— By John Pollmann
Pheasant numbers across the Dakotas dipped in places this year, remaining well below long-term averages, but this bit of bad news shouldn’t keep hunters from hitting the field. Even in lean times there are ample opportunities to shoot pheasants in both North and South Dakota, and for the hunter who is willing to hunt harder and smarter, this could turn out to be a season to remember.
Here are five tips on how to make it happen.
1. Be an Explorer
Heavy cattails, areas of thick grass and dense stands of trees are hard to walk, which is why pheasants will often start to utilize these types of cover after receiving hunting pressure at the start of the season. In a year of normal or above-normal pheasant production, there are likely enough birds in easier-to-walk blocks of cover that you don’t need to bust through the “tough stuff,” but when pheasant numbers are down, it’s time to get to work and go where other hunters aren’t willing to go.
This tip is especially true if you hunt public land, where birds already face increased amounts of pressure. Look for those corners of the public hunting area that may get missed or an area of heavy cover in the interior which may get ignored because of the effort needed to hunt it. If you continue to see signs of heavy hunting pressure, it may be best to move on to another spot.
Hunting these types of cover often requires using gear that can stand up to the stress. Be sure to pack your Muck Boots or other waterproof boots for walking through the cattails — especially this year, as the Dakotas have seen record amounts of precipitation — and invest in a pair of good hunting pants or chaps, like those from Filson, which will deflect the constant onslaught of pokes and slaps from grasses, weeds and tree branches.
2. All in the Timing
With pheasant numbers down, a hunter is smart to spend time in the field when birds are concentrated in areas of accessible cover, which includes the last hour of the day.
The “golden hour” is a preferred time for pheasant hunters to hit the field in any season, but these waning moments of daylight become even more important in lean times. After spending the day scattered across the countryside, pheasants condense their world to one of heavy cover to roost for the night, and a hunter is wise to follow.
The same can be said for those early morning hours in North Dakota, where shooting hours for pheasants start a half-hour before sunrise. However, South Dakota hunters are relegated to starting their hunt midmorning, meaning that last hour of daylight becomes even more important in years when pheasant numbers are down.
Another great strategy to use, particularly earlier in the season, is to plan a hunt around the harvest, hitting areas of cover when surrounding fields of crops are being combined, or shortly thereafter. As those vast fields of refuge disappear with some help from a combine, pheasants are forced to seek shelter elsewhere, making it a perfect time to be posted in nearby stands of grass or cattails.
Perhaps my personal favorite time to hunt pheasants is after a fresh snowfall, particularly during or just after the first snow of the year. Not only does the arrival of cold and snow concentrate the birds into cover such as cattails and trees, but pheasants also tend to hold longer in the cover, providing for better shooting opportunities. Really, anytime the ground receives a fresh layer of white the pheasant hunting really heats up.
Outside of these three windows of time and with pheasant numbers down, maybe your time this fall would be best spent in the tree stand or a duck blind instead. But when these opportunities knock, you won’t regret an hour or two of pheasant hunting.
3. Follow the Darn Dog
Any hunter who has tried tracking down pheasants without the aid of a Labrador retriever, German short-haired pointer or other pheasant dog knows just how hard it is to find a rooster in any type of cover. Yet, how many times are our four-legged partners questioned when they want to go right, but we’re pretty sure the bird went left?
One of my favorite stories — and one that many hunters can identify with — is of a hunter working the grasslands near Akaska, S.D., just east of the Missouri River.
While walking back to the truck after hunting a set of ridges and gullies, a bird flushed wild, just on the edge of shotgun range. The hunter shouldered his gun quickly and shot, and the bird dropped like a rock into the native prairie grass.
Thinking there might be more birds the area, the hunter and his group spread out and walked toward the downed bird. His dog, Blizzard, though eager to find the downed bird, was kept close to avoid flushing any remaining birds out of range.
After working the area thoroughly and not flushing another bird, the hunter and the others turned their attention to the downed bird. Blizzard, it seemed, had something else in mind.
The black Lab kept trying to take off, and her owner would call her back to where the bird had originally fallen. The group stomped around that bare ridge for about 10 minutes and didn’t find the bird, and in the meantime, the hunter lost track of Blizzard.
Thinking that the dog was on a dead sprint chasing after a wayward rooster or jackrabbit, the hunter was surprised to look in the distance and see his Lab running back toward the hunters with the bird in his mouth.
“That bird had run off about 150 yards while we were doing our thing, and Blizzard knew it the entire time,” the hunter later recalled. “I have no idea how many times it took before I finally became smart enough to know that the dog usually knows where the bird is better than I do.”
One sure-fire way to make every bird count this pheasant season is by trusting your dog. Follow the dog’s lead. Don’t kick yourself after watching your pup flush a rooster from a spot where you were pretty sure there weren’t any birds. Upland dogs are built to flush or point and retrieve, providing both the opportunity to shoot and making sure the bird makes its way to your game bag. Watching a good dog work is the main reason so many hunters take to the fields each fall, and they are also almost always right.
There’s a reason we feed them year-round, spend hours training and exercising them, and drop hundreds of dollars at the vet — so make it all worth it this fall by following the darn dog. You’ll be glad you did.
4. Hunt for Habitat
Pheasant hunters this fall will need to don their waterfowling hats from time to time and scout for the best habitat available. The search for quality habitat will save time in the long run by helping eliminate areas that may have produced pheasants during a year of strong production, but did little to add birds to the fall population this year when conditions were less than ideal.
Any attempt to increase the odds of finding good concentrations of birds is always a smart move, but there is more of a need to scout this year because of the flood conditions areas of the Dakotas experienced this spring and summer. What may have been a great quarter-section of Walk-In Area last year could be a lake this year. Plus, many roads are washed out, flooded or otherwise impassable, meaning the shortest distance between two points might not necessarily be a straight line this fall.
While scouting, hunters should look for a variety of quality habitat that supports pheasants and their various needs throughout a calendar year — cool-season grasses for nesting and brood rearing, cattails or other thick, thermal cover for handling the cold, etc. — as well as adequate food sources in the nearby vicinity. When winter arrives, hunters should be on the lookout for evidence of pheasants that have been searching for food underneath the snow in fields of corn or other crops.
Scratchings are a great indicator birds are in the area, and they’re easily revealed as birds peel back snow and ice to expose bare earth and hidden scraps of grain. In these cases, any nearby stands of cover are likely holding pheasants.
5. Go It Alone
For many hunters, pursuing the wily ring-necked pheasant is a social affair, but in this year of lower bird numbers, it may be time to consider making a go of it alone.
The tactical rationale behind this change is twofold. First, it only takes a day or two of hunting before pheasants become conditioned to run or fly at the sound of truck doors closing, voices shouting instructions, barking dogs and the metallic ring of a gun action closing. Much of a pheasant’s advanced warning system is rendered useless simply by reducing the number of those in pursuit.
More importantly, though, a solo hunter can attack a field or particular piece of cover in a way not possible with a large group. A wetland edge or grassy fence line may not be big enough to attract the attention of a party of five or six hunters, but those slivers of cover are perfect for the solo hunter and a dog.
Additionally, a solo hunter often ends up targeting different terrain than a larger group, simply because he can. Going alone allows a hunter a certain level of flexibility, allowing him to modify a game plan at any time and react immediately to where the birds are, or where they aren’t.
During a late-season hunt several years ago on a large game production area, a recent snow storm had dumped several inches of snow on the ground, but on this day the sky was bright blue with an occasional cloud, the temperature warm enough to warrant only a sweatshirt under my vest.
There were two vehicles already in the main parking area of the public ground when I arrived, and I slowed while driving by and watched as a small group of hunters began trudging through a thick stand of cattails.
After crossing the fence a half-mile or so down the road, I angled toward the edge of a wetland, hoping to catch a rooster snoozing in the thermal cover.
My yellow Lab lunged through the softening snow, leaving loping prints in his wake, and worked his way into the heavy grass and cattails only to bounce back outside into lighter cover. I took his change of course as an attempt to escape some extra work and directed him back inside. In spite of my efforts, the Lab continued to bump outside of the cover, finally causing me to pause and look around. Follow the darn dog, remember?
The rolling hills surrounding this particular frozen wetland were covered with switchgrass — not thick stuff, but thin enough to the point you could clearly see the snow through the clumps of grass. My dog and I began to quietly ascend the nearest hill, and almost immediately the steady rhythm of his tail increased, indicating the presence of a bird in the area.
Soon enough I saw the fresh tracks of a pheasant in the snow, spaced close enough to suggest that the bird was not running away from us. My Lab worked the hillside in earnest, finally reaching the crest and coming to a complete stop in front of a clump of switchgrass.
A quick, whispered “Get ‘em up!” was all it took to send the dog into the cover, and seconds later a brilliantly colored rooster rocketed into the December sky.
While waiting for my dog to bring the bird to hand, I looked down and saw a melted patch of ground on the south side of the clump of switchgrass. This bird was probably tired of spending time cooped up in the cattails, opting instead to sun himself on the grassy flat. It was a scene that repeated itself two more times that day, and with a limit of roosters, my dog and I angled back toward the truck.
Would we have done the same in a large group? I’m not sure. What I do know is that we changed our plan quickly, quietly and found the birds.
And finding birds is always the goal of any pheasant hunt. It might be a little harder to do this year, but, if you’re willing, there’s always a way. Here’s to hoping you find it.
About the Author: John Pollmann is a freelance outdoor writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.