— By Dennis Foster
The behavior and survival skills of today’s pheasants are a far cry from what they were 10-20 years ago, but many hunters still use conventional, outdated tactics when they head to the field each fall.
What I am primarily referring to is the agonizingly slow approach that most folks take when they hunt pheasants. I do not care to be disrespectful to those who came before us and graciously passed down a hunting heritage. I have no doubt that, at the time, the slow-as-you-can-go crowd was killing more birds than most.
Old school is indeed cool, but times have changed and our hunting tactics must adapt accordingly. That being said, be prepared to throw out some old pheasant hunting habits and shift into high gear with a brand-new program that will simply put more birds in the bag.
I have been hot on the spurs of pheasants since the late 70s in Spink County, S.D., where the state’s first pheasant hunt was held in 1919. I even have the distinct honor of guiding my clients on the very land (Hagman’s Grove) where the first successful release took place in 1908. In this time frame, I have witnessed and observed many things, most notably that the birds have evolved dramatically as it relates to their knack of evading hunters, our dogs and a dose of shot.
About 10 years ago, I began noticing that roosters were cackling far less when busting from cover. I have also heard diminished crowing in the mornings when birds leave the roost and in the evenings when they return.
Furthermore, roosters are growing increasingly difficult for pointing dog breeds to pin down with a solid point. And, when a dog sticks a point, the birds simply don’t wait around for hunters to slip into position. As a result, dogs need to regroup and track moving birds for considerable distances, often right to the very end of the field.
Why is this? My strongly held opinion is that birds that cackle or hesitate for points are quickly killed and removed from the gene pool. It’s pretty hard for a bird to get safely out of range once it announces its desire to depart. Same goes for a bird that cockily crows as you pull up to a field. Crowing or cackling too much gets them killed in a hurry and ensures their noise-making traits aren’t passed down to the next generation. I am not a biologist, but I term what we are seeing as Darwinism in fast forward — it’s survival of the fittest on an enhanced scale.
At the same time, a positive aspect is that our birds have grown even hardier than they once were. South Dakota winters can be notoriously nasty. As a recent example, the winter of 2018-2019 was quite bad, even by our standards. That winter saw heavy snow, blizzard conditions and extended periods of sub-zero temps followed by even more heavy, wet spring blizzards. Once it all ended, I was astonished how many birds actually survived. I attribute this to the Darwinism theory once again, because it seems weaker birds have been weeded out, and what remains are some real genetic superstars and gives me considerable hope for the future.
Drastic changes in farming practices and even more telling, attitudes, have had a serious impact. The numbers of fallow acres, weedy fence lines and abandoned farmsteads keep dropping. Tree claims wisely planted to temper our harsh prairie winds are now being ignorantly removed to gain a questionable number of tillable acres. Row crops now resemble sterile racetracks for the birds to sprint down, which translates into far less nooks and crannies in which they can tuck and evade predators. Those that endure pass along the much warier traits needed to survive in their changing environment.
The amount and makeup of predators have undergone many changes. In years past, red fox posed the main threat to pheasants along with raptors such as hawks and owls. In the 1990s coyotes arrived in large numbers. They simply will not tolerate their more diminutive canine cousins and have either killed or driven most foxes out. As more formidable predators, coyotes have bigger bellies to fill and end up harassing more birds.
So, how does all this relate to our hunting strategy? Because the birds have definitely upped their game, if you want consistent success you can’t approach hunting season using yesterday’s attitude. I “coach” many hunters and their dogs every season, and I try to instill in all of them a sense of urgency and purpose when they hit the field.
Speaking of dogs, make sure to have yours completely prepared before you arrive in the field. Strapping on e-collars, watering and everything else should all be done prior to arrival. If you are hunting with dogs that are in the field together for the first time, I strongly recommend getting them acquainted long before the hunt so they can go through the doggy meet and greet — sniffing, growling, peeing and posturing. After they get that out of their system, they can then hit the ground ready to roll on to some roosters. If you have young, high-energy pups, it is a good idea to run them a mile or two beforehand. Burning off some of their teenage enthusiasm helps redirect their energy and concentration toward birds during the hunt, not youthful antics.
As for you, there is plenty of time for rooster tales once you have rooster tails in your bag and the hunt is completed. Jabbering equals jumpy birds. Once you arrive in the field, get everyone quickly into place and start your walk just as soon as possible. Steady and focused is paramount. Move at a brisk pace with the dogs always well within gun range.
By far the biggest mistake I see year after year with group after group of hunters I guide is over-ranging dogs. A simple tap of an e-collar and stern voice command should have them using all that good vigor and eagerness to work in a more conducive side-to-side manner, combing the cover more thoroughly in the process. If all a dog wants to do is sprint through a field and even an e-collar doesn’t help its hearing, there’s only one place for it — the kennel. Not sure about you, but every time I work a field I’d rather have a dog work a field and help present opportunities, not ruin them because it can’t work within range.
When I guide larger groups, we rely on what I term a “V-formation” with hunters and dogs walking in a straight line perpendicular to the field with one or two (depending on group size) “flankers” about 30 yards ahead to the outside. You want hunters working the edges to be slightly ahead of the dogs, which helps seal the birds in from either running or flying out ahead of the main group of walkers. If birds are busting out further ahead than that, say 75-100 yards, then stop your walkers and hustle the flankers up ahead to that point. They will be in perfect position to pop the flighty birds and quickly solve the problem.
Once a bird is down, get the dogs after it and picked up as soon as possible. The more time spent dallying around only makes other birds still in the cover more nervous and gives them time to get well ahead and out of harm’s way.
A quick, under control and continual pace is absolutely key. Slow hunters that stop here and there through a field kill fewer birds. In my mind, it’s just that simple. A faster pace keeps the birds slipping ahead of you until there is a change in cover type or density, or they hit the end of the field with blockers in place. This is where your flankers can stop and post the sides, and it’s also where everyone can finally slow down and let the dogs completely work out the remaining cover for plenty of close shots.
The evolution of our birds has also made them tougher to bring down. In my guided operations, I provide each and every shell fired as a way of respecting and conserving our resource. Inferior, inconsistent shells mean missed or wounded birds, so spending an extra buck or two on a box of shells is probably the best investment hunters can make.
Over the course of 40 plus years, I have evaluated every brand and load available — some are good, some are poor and many are overrated. It seems as though lots of flash on the box does not always equate to a big bang in the field. My personal findings have led me to rely on the Golden Pheasant offerings from Fiocchi for my guests. They provide a clean-burning and hard-hitting dose of nickel-plated shot that penetrates deeply for quick humane kills.
As far as shot size goes, think hot and heavy, hard and fast. Skip the 6 shot and start the season with plated 5s and then graduate on up to 4s after the first few weeks. After Thanksgiving, I believe 3-inch shells with heavy payloads are absolutely vital for ethically bagging rangy late-season roosters.
About the Author: Dennis Foster is a hunting and fishing guide in Mellette, S.D. He’s also a partner and host of Focus Outdoors TV. For more information, including how-to articles and videos, check out dakotapheasantguide.com.