Pheasant Hunting 101
Pheasant hunting requires some advance planning. First, you will need to do a little scouting; it will pay off in the long run. Study the pheasant counts of the Department of Natural Resources that are put out late in the summer. Study this and do some of your own scouting. Drive around early in the 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 opens.
Make sure you are properly outfitted. General pheasant hunting clothing includes a blaze orange hunting jacket or vest with a large pouch to carry your harvest, brush pants or chaps, and a blaze orange hat so your hunting partners can see you. Comfortable boots with good ankle support will make the day more enjoyable.
Learn to take your time when shooting. When a rooster takes flight it sounds like a locomotive just ran next to you. Even veteran hunters lose their composure at this time. If you make the mistake of rushing your shot, the bird will fly away untouched. If you do manage to hit the bird at close range, there will not 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 is because most hunters want to get the young birds that are easier to find. Hunting pressure is normally heaviest on opening weekend and tapers off as season progresses.
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 change your tactics with the season.
Early in the season you can find pheasants most anywhere, including grass fields, cattail sloughs, cornfields, roadside ditches, and brush draws. They may be in light or heavy cover. Public hunting areas, though crowded, produce a lot of birds. Here are some early season 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 diehard hunters.
• For the close range shooting likely in early season, most hunters prefer improved cylinder or modified choke shotguns with high brass size 7 or 7 ½ shot.
Many veteran pheasant hunters would rather hunt in late season than fight the early season crowds. Although the birds get smarter real fast you can still have good success in late season. Here are some late season tips.
• Look for wetlands and other very dense cover areas. As the season progresses, birds seek 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. 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 you will 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 dog or hunting partner. The birds get jumpier as the season progresses. Noise is not as big of a problem on windy days.
• For long range shots often required late in the season, use a modified or full choke shotgun with high brass, size 4, 5 or 6 shot.
Row Crop Tactics
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 a lot weedier 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 are lucky, you may still find an occasional dirty field; if you do, it will probably hold more birds than nearby fields.
The open rows in today’s 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 are not conductive to good dog work. Even a well-trained dog finds it hard to resist chasing a rooster down an open crop row. But in early season, when a high percentage of the crops are still standing there may be no other choice, because that is where the birds are.
Do not 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 birds 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 will not be able to hear the footsteps of your hunting partner or dog.
Here are some more tips:
• Try to drive manageable strips, no more than two hundred yards wide. It is very difficult to pin birds down in a huge field, no matter how many hunters in your group.
• Small groups can work big crop fields by concentrating on edge rows, always pushing them toward the corners.
• Do not attempt to hunt a row crop or stubble field unless you have posters at the end, spread no more than 60 yards apart. Posters must remain silent as possible. Otherwise, the birds might flush too soon.
• Posters and drivers should wear blaze orange vests and jackets 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 15 yards apart, and make sure the middle drivers stay a little behind the outer drivers. Drivers should zigzag to keep the birds from stopping or doubling back.
• Flushers generally work best in open crop fields; pointers may have a hard time pinning the birds down. In cut fields, birds often hold under fallen leaves and stalks, where pointers can pin them down more easily.