Figuring out where pressured ring-necked pheasant hide during the hunting season can give you an advantage in the field
If you’re lucky enough to still be hunting ring-necks this late in the season, the place to find the ring-necked pheasants has probably changed a lot since opening day. Long tails are quick learners. Which means they’ve already wised up within the first couple of weeks. And every day a rooster lives is another day they get to practice giving the slip to hunters and dogs.
The ring-necked pheasant rooster haunts a wide variety of landscapes, pheasant habitat, and environments. Ring-necks are annoyingly clever when it comes to eluding the orange clad hunters who pursue them.
The most common scenario I can think of takes place in big cornfields or large expanses of CRP grass. Hunting crop fields and adjacent cover is, of course, essential if you want to locate pheasants. But as the season winds down, bird hunters also need to look beyond the normal realm of roosters.
No matter where you hunt ring-necks, hunters must know how to read the lay of the land if they want to be successful. Roosters are full of trickery, deception, and all-around sneakiness. They will take advantage of whatever habitat they’re in to avoid you.
Below is a list of locations you definitely will not want to overlook when hunting for pheasants:
- Abandoned farms: Old farmsteads and corrals that have been overgrown with tall grass, brush, and weeds make ideal cover for ring-necks. Grasses in and around these prairie relics are usually thick and make an excellent spot for nesting, roosting, and loafing. Old homesteads provide an oasis of brushy cover—and the tall, thick grass that pheasants love. Additionally, the buildings (along with any nearby tree groves) provide a windbreak. Abandoned farms are a perfect place to start a hunt during the winter or after a heavy snow.
- Brushy draws: In hilly country, brushy draws can often hold pheasants. Similar to drainage ditches, they offer a combination of heavy cover and protection from the wind.
- Cattail marshes and sloughs: The dense vegetation in wetlands and marshy areas makes an ideal cover for roosters. They are especially important and vital during the winter, when heavy snows mat down other plants with weaker stems. Birds can move easily through natural tunnels within the cattails. Cattails also function as a natural sound alarm when hunters push themselves through a thick cover of them. Roosters will either run or take to the air as soon as they hear that rustling noise: your movement is a flush trigger.
- “Dirty” crop fields: These are crop fields that have gone untreated from herbicides, been allowed to revert back to their natural state, or are where new crops get rotated into. The grassy undergrowth is perfect for pheasants to maneuver in and out of, providing cover from the elements.
- Drainage ditches: Hunters may find themselves in areas where the dense grasses and weeds of drainage ditches may be the only heavy cover for birds. Most drainage ditches have sloping sides that provide needed blockage from windy days. Some states, such as South Dakota, allow hunters to hunt along ditches. Check with local game laws and regulations for more information.
- Fencelines: Wide and brushy fence-lines, particularly those with trees, bushes, or plum thickets, almost always hold pheasants. Fence-lines that are adjacent to crop fields (corn, milo, and sunflower) are the best.
- Harvested crop fields: Don’t overlook harvested and cut crop fields, or the fringes around them. When food runs short late in the season, pheasants will gravitate towards these wastelands of waste grain for high-protein meals. Due to openness, however, hunting around these areas can be very tough and often unsuccessful. Ring-necks will hear hunters approaching from a mile away. The key is in locating the nearby lands the ring-necks will escape to when they enter or leave.
- Railroad tracks: Tracks that have been abandoned are a good option for hunters, even if they are difficult to access. The dense cover and overgrown vegetation along the railways can provide roosters a place to loaf. As a young and inexperienced pheasant hunter, I relied on my father’s expertise and preferences. Railroad tracks were one of those preferences he had for targeting roosters. Walking on either side of the tracks in small ditches yielded a couple of pheasant cocks in our game vests. Check with local game laws and regulations for more information on hunting railroad right-of-ways and tracks.
- Retired crop fields: Fields that have been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or other “retired” crop fields provide excellent cover for ring-necks. Unlike hay fields, lands in this program are not mowed during breeding season. As a result, nesting chicks and young birds have a much higher chance of survival. Another key point is that many of these fields boast thick grasses interspersed with weedy crops and shelter belts, providing ample cover and food.
- Road ditches: The tall grass and brush that grow along roadsides usually hold ring-necks. This is especially true if they are near or alongside crop fields. Ideally, ditches that have enough standing water to grow small patches or rows of cattails are the best to target. It is common to observe pheasants fly out of fields and into ditches that provide thick cover.
- Shelterbelts: Rows of trees planted as windbreaks (minimizing soil erosion in open country) are vital during winter storms and blizzards. They offer a refuge for birds with their thermal cover. Not only that, the grass and brush that grow along them make good roosting and loafing cover. Pheasants can often times be found in large numbers here, if the only escape out of the wind and snow are shelter belts around grass and crop fields.
- Terraces: These man-made, stair-step structures located in crop fields are designed to prevent soil erosion. They typically have grassy cover, which makes them ideal sites for roosters to loaf and roost. Since most terraces are alongside crop fields, birds have easy access to a buffet. Hunting terraces can be difficult depending on how high and steep they are. My only experience in hunting terraces was in northwest Missouri. Hunting was difficult (to say the least) as it began to rain, making the terraces muddy and a complete chore to climb.
- Weedy lakeshores: One of the most often ignored places to look and hunt for ring-neck roosters are these low-lying areas along the banks of lakes. Cattails, thick weedy underbrush and thickets can hold those lone elusive cockbirds that feel safe because of the low hunting pressure. Just like hunting cattails or sloughs, though, standing water is inevitable. You’re going to need a pair of hip or waterproof boots to maneuver through them. A lot of the time, there are blowdown trees that will make for a difficult time walking.
- Wetlands: These are lands that are saturated with water permanently or seasonally. Pheasants take advantage of the cover and difficulty of getting to them by hunters and dogs. Roosters are not afraid to get wet and will run in water. Throw in fields and patches of cattails—and hunting running birds becomes more difficult. Or impossible. Those that flush will fly into large expanses of cattails or take safe haven on small isolated pockets of dry land or islands to avoid hunters.
Pheasants are definitely farm country birds. However, crop fields and grassy fields alone are not the only places to hunt these birds. Pheasants abound in a variety of places and types of habitat, so don’t overlook the above listed areas. Hunters need to remember that chasin’ ol’ wily rooster means running through the ideal habitat of other game birds and waterfowl. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for the opportunistic wingshooter to flush birds such as quail, snipe, woodcock, and waterfowl.
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.