By Andrew Johnson
Soon after this issue of Outdoor Forum publishes, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department will release the report of its annual pheasant brood survey. The report, which is traditionally unveiled around Labor Day Weekend, is heralded as the unofficial, official kickoff to pheasant season.
I would argue, however, that if you’ve waited until late August to start preparing for the upcoming pheasant season, you’re already a day late and a dollar short. I would also argue that if you wait around to see a report on how many roosters, hens and pheasant broods wildlife officials record on predetermined routes before making hunting plans for this fall, you’re missing the point. No matter the year, a limit of pheasants never magically appears on your doorstep or hits your windshield as soon as you cross state lines into the Dakotas. Success takes work, and the work should have already started.
Prepping for Pheasant Season
Even if bird populations are down, as they’re expected to be this year due to drought conditions that have ravaged large portions of the Dakotas, you should still be planning your hunt, and I believe pheasant hunting starts with a mindset. Wild birds are growing smarter and wilder each year, and if there’s fewer on the landscape in general, you’d better make up your mind that you’ll be ready to go the extra mile for your birds.
To go the extra mile, it should go without saying that your dog needs to be in tip-top hunting shape prior to the season’s opening bell. Temperatures will likely still be in the 70s and 80s at times in mid- to late October, and an overweight, out-of-shape couch potato is exponentially more susceptible to heat stress than a properly conditioned gun dog.
Every year, too many hunters expect their dog to be a rock star right out of the gate, even if the dog’s seen nothing but the inside of a kennel for the last nine months. Although it’s a little late in the game, there’s still time to knock some rust off your dog prior to the season. In addition to walks and field work, even backyard sessions where simple obedience commands — sit, stay, heel, come, kennel — are reinforced will start reprogramming your dog’s brain into performance mode.
Being in shape goes for pheasant hunters, too. Early season treks through even light cover can take their toll on an out-of-shape hunter’s lungs, joints and muscles, and it’s easy to forget how difficult it is to bust through heavy cover such as cattails and waist-deep CRP.
Do yourself a favor and start preparing your body now for pheasant season. Not being able to finish a walk or having to quit a hunt early because you’re out of shape is completely avoidable for most pheasant hunters.
Do Your Homework
The waning summer months provide a great opportunity to scout — yes, scout — for pheasants. A pheasant basically needs three things to survive — food, cover and water. If an area is devoid of any of them, pheasants are unlikely to be found there. Exceptions to the rule do exist, but more often than not, you need all three to find consistent numbers of pheasants.
In addition to scouting for these three factors, in dry years such as this it’s a wise move to research past precipitation maps to see if the areas you hunt received timely, measurable amounts of rainfall this spring and summer.
Rain, of course, promotes plant growth for ground cover that helps pheasant chicks survive, but it also helps more insects hatch, which, in turn, also helps more pheasant chicks survive. With the spotty rain we’ve had this year, some areas of a township might have had more rain than others just a mile or two down the road, meaning that this year’s crop of pheasants will likely be higher in areas that have had more rain. Know and understand where those areas are to increase your chances this fall.
Speaking of crops, late summer is also a perfect time to survey how this year’s agricultural crop rotation has altered the landscape. An area that was planted with corn last year is likely soybeans this year, and vice versa. However, that’s not the case 100 percent of the time.
Whether you hunt private or public land, it pays to know for sure what types of crops are planted adjacent to the habitat you hunt. Do your homework now so you’re not caught by surprise if the cornfield you thought would be next to your honey hole is planted with a different crop this year.
It also doesn’t hurt to give a conservation officer a call to get first-hand knowledge of the local pheasant population. Many conservation officers participate in the annual pheasant brood survey, driving the routes and recording the numbers that are tallied for the final report. However, they’re also driving around other parts of their county or coverage area on a daily basis and can tell you if the reports are accurate or if there are more or fewer pheasants around than what the survey indicated.
The same goes for other sources of information, too. Landowners can provide specific information, while mail carriers, UPS drivers, school bus drivers and more can give you tidbits of information that will prove useful once the season opens.
About the Author: Andrew Johnson is editor of Outdoor Forum. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.