Hunting alone? Don’t miss these crucial tips for outwitting late-season roosters on your own
I quietly shut the door of my truck and stood next to my black Labrador, Raven. For the next five minutes I stared off into the abyss of a 160-acre sea of Walk-in Hunting Area (WIHA) CRP grass in south-central Kansas, contemplating a game plan. There was just over a week left of the Kansas pheasant season so I had ducked out of the office for a couple of days, just me, myself, and Raven.
I could hear a voice in my head from one of my longtime hunting partners saying, “Just get out there and work the edge and you’ll probably move a few roosters.” He was right, but for some reason, my gut told me to diverge from the norm, to swim against the current, to do something. . . different. So I drew an imaginary “X” across that enormous field of gold, closed the action on my Browning side-by-side, and made a beeline for the middle.
A few things worked for me on that hunt and a few didn’t. I am far from an expert on crafty, late-season roosters. Ringnecks that have survived to January aren’t your average barnyard chickens. They know every trick in every book because they wrote the books. If you remember only one thing from this article, it should be this: think differently.
Hunt the Field Inside-Out
When hunting solo on a large expanse of CRP, time-tested logic will tell you to “hunt the edge.” Pheasants are birds of edge habitat. Roosters are likely to be hiding right where tall grass adjoins a picked corn field. So when faced with a daunting quarter-section of native grass one should skirt the edge, right? Not this day, my friend!
I chose to walk directly to the middle of the field to begin my hunt. I knew the field had been hunted before, as evidenced by the empty shotgun shells laying next to the road where hunters had, obviously, worked the edge cover. I charted a course toward the field’s center from which I could work a crosswind, walking east with a stiff north wind at my left shoulder.
I began to slowly walk lines east and west about 200 yards in each direction, not getting close to either of the field edges. On my third walk, Raven’s tail started wagging rapidly followed by her nose darting back and forth from one grass clump to the next. She’s birdy. A split second later, an eruption of wings thundered out, followed closely by the angry cackles of a rooster. The right barrel barked and the cackling ceased.
How many times that rooster hid in the middle of the field from hunters skirting the field edge, I’ll never know. I saw no trace of hunters near where he fell. No tracks. No empty hulls. Just one very proud Labrador delivering her prize to her old man. So, the next time you are faced with the challenge of how to hunt a large piece of cover by yourself, think about working from the inside out. Yes, you’ll be in for a long hike, but the fruits of your labor may be hiding exactly where few hunters venture.
Use the Crosswind to Your Advantage
That particular hunt also taught me something about hunting a crosswind. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d hunt into the wind every day and twice on Sundays, but that’s simply not realistic. Hunting a crosswind, though, gave my dog the advantage of good scenting conditions on every pass. When I arrived at the turning point in my transects, I simply walked upwind about 50 yards to hopefully catch up to any birds that tried to escape ahead of us. I also suspect that zig-zagging through the field helped me keep that first rooster guessing as to my direction of travel.
The concept of walking linear “transects” was actually a tactic I brought with me from my work as field biologist. Conducting biological assessments often meant hours and/or days of charting and navigating line transects through habitats ranging from grasslands to wetlands to forests. It worked for me on biological surveys, so I simply modified the concept to keep me one step ahead of a few roosters.
Use The Space Between the Obvious Covers
When I first looked across that wide open field, all I saw was grass: acres and acres of grass. But the closer I looked, the more I began to see some topography. . . a swale here, an old field terrace there. I then noticed the subtle differences in the colors that indicated some diversity in vegetation types. I saw one area with some cattails, so I knew there was at least one pothole wetland in the area.
As I dissected the field, I began to formulate a plan to strategically hunt these “micro-habitats” within the larger block. I knew the old field terraces would provide a windbreak where pheasants may hide the following day with north winds forecasted to gust 15-20 mph. Three plum thickets could serve as escape cover for roosters that flushed wild. The pothole wetland was adjacent to both a picked corn field and a larger plum thicket. The game plan for day two of my solo rooster adventure was coming together.
A stiff north wind was already blowing when I got out of my truck thirty minutes after sunrise. I figured that the pheasants would be hunkered down on the leeward side of the old field terraces gently rolling across the field. I began slowly walking parallel to one of the terraces, staying about 15-20 yards downwind. I wanted to be close enough for a good shot on a flush but just far enough away that the birds may not hear me until it was too late.
Halfway through the first terrace, Raven’s rear end started wiggling. Again, just about the time I registered the thought that she might be birdy, a rooster flushed low into the north wind. My right barrel tossed up an air-ball, but the left barrel anchored him at 35 yards. Bird number one in the bag and affirmation that my plan was working, at least for now.
The half-dozen or so hens that I flushed along the first two terraces headed straight for one of the plum thickets that I had noticed the day before. After a water break for both Raven and me, I headed for one of the thickets, working slowly into the wind, zig-zagging my approach. Fifty yards from the thicket a rooster boiled out the other side, so I was a little bummed that my sneak may have sounded more like a parade and caused the wild flush. I flushed three tight-holding hens from that plum thicket, but no more roosters.
“Slow down, kid…”
Plotting the next phase of my plan to ambush a rooster in the nearby pothole wetland, I heard in my head the little voice of an old-timer with whom I hunted as a youngster. “Slow down, kid, what the heck are ya in such a damn hurry for?”
I vowed to take that old-timer’s words to heart when stalking the small wetland. Upwind, again, and ever so slowly, Raven and I worked closer and closer. I was concerned as I approached within ten yards of the cattail patch that no birds had yet flushed, neither hens nor roosters.
As my boot stepped down just inside the thick cattails, a rooster exploded from seemingly under my foot! Startled, I thumbed-off the safety and in one fluid motion swung, triggered the right barrel, and watched the rooster cartwheel down at the edge of the wetland. Chalk up #2 for the home team.
Take Advantage of Unexpected Opportunities
I placed that second rooster in my game bag and backed out of the wetland area. As I walked back toward the truck, I noticed the blaze orange of two hunters working the adjacent private ground. I was at least a quarter-mile or more away, but I saw them flush a couple of hens and three or four roosters, two of which fell to their shots. The birds that escaped flew into another large plum thicket on the WIHA area that I was hunting.
I stood at my truck and watched the hunters advance, expecting them to follow the birds they flushed into the plum thicket. For whatever reason, however, they turned and began working back in the opposite direction. I waited and watched them for another 15 minutes as I wanted to give them some sportsman-like courtesy.
After what I felt was a more-than-appropriate wait time, I grabbed my shotgun and took off toward the plum thicket. Again, working very slowly into the wind, I approached the cover cautiously. A hen flushed when I was 40 yards out followed by another. Figuring that most hunters would bust through the middle of the thicket, I chose to slowly skirt the edge while Raven worked the cover. My hope was to intercept a cagey rooster plotting an early escape.
Sure enough, a rooster burst out the opposite side at the edge of shotgun range. As I grumbled to myself that I’d chosen the wrong side, I thought I saw something dart ahead of me near the end of the thicket. I quickened my pace and, after a couple of steps, a second rooster flushed from the edge and crossed from right to left. A quick shot and the rooster tumbled into the grass, tail standing straight up like the flag on a golf green.
The lesson here was to be observant across the landscape while hunting. Keep an eye out for birds sailing from one cover to another as you just might give yourself the advantage of hunting where you know birds are likely to hide. And, if other hunting parties are nearby, by all means watch their advance and watch where their birds escape.
None of these are earth-shattering revelations when it comes to hunting the wily ring-necked rooster. My biggest takeaway from this solo hunt was to simply try something different. Just remember that late-season pheasants have seen every move in the playbook, so try tossing them a curveball on your next solo, late-season rendezvous with roosters.
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.