Avoid these common errors of pheasant hunting.
Looking out over the cut milo field, we could see pheasants milling about for food. Mother Nature had laid out a new white canvas overnight. The fresh snow and the sparse cover made the pheasants look like tiny black checkmarks on a recently graded piece of paper. Little did we know that in the field, just like errors on a quiz, mistakes would cost us, cost us birds in our game vests.
The long-tails scooted in and out from under a thin cover of bent stalks and clumps of weeds. A nearby hedgerow on the opposite corner funneled pheasants from thick cover to their morning breakfast café. A field of milo. The sun’s rays would start crystalizing the snow, which would make our approach difficult. The crunching ice beneath our boots would give our positions away and signal a call to play hide and seek with the advancing orange clad army.
Truck doors were shut and tailgates closed with little or no concern for noise discipline. We all piled into the field without formulating a plan; a makeshift line of assault quickly moved down each row. After twenty yards into the field, things started happening. Fast. Silhouettes of birds began darting into the air space and what was once a peaceful moment turned into a feathery flight of mayhem! Dogs went on point and pheasants flushed and shots rang out. But, the bird vests were empty. What happened?
Too many errors.
Maybe it was just first day jitters or being inexperienced hunters, but what played out is actually quite common. Hunters get into a hurry and don’t account for the small details. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still susceptible to making mistakes in the field. But I also know that I have become a better hunter by learning from my past errors. Here’s how:
Early in the season, some public lands can be trampled on by hunter after hunter. That heavy pressure pushes those pheasant tenants to other areas. Sometimes those sanctuary areas where the pheasants migrate are right next door or relatively close. Some are not. Study the lay of the land and how cover, feed, roosting, and loafing areas all work cohesively together. Pheasants may be evicted from a field they are actively using throughout the day, but could return later. Hunters need to take advantage of these during those off times.
Gun-wise birds sometimes use the public area as a bedroom, returning around dark to roost only to leave at the crack of dawn. Late in the season, when heavy snows have flattened sparser cover on private lands, public areas (especially wetlands) often hold birds again.
Location and Timing.
Know when to hunt, because the presence of pheasants depends on the time. Pheasants typically prefer to roost in thick, heavy grasses. Day break signals the onslaught of breakfast; colorful ring-necks and their drab, mottled brown female counterparts will walk or fly into grain fields to feast. Midday snacks keep pheasants hanging around in light cover near food. The afternoon dinner bell sounds off late in the day. Afterwards, birds will return to heavy roosting cover for the night. Around this time—when the sun is slowly making its way towards the horizon—is an ideal time to target feed fields.
Hunters need to account for temperature and weather conditions, because these also affect the location of birds. When days are frigid and short, pheasants head for the fields at first light to load up on high-energy grain. Late in the winter, hunting roosting areas during the early morning could be a waste of time, since birds will be feeding during the cold night to their replenish energy.
A windy, wet nasty morning is a different scenario. If you’re hunting the roost early as it’s spitting and blowing, chances are you may find pheasants reluctant to leave their warm, weedy roosts. Heavy winds will cause pheasants to stay hunkered down in low lying areas—ditches, trees, grain stalks, and clumps of weeds.
A slammed vehicle door and a closing tailgate are probably the most common noises that give away the presence of hunters. And talking can send pheasants scurrying or flying before the hunt even begins. Because of all this, start off by parking a little bit away from the field you’re about to hunt. This gives hunters a chance to get out, put on their vests, and load their shotguns. It also allows our canine companions to stretch their legs a little bit, especially after a long drive.
Hunters need to be quiet once they arrive at the location. Keep noise and talking to a bare minimum out in the field, too. The approach should be executed quietly, particularly in the late season when pheasants are even more weary and skittish. Educated birds will sense the slightest noise and read it as a signal to evacuate. Winter months will have birds grouped up and may cause waves of them to rapidly disperse. This will happen if there is a cause for alarm (i.e. hunters traipsing through with no regard for noise discipline).
I firmly believe that pheasants will hear hunters approaching no matter how hard they try to be quiet. Pheasants are constantly on alert to avoid being taken as a meal from the likes of foxes, coyotes—and those orange, tan bipeds with their four-legged trackers. The approach of footsteps crunching nearby grass is a signal for pheasants to decide if they should sit, run, or fly.
Blocking and Formations.
This is one error that is committed regularly. Hunters need to be patient and wait until a blocker moves into position in the field or area. The best course for blockers is to walk wide or use the edges to get into position. The most common way is to drop off the blockers at one end of the field and the pushers to drive back to the starting point.
Far ends of ditches, rows of unpicked corn and milo, and grassed waterways are where hunter-wise pheasants will run to and flush, putting as much distance between them and hunters. Make sure to cover these areas.
Pheasants don’t run or flush wild when they know someone is watching the back door, they hunker down and take their chances with hunters working the cover. So when you have a line of hunters walking, position the ones on the end at least twenty-five yards ahead. Their job is to make sure no scared running roosters sneak out the sides. The pressure of the U-shaped line will push the birds—and if some long-tails decide to flush early, they may be close enough for the outer-post hunters to take a shot.
Hunters can get pretty hyped up when hunting pheasants, but they should keep their cool. Stop rushing! It’s impossible to move through cover quietly if you’re stampeding at 50mph like a wild herd. The solution is to reduce speed to a slow walking pace. Pause every once in a while. This momentary lapse of movement may cause nervous ring-necks to suddenly stop in their tracks because they can’t hear you coming. In turn, sometimes the pheasants will lose their nerve and flush. If you’re going to walk, don’t walk in a straight line. Walking in rows makes it difficult to avoid the natural path, but hunters need to weave in and out.
Quarter back and forth. Zigzag. Loop back and re-work good areas again. Swing through corners and edges of cover that might hold birds. Take your time. Pause. Breaks while walking work to keep the pheasants off balance and stay guessing at your whereabouts.
Look to the Woods.
Pheasants are birds of grasslands, grain fields, and marshes, not timber. Nonetheless, pheasants will hide in the woods if they can’t go anywhere else. When heavy snow flattens the grassy fields, pheasants look for refuge in cedar rows and woodlots. The ideal woods have creek bottoms, bushes, or brush piles to hide in. Extreme weather conditions and lack of cover can push birds to roost and take shelter in tree lines. There have been several times where I have observed roosters sitting in trees, so don’t assume the birds will flush at ground level. Look to the branches as well. You may find them mimicking their north woods cousins, the ruffed grouse, and be perched up high.
Bird hunters need to realize the real trick to successfully hunting pheasants is NOT in bagging a limit of nature’s colorful escape artist. Instead, it is in relishing the satisfaction of those that end up in the game bag. Pheasants are hearty birds. They seem to be constantly on the run, always avoiding becoming the next meal for whomever. How many times have you sent a string of heavy load pheasant shot only to find the rooster still flying on unscathed? A rooster’s backside acts like a shield of armor protecting vitals as they fly away. Pheasants are worthy adversaries and should command a level of respect for their trickery in the uplands.
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.