— By Andrew Johnson, Editor
When the first bird flushed, the familiar sound and rhythm of its wings caused my heart to skip a beat. I could tell it was an immature rooster that had not yet fully donned its rainbow of adult feathers, but I didn’t shoulder my gun.
“Rooster!” I shouted more instructively than instinctively, as the bird rode the west wind toward my son, Gavin.
He crumpled the bird with his first shot, and Gauge, our yellow Lab, made short work of the retrieve. Twenty steps later, two roosters broke to the left, and I notched my first double of the young season. Gauge retrieved one bird, while my 10-year-old daughter, Olivia, fulfilled her role as my backup bird dog and proudly held up the other.
While I was fumbling with my smartphone’s camera to get a quick picture of the kids and their birds, a fourth rooster broke from the cover, flying straight away to the north. Gavin missed clean on the first shot, but pulled some feathers off the rooster’s backside with his follow-up shot, causing the bird to set its wings and sail 50 yards before awkwardly dropping into a swath of reed canary.
We marked where the bird landed and pressed on through the tall, thick cover. It had been a wet year in this portion of South Dakota’s James River Valley, and the big bluestem and switch grass on this particular 80-acre patch of Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) ground had responded in kind. We were hunting during the state’s resident-only pheasant season, when resident hunters get first crack at roosters on public lands a week before South Dakota’s traditional pheasant season opens.
As we neared the downed bird’s location, Gauge’s pace quickened as his body faithfully followed his nose through the dense cover. The wounded bird soon jumped skyward but couldn’t maintain flight. It hit the ground running, and the chase was on. A minute later we had our fourth bird in hand, no more than 150 yards from where we parked.
We finished our walk in clockwise fashion around the edge of the CREP ground, turning east and then south before pushing headfirst into the west wind along the backstretch toward our vehicle. The hunter in me wanted to take advantage of the last 45 minutes of daylight by giving another nearby public area a try, but the dad in me thought it best to end the hunt on a high note. So, after a few quick photos we cased our guns, loaded up the dog and pointed the car toward a nearby gas station with the best soft-serve ice cream this side of the Missouri River.
Hunting in the early season isn’t without its challenges, but our success that day was no accident. We had scouted the area well, and even though the CREP area was bordered on two sides by standing corn, we knew the west wind would conceal our approach as birds moved back into the cover to roost for the night.
Many people look forward to the opener and first parts of the pheasant season, but heading out early in the season doesn’t guarantee you’ll shoot your limit of “dumb” or uneducated birds. In fact, there have been plenty of hunters — present company included — who have been humbled by the colorful birds when a majority of the crops are still standing and the countryside is blanketed with plenty of thick cover.
If you head out during the early season, keep these things in mind to have a more successful hunt.
Corn and pheasants seem to go hand in hand, and hunting in and around standing corn is never a bad idea. Keep in mind, though, that corn isn’t the only food available to pheasants, especially to young-of-the-year birds that make up a majority of the population.
A mature rooster or hen seeing its second October will turn to small grains and corn as preferred food sources because they are looking to build up fat reserves for the winter months. Building a layer of fat takes more energy, so that’s why mature pheasants turn to the small, calorie-packed grains found in the Dakota fields during the fall.
Young birds that hatched earlier in the summer, however, are still trying to feast on foods higher in protein as their bodies strive to reach maturity and as they continue molting into their adult plumage when pheasant seasons open in the Dakotas. They eat the same amount of food as adult birds and will indeed gobble up a crop full of corn, but foods higher in protein such as insects and seeds from thistle, grasses and sunflowers are still an important part of their diet.
A Pheasants Forever study written by Ken Solomon said that young-of-the-year birds consume only two-thirds the amount of crop grains as adult birds during September and October. What’s more, the study concluded young, adolescent birds consume nearly twice the amount of weed seeds and over two-and-a-half times the amount of insects that adults consume.
In other words, don’t be afraid to search for edge habitat that’s rife with weeds and bugs. Chances are that some young roosters that left mom and the nest behind only a month or so ago to go out on their own are likely to feed and loaf in these weed-choked areas rather than venture deep into the corn.
Fence lines running adjacent to green alfalfa fields aren’t a bad idea either. If you’ve ever hunted geese from layout blinds in an alfalfa field in September and October without bug spray, you can attest to the fact there are plenty of pesky insects around as long as a heavy frost or freezing temps haven’t hit yet. Pheasants know this, too, and it’s not uncommon to find tight-holding early birds in fence lines between open alfalfa fields and loafing or roosting cover.
Don’t Hunt Memories
A heavy part of pheasant hunting during the early season rests in tradition, where families and friends head to the same spots year after year, chasing down old memories while attempting to make new ones.
Personally, my all-time favorite pheasant spot is half-mile-long strip of trees in central South Dakota. Problem is, I’ve seen one rooster there the past two times I’ve walked it.
In the old days, meaning more than a decade or so ago, it was nothing for a group of 10 hunters to walk the shelterbelt and end up with a 30-bird limit, but those days are long gone. I hope someday the tree strip returns to glory, but in looking at the big picture — the land surrounding the tree belt — I know that it won’t be this year.
Pheasant populations shift for any number of reasons. Weather, habitat, changing food sources, predators, land development and more can cause birds to find a new home or die off. Failing to recognize environmental and landscape changes can lead to some disappointing hunts.
This is where scouting comes in, and, yes, you can scout for pheasants. Understanding the general routine a pheasant follows throughout the day during certain times of the year can boost your pheasant hunting success dramatically, and finding new fields to hunt is a never-ending process.
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 exist, but more often than not, you need all three to find consistent numbers of pheasants.
Pheasants annually cycle through four stages: mating/nesting in early spring, brood rearing in late spring and summer, foraging in late summer into fall and winter survival from late fall to spring. Of course, hunters need to pay special attention to the last two stages.
The foraging phase coincides with the early part of pheasant season. It can be tough to hunt efficiently because of the abundance of food sources and cover, so do your homework so you know where to start. For example, take an evening drive and jot down where you see birds moving to roost. On the other side of the coin, especially in South Dakota where you can’t start hunting until 10 a.m., catch the sunrise and see where birds are moving from cover to feed in the early hours of the day before you can hunt. Chances are high the birds you see at dawn won’t be too far from the same spot come midmorning when legal shooting hours arrive.
If you put forth the effort, scouting for pheasants can reveal some surprising results, as bird movement might not match the preconceived notions you’ve been using to plan your hunt for days or even years.
Perhaps the biggest mistake too many hunters make is not respecting the always-alert senses of a pheasant. While it’s true that some early birds aren’t educated yet and don’t associate a vehicle door slamming with imminent danger, they’re still on high alert for anything foreign when it comes to sights or sounds.
Whether it’s opening day or the last day of the season, the first thing you need to remember is that you’re stepping into a world in which a pheasant lives year-round. We’d never dream of hunting deer, turkeys or waterfowl in the same loud and carefree manner in which we sometimes hunt pheasants. However, a cagey rooster is every bit as slippery as a mature buck.
Pheasant hunters should help themselves right off the bat by committing to a stealthy approach. In other words, hunt the early season with the same stealth and care as you would during the late season when birds are pressured, jumpy and flat-out hard to kill.
First, park a significant distance from where you plan on hunting and take extra precautions never to slam doors or tailgates. A quarter-mile or so is sometimes too close. Yes, you read that correctly, as literally hoofing it the extra mile to get to a field is a good place to start.
Second, don’t yell at your dog or at your hunting partners. Dogs should be held in check or at heel, and a solid game plan should be set prior to the hunt and not made up at the field’s edge or while you’re walking through the cover.
If you have a demon dog that only wants to tear through cover, then maybe the best spot for him is at home in his kennel. Dogs that go rogue and can’t stay close without strong verbal attention will — not can or maybe — ruin your hunt.
Third, be prepared to hunt as soon as you hit the field. Any additional time spent loading guns, adding or subtracting a layer of clothing, or anything else that wastes time gives any bird in that field a chance to take extra steps away from you toward safety.
One of my biggest pet peeves is hunting with people who aren’t ready all the time when we are out and about chasing pheasants. Not being ready not only shows a shallow disrespect for pheasants, but also for hunting partners who have to wait for slowpokes to go through an entire pregame workout between each field.
Pheasants are known edge dwellers, and a common pheasant hunting practice is to typically work from one end of cover to the other, from the outside toward the middle.
However, one early season strategy I’ve used with success is to hunt the middle portions first — think of working a field inside-out — especially if I’m on my own or hunting with a small group.
Because many pheasants hang out along and in edge habitat, they often dive a short distance into deeper cover at the first sign of danger. However, if they’re pushed from the middle toward the edges first, it’s been my experience that they rarely retreat inward to the heavy stuff after you’ve already walked through it.
It takes some extra work, as busting through thick cover on warm October days can really make you sweat, but it’s worth the extra time and effort to push more birds into edge areas where dog work shines and shots and retrieves can be made in the open. In fact, when using this method, the first pass or two through the thick stuff doesn’t yield many birds, and any bird I do shoot in the middle I consider a bonus.
Keep your dog close on your first pass. It’s not even a bad idea to leave any dogs along for the hunt kenneled up during the first pass or two through the middle, only allowing them to join the hunt when you start working the edges.
This accomplishes two things. First, you won’t burn up your dog hunting thick cover. Second, it reduces the risk a dog will break from the middle and chase a bird too far toward the edge, causing it (and likely others) to flush out of range.
Early season birds typically sit tighter than late-season birds. Use this fact to your advantage and hunt the middle of a field first. As a result, you might be surprised at the number of extra flushes and shot opportunities you get as you mop up around the edges.
About the Author: Andrew Johnson is editor of Outdoor Forum. Follow @OutdoorForumMag on Twitter.