windy weather. The rustling leaves are so noisy that you may not hear the birds flush. And you probably won’t be able to hear the footsteps of your hunting partners or your dog.
When hunting row crop fields, follow these simple guidelines:
•Try to drive manageable strips, no more than two hundred yards wide. It’s very difficult to pin birds down in a huge field, no matter how many hunters in your party.
•Small parties can work big crop fields by concentrating on edge rows, always pushing them toward the corners.
•Don’t attempt to hunt a row crop or stubble field unless you have posters at the end, preferably at intervals of no more than 60 yards. Posters must remain silent and as inconspicuous as possible, so as not to alert the birds. Otherwise, they may flush prematurely.
•Posters and drivers should wear a blaze-orange cap when hunting crop fields; this way, they can see one another more easily in the tall cover.
•Drivers should walk into the wind; this way, the birds are less likely to hear them coming, and dogs can pick up scent more easily. A favorable wind also helps the dogs hear running pheasants.
•Position drivers at 15- to 20-yard intervals, and make sure the middle drivers stay a little behind the outer drivers; this way, the birds usually funnel toward the middle. Drivers should zigzag a little to keep the birds from stopping or doubling back. lf there is thick cover adjacent to the field, include it in your drive.
•Be alert when drivers approach posters; birds running down the rows will be trapped near the end and many may flush at once. Never shoot at birds flying low over the field; there could be another hunter in the line of fire.
•Flushers generally work best in open crop fields; pointers may have difficulty pinning the birds down. In cut fields, however, birds often hold under fallen leaves and stalks, where pointers can pin them down more easily.
Hunting Pheasants in Tall Grass Back up
Most tall grass fields in pheasant country are a result of federal land-retirement programs intended to reduce crop production and combat soil erosion. Farmers receive government payments for keeping their land idle. After the land is taken out of production, it is planted with a variety of grasses to stabilize the soil while providing cover for wildlife.
The "Soil Bank" program, in effect from 1957 to 1963, is credited for greatly improving pheasant populations throughout the plains states. In west-central Minnesota, for instance, pheasant counts doubled within two years of the program’s inception. Six years after the program ended, the pheasant population had plummeted to one-fifteenth the level in peak program years. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which began in 1985, has also been verysuccessful in bolstering pheasant populations. In Iowa, for example, the pheasant harvest increased about 50 percent during the program’s first six years.
CRP fields make better pheasant habitat than hay fields. They provide ideal nesting and roosting cover and, unlike hay fields, are not mowed around nesting time. Mowing destroys the nests or kills the chicks. The government may grant permission to mow CRP fields, however, in cases of severe drought that results in a food shortage for cattle.
Most grass fields contain little pheasant food, so the ones near crop fields are likely to hold the most birds. Height and density of cover are also important. Tall, dense fields are much better than short, sparse ones.
You can find birds in grass fields throughout the hunting season, as long as a heavy snowfall doesn’t flatten the cover too much and force pheasants into brushy cover, woodlots or wetlands.
Pheasants usually fly out of grass fields within two hours after sunrise, then return in mid- to late morning, after they finish feeding. They normally fly out to feed again in late afternoon. Spend some time watching them with binoculars to get a better idea of their daily movement schedule.
Dog work in grassy cover is best on humid days, because moist grass holds scent better than dry grass. But if the grass is too wet, pheasants won’t stay in it.
A good flusher is especially important in hunting tall grass cover, where there is nothing to stop the birds from running and downed birds are notoriously hard to find. Some pointers can learn to follow and relocate running birds, but others find it hard to pin them down; when they’re pointing, the bird is running ahead.
With a big group of hunters, you can drive a large grass field much as you would a crop field. Start at one edge of the field, spread out at about 15-yardintervals and start walking. When you reach the end of the field, move over and take another swath in the opposite direction. Continue until the entire field has been covered. Posters can be used, but are not as essential as in hunting crop fields; in the heavier cover, the birds are not as likely to run to the end of the field. As in crop field hunting, all hunters should wear blaze-orange caps.
Another effective way to hunt tall grass, especially for one or two hunters, is to start on the downwind side and follow your dog. Don’t try to tell the dog where to go; allow it to work out every scent trail. Make sure, however, to work the edges, especially those adjacent to crop fields.
If you don’t have a dog, the only option is to hunt very slowly, stopping periodically to make the birds nervous. On a quiet day, you may be able to hear birds moving through the grass.
Hunting Pheasants in the SnowBack up
A heavy snow immediately changes the way pheasants behave, forcing you to modify your hunting tactics. You’ll no longer find birds in light cover, such as grass fields, because snow mats down the vegetation. Instead, look for them in spots that offer secure overhead cover and protection from the wind, such as dense cattail marshes, brushy draws and woodlots.
The first snowfall of the year makes birds nervous. Most of them have never seen snow and it seems to confuse them. You’ll often see them standing out in the open or scurrying across roads when the snow starts to fall.
The birds frequently allow themselves to become snowed in beneath the cover. Sometimes they will stay in their hiding spots for a day or two after a snowstorm has subsided. But, in most cases, they come out to feed on the first calm, sunny day following a snowstorm.
Although pheasants tend to be spookier when snow covers the ground, they’re more concentrated and easier to find than they were in early season, because there is much less usable feeding area and hiding cover. Birds congregate in areas where they can find food most easily. Sometimes a prime feeding area will attract birds from several sections of land.
Watch for groups ,of feeding birds as you drive around, and look for feeding sign, such as ground scratchings, as you hunt. Be sure to work any brushy cover, such as willow clumps, plum thickets and shelterbelts, near feeding areas.
Always look for fresh pheasant tracks to determine if birds are using an area. With a little practice, you’ll be able to distinguish the tracks of a rooster from those of a hen; a rooster’s tail usually leaves a drag mark in the snow.
Following rooster tracks can be a productive hunting method, but only right after a snowfall. Otherwise, you won’t be able to determine if the tracks are fresh.
Most hunters prefer to use flushing dogs in heavy snow. Birds hunkered down in a snow clump emit very little scent. A pointer, which relies mainly on air scent, may run right past the clump; a flusher, which trails ground scent, will stick his nose into it.
Many hunters make the mistake of dressing too warmly when hunting in snow. A heavy parka will cause you to sweat when you walk, and you’ll get colder than if you wore a lighter coat. Heavy felt pack boots also make your feet sweat; lightweight, insulated Gore-Tex boots keep them warm and dry.
When hunting in snow in late season, use a full- or modified-choke shotgun and size 4 or 5 shot, because the birds tend to flush wild. Some hunters even use 2 shot for extra distance. When birds get this spooky, it’s difficult to hunt alone successfully. If a partner approaches from the opposite direction, however, one of you will probably get some shooting.
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