Finding and hunting microhabitats for today’s pheasants.
By Chris Nelson
The pheasant landscape in the Dakotas has changed. The oodles of birds found during the 1990s and even the early 2000s are gone. A new era has begun, and sadly it’s one with fewer pheasants.
Causes for the decline are many. The federal government’s reduction of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres, coupled with the conversion of grassland into row crops over the last decade, has eliminated millions of acres of habitat. In addition, advances in agriculture, from drain tiling to GPS technology, have accelerated this transition.
While most of this transition is good for farm and ranch families — and to all Dakotans to some degree, as agriculture drives our economy — it’s bad for pheasants. Less habitat means fewer birds. It’s that simple.
The days of 20 hunters walking 640-acre swaths of CRP and shooting 60 birds in a couple hours are gone. However, plenty of opportunities remain if hunters recalibrate their approach and expectations.
It’s time to think smaller and smarter. Hunting small, often overlooked spots should be your new normal. Below are a few tips on reinventing your approach to today’s pheasant landscape.
Microhabitats are small-scale environments that support wildlife. They are both planned and incidental.
Planned microhabitats include small shelterbelts, food plots and grass strips. Many farmers and landowners plant these specifically for wildlife, so they’re not hard to identify. These microhabitats are not the large-scale, planned environments found on shooting preserves or hunting leases, but instead small oases amongst cultivated land.
Incidental microhabitats include weed patches around feed lots, sloughs, riparian edges, fencerows and ditches. These small habitats often exist for two reasons: it’s too much work and expense to eliminate them, and many farmers are conservationists who realize the important role these microhabitats play within the ecosystem.
Planned microhabitats are obvious. Their purpose is to provide wildlife cover. On the flip side, incidental microhabitats often go unnoticed and provide a bonus opportunity to bag a bird.
Whether planned or incidental, micro-spots hold birds, but usually not in huge numbers. This limits hunters, but constraint can be a good thing.
Walking a fencerow or slough edge with your daughter or son is perfect. It’s safe, and the action will be slow and somewhat more controlled, allowing you to devote all your time to the young hunter. Hectic flurries of 20 roosters bursting out with multiple shots fired from a line of over-zealous hunters will not happen. In this case, it will usually be one bird and one opportunity — a perfect mentoring situation.
Microhabitats are also great to hit with a couple of buddies. You’ll be able to sufficiently cover them with a few hunters, and everyone might get a shot if things go your way.
Of course, going solo is also an option. String enough microhabitats together, and you might have enough to walk all day.
No matter which microhabitat you hunt or how many people take the field, there is an art to hunting small spaces. As the landscape has changed, so have pheasants. Understanding this evolution is important if you want to optimize the limited hunting spots available.
Microhabitats and Pheasants
Pheasants are smart. Let me repeat that: pheasants are smart. Let that sink in.
Today’s birds aren’t the roosters your grandpa hunted in the 1960s. They’re wilder, craftier and more evasive than ever before.
My unscientific opinion is that they’ve evolved. I think interbreeding with pen-raised birds that grow up under a 10-foot net has increased an already natural propensity away from flight. That makes for a dang wily bird.
Also, tremendous hunting pressure educates birds quickly. The ones that live through the season are smart. They’re survivors, and they pass those instincts along to their progeny.
Finally, pheasants are under constant pressure from nonhuman hunters. Sure, this has always been the case, but today there is far less habitat across the landscape, which compresses predators into smaller areas. More predators in smaller areas means fewer birds.
Tips for Approaching Microhabitats
The biggest advantage a pheasant hunter has while hunting tiny parcels is stealth. The quiet pheasant hunter kills more birds. Surprising birds is key.
Why do many hunters fail to grasp this? Once again, hunters fall back on tradition. In the past, making noise — lots of noise — was seen as necessary to flush pheasants. At times it probably was, but those days are long gone. Today, the quieter you are, the more shots you’ll get.
First, don’t drive anywhere near where you’ll be hunting. That extra noise and commotion lets pheasants know, “Hey, something different is happening today,” putting them on alert.
Walking to your spot is mandatory — even the blockers. This requires a little more exercise, time and planning, but it’s worth it. By keeping the element of surprise you’ve already gained a huge advantage.
It’s also important to keep quiet on the walk out and not talk. Use hand signals to move people into place. You don’t need a complicated code. A hand up means stop, point the desired direction you want someone to go and swing your arm to start the drive.
Dogs are almost always an asset when pheasant hunting, right? That’s sure true for obedient dogs. Wild dogs, not so much. A bad dog can absolutely kill you when hunting tiny patches of cover. If a dog goes AWOL in a large field and blows out pheasants 300 yards in front of everyone, you can recover. It’s a large habitat — you can regroup and attack another part of it once the problem dog (and maybe his owner) is dealt with.
In a small patch, you don’t have that luxury. A rogue dog can ruin the entire spot in minutes. Although it’s counterintuitive, consider leaving the dog behind on some walks.
Tips for Walking Microhabitats
Walking in the standard straight line works, but don’t be afraid to freelance. I almost always walk a zigzag when moving through cover. It’s not a random zigzag, though, as I’m often bouncing from one type of cover to another.
Different types of grasses and patches of weeds often intermix. Pheasants relate to these transition areas or, if they’re running in front of you, take flight when the cover changes. Skipping around from stands of switchgrass to weed patches to short grass gives you a great chance of busting birds, especially if you don’t have a dog.
Quiet is still key, though. In fact, total silence can be absolutely deadly, especially when used between short bursts of commotion, if you’ve got the patience to use it.
I’ll often walk fast for 40 or 50 yards in one direction and then stop dead in my tracks. Sometimes I’ll stand there for a couple minutes, just listening. If I hear something moving, I’ll push in that direction and stop in silence again. If I hear nothing, I’ll burst in another direction and listen.
I’ve shot a heck of a lot of pheasants doing this. As I’m standing there silently, they’ll bust up at my feet or behind me or wherever they’ve been hiding. It’s an unbelievably solid tactic.
I’m not sure why it works so well. I believe when pheasants all of a sudden hear a potential predator crashing through their area and then lose track of the sound, they freak out. The silence unnerves them until they eventually can’t stand it anymore and resort to flight.
These are smart birds that hunker down and let hunters walking in a line stroll right on by. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve backtracked across fields recently pushed by hunters and killed plenty of pheasants this way. I’m a total believer.
Another tip is to keep the sun at your back whenever possible. First, you won’t be looking at the sun when trying to identify a rooster. Second, by looking away from the direction of the sun you’ll be more likely to spot a few blades of grass or cattails moving as pheasants try to sneak away.
Small spots burn out faster than big ones. It’s important not to overhunt these areas and allow the pheasants that live in them time to rest and settle down.
Yet, microhabitats will replenish. As surrounding row crops are harvested throughout the hunting season, pheasants will condense into any microhabitats left standing. Always hunt a small patch of cover adjoining a recently picked corn or soybean field. This is especially true if all the crops in the area have been harvested.
It’s also smart to manage the ecosystem of these areas to the extent possible. Trapping is a good start, as is putting in a water source amongst the cover. Water tanks made specifically for wildlife are available. The less a pheasant is exposed, the less chance a predator has to pick it off.
Also, many farms have junk piles or dilapidated buildings near patches of habitat. This debris houses raccoons and other varmints that prey on pheasants and their eggs. Removing these scavengers will increase pheasant survival rates. Even better, helping a farmer clean up the yard is a good way to ensure you have a place to hunt.
Pheasant hunting sure ain’t what it used to be, but in the Dakotas it’s still pretty darn good. The trick nowadays is understanding that finding and managing microhabitats is the new normal for average hunters who want to carry on their pheasant hunting traditions. Hunting approaches and hunter expectations need to be downsized a bit to match today’s landscape, but the opportunity to shoot a few birds is still out there.
About the Author: Chris Nelson is a freelance writer from Pierre, S.D.