— By John Pollmann
As far as I can tell, there are no schools where pheasants learn to use their natural abilities to outmaneuver two-legged hunters. There are no online courses or masters programs or weekend meetings at the community center.
Pheasants figure out how to fly, run or hide on their own, and they seem to do it before the sound of the season’s opening bell has even stopped echoing across the Dakotas.
Trying to shoot spooky, educated pheasants has to rank up near the top of “most frustrating experiences” for the Dakota hunter, but there really aren’t many moments more enjoyable than putting a wild rooster in the game bag, either. Here are five ways to help you do just that this year.
1. Have a Plan
Because he worked with landowners to enhance habitat on their property, my good friend Steve Bierle introduced me to some incredibly beautiful pheasant hunting locations across South Dakota. There’s one farm near the White River that stands out, though, because of the sheer number of birds we’d usually encounter.
Our hunts would usually take place in late November or early December, when the landowner would graciously grant us access to this perfect mix of cattails, grass and trees during the final month of the season. The thousands of birds that called the property home, however, were wise from weeks of pressure, and we learned quickly that we had to modify our tactics in order to put up pheasants in range.
Had we the manpower to pull it off, we could have used a large number of hunters to surround areas of cover, leaving little chance for the birds to escape without presenting the opportunity for at least a shot or two. This is an approach used all over the Dakotas for good reason, as it usually works when the effort is well-organized and executed properly.
But the numbers weren’t usually in our favor, as we often hunted as a pair or were joined, perhaps, by another hunter or two. As tempting as it was to hunt the big blocks of cover where we knew we’d see hundreds of pheasants flush into the air at once, we learned to focus our attention on some of the smaller chunks on the periphery — areas of grass or cattails that we could either work together with our dogs or divide and conquer as two small teams in an effort to pinch the birds where the cover bottle-necked.
While driving up to the property on our first hunt, a large number of pheasants flushed wild from a thick stand of kochia surrounding the collection of abandoned farm buildings where we had planned to park. Later that season, we parked the trucks out of sight of the buildings and successfully ambushed several dozen pheasants in the weeds, ending up only a bird or two shy of our limit.
Having a game plan, even as a small group, always pays dividends.
2. Go It Alone
I have long been a fan of pheasant hunting alone, but perhaps no more so than when it comes to hunting educated birds.
I suppose some of this stems from almost exclusively hunting Game Production Areas, Waterfowl Production Areas and other lands open to the public while growing up. Because of the pressure these areas typically receive, the birds were extremely quick to wise up, so in order to put a rooster or two in the bag I had to wise up, too.
Because I so often hunted alone with my pair of ragged pheasant dogs, I discovered that if I approached an area quietly without slamming doors or yelling at the dogs and entered the area from anywhere other than the main grassy parking lot, I could often sneak up on birds and flush a rooster or two well within range.
And in the event a bird would flush wild, I discovered how to keep the wind in my face and the sun at my back as much as possible in order to make another stalk and get close enough for a shot.
Going alone certainly doesn’t work for every situation, but in many cases it absolutely gives you the ability to stay below a rooster’s radar and get close enough for a shot before the bird sees you or hears you.
3. Wet Feet
The first time I shot a pheasant that flushed from cattails in standing water along the edge of a slough in a Waterfowl Production Area, I was sure it was an anomaly. After I shot another bird under similar conditions, I began to think that I might be stumbling on to something.
Pheasants seem to move to the cattails, even early in the season, when they’ve been hunted with some regularity. This seems to be especially the case if the field they call home provides some of the best cover in the area. With no other place to go, they try to find the one spot where a hunter is not likely to follow, and this defensive strategy works well as long as a hunter isn’t willing to get his boots wet.
Don’t be afraid to send a hunter in to the cattails when hunting the adjacent cover with a group, or if you’re hunting alone, focus at least part of your time in the field on hunting cattail edges. Chances are you’ll find a wise old rooster who is betting his life on your unwillingness to work just a little harder.
4. All in the Timing
For several years a winding cattail- and grass-lined waterway not too far from my home near Dell Rapids, S.D., produced some great pheasant hunting, but with each season the birds seemed to figure out my hunting patterns more quickly, making it extremely difficult to get close enough for a shot.
My frustration was mounting to an unhealthy high one year until I hunted the spot the day after a storm dumped 4 inches of snow on the ground. The birds acted like they hadn’t seen me all year, and I easily shot my three roosters before walking even a quarter of the nearly mile-long stretch of cover.
Knowing when to hunt pressured birds is a big part of knowing how, and nothing evens the playing field like hitting an area after (or during) a snow storm. Fresh snow, thick cover, an adjacent food source and a good dog are the stuff of dreams for pheasant hunters for this very reason.
Waiting to hunt an area with pressured birds until after all the corn, soybeans or other food sources have been harvested is another way to tip the odds in your favor, as some birds that have yet to see a hunter all season will finally be forced to take shelter in more hunter-friendly cover. So, too, is waiting until the last golden hour of sunlight, when pheasants move from heavier, out-of-reach cover into their roosting areas before nightfall.
5. Gear Up
Lastly, hunting wild, spooky, educated pheasants becomes a bit more manageable by using quality gear built to handle the extreme hunting conditions faced on a daily basis here in the Dakotas.
I have found the consistent patterns from Federal Ammunition’s Prairie Storm loads provide the knock-down punch needed for pheasants flying at all reasonable distances, but especially those quick-to-fly roosters that flush on the edge of my range. The shells have long been available in 12- and 20-gauge loads in both lead and nontoxic versions, and this fall I will be trying out the new Prairie Storm 16-gauge load.
A good pair of waterproof boots, such as the versatile Alphaburly Pro from LaCrosse, are also an essential item for going after pressured birds that are holed up in the cattails. If you know you’re going to be staying in the uplands, a pair of Irish Setter Wingshooter boots are hard to beat.
If your hunting dog is conditioned to the whistle, it helps to have a softer, pea-less version around your neck to use when staying quiet is vitally important. A regular whistle turned upside-down will work, too.
The same dense cover that pressured roosters love to rely on as part of their escape plan can also make keeping track of your dog a challenge. This fall my yellow Lab, Buddy, will be wearing a Garmin PRO 550 Plus collar that features a GPS tracking system to help keep tabs on him.
About the Author: John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow @JohnPollmann on Twitter.