This old-fashioned method of hunting pheasants combines tradition and history into an effective method of bird hunting.
I stepped out of the old Ford pickup and into the middle of a dozen men wearing tan canvas hunting jackets. As a twelve-year-old, first-time pheasant hunter, I was more than a little intimidated. But I was also buzzing with excitement after hearing hundreds of stories from the “old timers” about the sights and sounds of a traditional Kansas pheasant hunt.
Ken, affectionately referred to as the Field General by the guys in the group, immediately gave each hunter their orders.
“Mike, you’re in the middle of the line of walkers. Keep ‘em in line and slow ‘em down,” Ken said. “Bob, you take Brad and get him out on the far west end so he can see.” The “Bob” to whom he was referring was my father. At twelve years old I was still a shorty and would never have been able to see over the standing corn stalks in the field.
“Chuck, take two of the Texans to block the end of the field.” Those were Ken’s final marching orders as he loaded his shotgun and prepared to jump in with the line of pushers.
Walkers? Blockers? Pushers? If I was a little intimidated before, then all the lingo being spoken and the strategy the group employed made me think to myself, Brad, what have you gotten your little self into?
The origins of driven pheasant hunts
The history of American pheasant drives can be traced back to driven shoots in the United Kingdom. In the U.K., driven shoots were originally held on large estates on which gamekeepers cultivated either pheasant or red grouse (actually a species of ptarmigan) for shooting by invited guests or “sports.”
In its most basic form, beaters or “pushers” walk forward in a line to flush game birds toward groups of shooters (called “blockers” in an American pheasant drive). The shooters are stationed at staggered locations or “pegs” along a line. Beaters often employ white flags, especially on each end of the line, to ensure that game birds flush over the shooters instead of flying out the sides of the line of pushers. Driven shoots provide shooters with opportunities at incoming, fast-moving birds within their zone of fire. Throughout the shoot, sports rotate between pegs to ensure each shooter has an equal chance at consistent shooting, since factors like wind direction and favored bird flight paths sometimes make certain pegs hot spots on any given day.
Every autumn in the United States, the concept of a driven shoot plays out in cornfields and seas of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grass all across pheasant country. Albeit in a modified fashion, the strategy of using pushers to drive pheasants toward blockers stationed at field borders is a time-honored tradition passed down through family members and friends alike. Many hunter education field exercises are based on the pheasant drive where young hunters learn the core values of firearm safety and the tactics of safe and ethical upland bird hunting.
How a pheasant drive works
Typical American pheasant drives take place in either unharvested or harvested row crop fields or large tracts of CRP grass. An effective pheasant drive begins with a good leader. My hunting mentor, Ken, assumed this role during the years when I was cutting my teeth as a young pheasant hunter. Ken had a solid foundation of the strategy and tactics needed for a pheasant drive and he organized a field of hunters with a soft-spoken authority that everyone trusted.
One key point I learned on my first pheasant hunt was that all hunters needed to be as quiet as possible when organizing the drive. No slamming vehicle doors, no yelling at runaway bird dogs, and no boisterous laughing prior to the hunt. Cagey roosters already know every trick in the book; there’s no need to tip them off when you’re heading their way.
When Ken formed his line of pushers, he frequently said he wanted more of a half-moon shape than a straight line with “flankers” out on both ends a few yards ahead of the pushers in the center of the line. The strategy here was that the presence of hunters slightly ahead of the central pushers will prevent any roosters from running ahead and escaping out the sides or “leaking” as the old timers called it. The hunters on the far edges of the lines are also the last lines of defense against a rooster who is missed as it flushes down the line past the other hunters. Flankers can go from zero to hero, or vice versa, in an instant. . . so stay sharp if you’re one of them!
Safety is, as always, of paramount concern with each pusher having their own safe zone of fire resembling an inverted cone toward their front, being always mindful of the blockers positioned at the end of the field.
A cardinal rule of a pheasant drive is to move slowly. If you think you’re walking too fast, you are. If you think you’re walking slowly enough, you aren’t. Crafty roosters have a knack for sitting tight and allowing a line of pushers to saunter right past them only to salute you with a glimpse at their tail feathers as they flush behind you, usually out of range.
Another approach to moving slowly through the field is to follow a zig-zag pattern whereby you meander back and forth as you move forward instead of walking in a straight line from point A to point B. Keep those roosters guessing as to your direction of travel. Also, stop every so often and simply don’t move. The old timers I used to hunt with told me that stopping frequently makes the pheasants nervous and causes them to flush instead of running ahead like the Road Runner racing away from Wile E. Coyote. Brad’s tip: recite your “ABCs” once each time you stop as that seems to be enough time to make a nervous rooster flush if he’s within range.
Now for the blockers who, if they were in the U.K., would be stationed at their “pegs.” Again, the blockers should approach their positions quietly. The old timers used to say that blockers should hide in plain sight, able to be sensed by fleeing roosters but not from a mile away. Some blockers even crouch down to reduce their silhouettes as they await the pushers. Pheasants can often sense the presence of the blockers; they’re like the Jedi Knights of upland birds…use The Force, rooster!
Blockers must stay on their toes, ever vigilant to both approaching hunters and pheasants running ahead of the line. Years ago, I watched a half-dozen roosters fly out the end of a field we were pushing. I knew my dad was blocking and those roosters should have flown right over his assigned post. Turns out my dad was a vigilant blocker alright, but he was vigilantly reading the local newspaper as he awaited the arrival of the pushers, convinced he had a half-hour or so before the action got hot. I told him to look at the Sports section as the headline read “Pheasants: 6, Elmer Fudd: 0.”
Tips for a successful pheasant drive
I won’t say I’ve made every mistake one could make on a pheasant drive, but I’ve made more than my share of flubs from which I’ve managed to learn a lesson or two. Here are a few hacks that will hopefully put an extra rooster or two in your game bag this season:
- Safety, safety, safety! This cannot be stressed too much given the nature of pheasant drives with multiple guns, sometimes young or inexperienced hunters, and pushers working toward blockers.
- Run your drive into the wind if possible
- SLOW DOWN! Yes, I’ve already mentioned this but I chronically break my own rule, so I’ll repeat it again: slow down. It’s a hunt, not a race!
- Zig-zag through the field rather than walking a straight line
- Keep talking to a minimum. Remember, pheasants can hear you coming from much farther away than you think.
- Keep your outside flankers a few yards ahead of the rest of the pushers. Those flankers will invariably catch a bird or two trying to escape out the sides.
- Employ a “moving roadblock” approach when a field has intermittent edges. Advance to an edge, let your blockers reposition, then advance to the next edge.
- Be the last hunter to walk out of the field at the end. You’ll be surprised how many times a cagey rooster will hold tight until everyone is reliving the hunt at their tailgates and you’ll get a shot at a rooster that nobody else will. One of my longtime pheasant hunting partners still gives me grief about the day I lagged at the end of a weedy cornfield as the rest of the group celebrated at their trucks. Two roosters thought they would wait and flush to safety after all the hunters passed by. . . well, except for that one hunter. Brad: 2, roosters: 0.
- Did I mention safety? Yeah, I’ll say it again…Hunt safely. Period.
Pheasant drives can also be effective with small groups of two to four hunters. You’ll want to adjust your tactics a bit by tackling smaller plots such as the corners adjacent to center-pivot irrigation systems, cattail sloughs, field borders/buffer strips, or weedy fence rows. Key in on areas that a small group can effectively cover with or without the aid of a bird dog. You may be surprised how many roosters you find hiding in places where they are typically passed over by larger hunting parties.
Pheasant drives can be a fun, social, and productive tactic for engaging these wily game birds. Organize a group this fall and head out to the tall grass prairies of pheasant country. Play your cards right and you just might make some great memories and increase the weight of your game vest a bit.
Brad Stefanoni grew up hunting quail and waterfowl in southeast Kansas, where for the past 20 years he’s been passing on what he learned to his wife and their two sons. His diverse background includes work as a biologist, a science education center director, an outdoor writer and a developer of public/private partnerships. With a degree in wildlife biology, Brad’s current work-in-progress is transforming his family’s 80-acre farm into a living laboratory of upland and wetland habitat. His passions include spending time with his family and black Labrador retriever pursuing waterfowl and upland birds, and fly fishing.