By Andrew Johnson
Four of us, all with Labs, kept pushing the half-mile-long strip of standing corn. We were heading west, the sun still high enough to where it warmed our faces even as the November air grew colder.
The hunt started slow at first, but about halfway through the 24-row-wide strip a tight-holding rooster rocketed skyward over the head-high corn. The hunter to my right made a clean shot on the bird before it could slip out the side door. His dog made a quick retrieve, and we were able to hold the line and keep pushing west without having to break stride.
About 100 yards later, the dogs picked up their already frantic pace as the evening air settled, trapping pheasant scent between the corn rows.
Peering down the rows, I could see a glimpse of my yellow Lab streaking through the corn, his yellow coat melting into the bronze and maize. Other Labs of different shades were also crisscrossing through the rows. Even further ahead I could see pheasant silhouettes scuttling forward, running and darting between rows.
“They’re running up ahead,” I yelled to my friends. “Keep the dogs close, and let’s hope the blockers are ready!”
With the end of the strip now in sight, two blaze-orange hats — one posted on the right, the other on the left — stood out against the horizon. After we advanced another 50 yards toward the blockers, pheasants started erupting from the corn. Three or four shot out the end, then a half-dozen more. We continued our push, and like a batch of popcorn that has finally reached its boiling point, birds kept popping out of the corn well ahead of us.
As walkers we were still about 30-40 yards out of range of the flushing birds, but it seemed our push had worked to perfection. The birds were streaming straight west toward a wetland area where we knew they wanted to go, as it was the only suitable roosting cover in the area. Their path would take them right past our blockers.
Shot after shot rang out, the sound of each cascading toward us through the corn rows. We answered back with a chorus of “Roooooster!” as we kept calling out birds, trying to alert the blockers more birds were on the way.
More shots were fired — too many to count — but we couldn’t really see what was happening up ahead due to the height of the corn.
The shooting died down, and we pressed on. A few birds, all hens, held tight near the end of the strip, providing additional excitement for all six of us. Finally satisfied there were no more birds left in the strip, the four of us walked out the end and excitedly greeted our blockers.
“How many did you guys get?” I asked, expecting them to show us a pile of dead birds. After hearing all those shots, even the dogs were racing around with expectation, noses to the ground in the cut corn trying to find dead roosters.
“One,” came the sheepish reply from one of the blockers, who shall remain nameless for pride’s sake. He held up the lone rooster as proof.
“One?” I asked, half in disbelief. I turned my attention to the other blocker. “There must’ve been a dozen roosters that flew right past you. What happened?”
If you’ve hunted pheasants long enough, this story probably sounds all too familiar. I’ll admit I was a bit frustrated that day, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been in the blockers’ shoes before.
I’ve missed more than my fair share of pheasants while walking and blocking, but along the way I’ve learned a few things. There is definitely an art to blocking, and it’s not as easy as most hunters proclaim it to be. However, with a few minor adjustments, pheasant hunters can rediscover the art of blocking.
The Art of Blocking
In some circles, blocking is a position of status that’s typically reserved for the elder statesmen of the group. Pheasant hunters who have earned their stripes by trudging through every type of cover for decades are rewarded by plugging the gaps at the ends of fields as younger men pound the cover.
This is a tradition, and it’s a great tradition. However, there are times when tradition should not stand in the way of a hunt’s success. That said, consider sprinkling in some crack shots with blockers who may not shoot or hunt as much as they once did.
The shot opportunities encountered while blocking are often the most difficult. Rarely does a bird flush close by, which means they have a full head of steam by the time they’re in range. Remember, a pheasant’s flight speed often reaches speeds upwards of 40 mph, and that number only goes up when the birds’ adrenaline is pumping or they have the wind at their back. Because of this, many shots require blockers to swing hard on a bird or ask them to shoot in an uncomfortable, vertical fashion at a high-speed, long-range target.
In reality, blocking is often more like pass-shooting ducks and geese than pheasant hunting, and properly leading birds is a necessity. It only makes sense to make the best use out of hunters who handle a shotgun more often and are more accustomed to widely variable shot opportunities. If you hunt in a group where the status quo is to position the same individuals at the end of the field every time, consider switching things up to see if it leads to more success.
With that in mind, hunters face a decision when it comes time to make best use of their shooting and hunting resources. If you have enough hunters to efficiently hunt the cover and also effectively close down all the exits with blockers, then it’s a win-win situation.
However, if you’re undermanned and don’t have enough hunters to do both, you have to pick your battle. Do you devote more hunters to pounding the cover and risk missing opportunities at birds that are sure to flush out the sides and ends of cover? Or do you use more blockers to plug additional gaps and risk missing tight-holding birds by not hunting the cover as efficiently?
The number of hunters in your party is the primary factor in making these decisions, but I would argue the answers also depend largely on whether you’re hunting during the early or late season.
If it’s early in the season, I would advise using more walkers than blockers for a number of reasons.
First, if it’s early there is more habitat on the landscape pheasants would rather run to than fly to. In addition to CRP, grassy waterways and other “light” types of cover pheasants may frequent in the early season, a majority of the crops, namely corn and sunflowers, are still standing. This gives pheasants too many options they can run toward or hunker down in, meaning you’re better off pounding the cover rather than expecting every bird in the field to grow anxious and take flight.
Also, with so many cover options available, it’s hard to guess where the birds might want to go, meaning choosing escape routes to block becomes more difficult. And, rest assured, as soon as you pick one the pheasants will choose the door you left open.
As the season progresses, the amount of suitable pheasant habitat is drastically reduced. Crop fields are combined, and cold weather moves birds into thermal cover, effectively cutting down a pheasant’s options to find cover in half. At this time, it’s not a bad idea to employ more blockers than walkers.
With fewer habitat options around, it takes fewer walkers to efficiently cover an area, and hunters can better guess what direction birds will want to go, making decisions on where to block much easier. Also, if pheasants have been hunted and shot at a few times already, they’re more likely to flush wild than sit tight. To combat the jumpy nature of late-season birds, using more blockers than walkers will likely give your group more shot opportunities.
The Science of Blocking
When it comes to blocking, hunters need to alter their mental approach to ensure they set themselves up for success. They cannot approach blocking with the same attacking mindset as if they were walking through cover. They must be patient, and once in position, always stand at-the-ready for oncoming traffic.
Speaking of position, far too often people get lazy and drive to the end of the field, park their vehicle, slam their doors and stand out in the wide open, hoping a pheasant will somehow ignore this audacious behavior and fly directly at them. If you volunteer or are asked to block, do yourself and your friends a favor and move as silently as possible to your post and get ready for the action.
At the same time, it’s vitally important in any blocking scenario for the walkers to have enough patience to make sure all of the blockers are in position prior to entering a field. All too often walkers jump the gun and end up pushing birds out the end of the field before the blockers are set up and ready. My best advice is for walkers to just hold their horses and do it right, because jumping the gun defeats the purpose of having blockers.
Blockers should try to cover as much of the cover’s perimeter as possible, as pheasants will inevitably try to split the gap between blockers in an equidistant manner. It really is quite something, and quite frustrating, to see birds flush and fly just out of range in between blockers.
Try to cut off as many escape routes as possible, but if your blocker numbers are limited, try to post between the cover you’re walking and any other type of security cover in the area — determine where pheasants want to go, and get in their way. Also, have blockers try to match up their shooting radius with that of other blockers posted on the sides and ends of the field, which will effectively maximize your group’s shooting range.
About 80 yards apart is ideal, for if blockers are standing too close to each other, it leaves holes in the trap. Same goes for standing too far apart.
Also, as you prepare to block, pick a spot that offers level footing and clear sight lines. If you’re standing in a cut cornfield, for example, it’s easy to end up in a spot where a false step left or right puts your front foot on a plowed-up chunk of dirt or into a row of 6-inch-high corn stalks. If you’re standing in grass, weeds or a fence line, lightly tramp down the cover to ensure no badger holes or rocks will affect your footing should you have to alter your stance and swing on a bird.
And last, understand that if you’re blocking it’s highly unlikely you’ll have a shot that’s less than 30 yards, which means you need to use shells that pack a punch. To that end, the No. 6 shotshells in your vest should be replaced with high-quality, high-velocity loads in 4- and 5-shot sizes that give you extended range and knockdown power.
The Voodoo of Blocking
There are times, however, when you can set up perfectly and birds will still give you the slip. For example, I can think of dozens of times when pheasants bucked a 30 mph prairie wind to go the opposite direction than they were “supposed” to go, fleeing upwind while all the blockers were positioned on the downwind side of a patch of cover. At other times, even hunters who rarely miss can come up empty on a blocking assignment and be left scratching their heads as to why they whiffed on several birds. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.
When it comes to blocking, there are no guarantees. It’s is simply an educated guess at cutting birds off at where they’re likely to go — nothing more, nothing less — but the mystery involved in trying to outsmart a wily rooster only adds to pheasant hunting’s overall appeal.
While it’s far from a perfect solution, blocking is still one of the best ways to end up with more birds at the end of a group pheasant hunt. This fall, put a little more thought into your blocking strategies and see if you and your buddies can’t drop a few more roosters along the way.
About the Author: Andrew Johnson is editor of Outdoor Forum. Follow along on Twitter @OutdoorForumMag.