Learn how to identify patterns in food, habitat, and hunting pressure to have a successful opening-day pheasant hunt
A great American hunting tradition begins each year around this time. Across the country, families and friends are stepping into the fields to chase that brightly-painted, long-tailed bird that launches itself with a raucous cackle and flushes towards the heavens . . . the ring-necked pheasant!
Regardless of the outcome of roadside crowing surveys and each state’s initial pheasant report, enthusiastic pheasant hunters will be out in droves on opening day and week. Early season is typically the “easiest” hunting of the year, with each passing day becoming more challenging as some roosters end up getting put into bird vests while others survive unscathed, yet smarter. This doesn’t necessarily mean that hunting pheasant in the early season is going to be a cake walk. The key is to focus on early season food sources, habitat trends, and NOT doing what everyone else is doing.
Identify Early Season Pheasant Food Sources
As my friend Coach Dave would say, “Find the grocery store and you’ll find the birds.” Pheasant season opens when there is usually plenty of corn, sorghum (milo), and wheat fields still standing. Hunters should not overlook soybean and sunflower fields, either.
Pheasants and corn go hand in hand, so hunting standing corn is always a good idea. Don’t ignore cut corn fields, too, as pheasants will often eat waste grain found in these fields. Look for adjoining habitat that will allow pheasants to come and go like a fast food drive-thru. During the early season, pheasants are starting to build up fat reserves for the upcoming winter months. Calorie-packed grains such as corn are an important food source at this time and, as such, should be considered for excellent hunting opportunities. Consider starting off the morning and ending the afternoon by hunting grain fields while pheasants are feeding. Be sure to hunt the edges of any picked food source as well as any small grain fields, since both can be very productive during this part of the season.
Pheasant hunters should also take note of whether or not the first hard frost of the season has occurred. If it has not, then young pheasants will still be feasting on the same diet of insects that they’ve been munching on since they hatched. It’s always a good idea to open and inspect the crop or craw of the first couple of birds to identify their current food source. The types of seeds, grains, and insects will help determine the best places to target. If the crop is full of corn, that tells the hunters to focus on food crops and their edges. If the crop contains mostly grasshoppers, then the birds may still be in the grassland expanses of a CRP field or wildlife area. Hunters should concentrate on habitat that’s full of weeds and bugs. It’s possible that pheasants may be feeding and loafing in weed-choked areas rather than venturing deep into corn and grain fields at this time.
Understanding Habitat Trends for Early Pheasants
Successful pheasant hunters are able to identify and interpret patterns based on their observations. These patterns are important for locating food sources and narrowing down the kind of habitat where early season roosters are spending their time. Are they hanging out in grasslands, CRP fields, windbreaks, weedy draws, or dense covers such as cattails and switchgrass near wetlands? Are you catching them on the edges or have they congregated in the middle of weedy fields? Are pheasants foraging and loafing in and around croplands like corn and milo fields? Are roosters holding tight, flushing prematurely, or running? At every encounter, hunters need to stop and ask themselves, “Why?”
These puzzle pieces are critical for hunters to put together if they want to pattern pheasants. Understanding the needs of pheasants and how habitat plays a role will help put roosters in bird vests. The quantity and quality of available habitat adds yet another layer on top of factors such as the weather conditions during opening week. Learning how to read these trends can make for a much more productive time afield.
Don’t Follow the Crowds When Pheasant Hunting
Hunters, like pheasants, start to form habits and become predictable. Try to become aware of these habits and avoid doing what everyone else is doing. Take advantage of others’ routines as they enter public lands and try to do the exact opposite.
For example, pheasant hunters tend to park in the same places which creates areas of heavy foot traffic. Pheasants know this and push to other parts of the field. The wise hunter should use these parking areas to their advantage; instead of going where everyone else does, find other out-of-the-way areas to park. Hunt these isolated areas which can become pheasant “pockets” holding birds that were pushed out from high-traffic areas. Hunters can also use the common parking areas as a sort of natural blocker by approaching them from alternate entry points.
Another bad habit is to hunt a field in the same direction and pattern as everyone else. Perhaps instead of walking from one edge of a field to another, try working it diagonally. Think outside the box and work areas from the inside out. Even changing up how hunters walk can alter the pattern of how pheasants react to hunting pressure. Try weaving in and out in a zigzag pattern as opposed to walking in a semi-straight formation. Make sure to pause occasionally and wait for birds to flush.
Hunting the early season isn’t without its own set of challenges, and it certainly doesn’t mean that hunters are guaranteed a limit of uneducated roosters. Pheasant hunters can be humbled by how quickly these early birds become wily and quite educated. However, paying attention to certain patterns in food sources, habitat, and hunting pressure can increase the chances of having a successful, early-season hunt.
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.