As seasons draw to a close, pheasant hunting requires a little extra strategy to outsmart educated roosters
The icy snow crunched with each step that I took. Stalks of milo appeared more like stubble on a beard due to the snow that had fallen overnight. Thick native prairie grass had been blown over with the gusts of wind that were coming in from the north. A cold shiver went down my spine as a whiff of frigid air traveled down my back through a small opening between my neck gaiter and jacket collar.
“There are a few tracks,” I said, as I scanned the white landscape. A clue. More like a map that was going to lead me to some birds that I would transplant from one winter wonderland to another: my freezer.
The telltale sign of three-toed prints across the snowy section that hadn’t crystallized were all leading to the edge of a marsh. These roosters were holed up in a cattail sanctum. The tall stalks looked thick. Nature’s semi-impenetrable fence, the cattails were providing the prince of the prairie a natural defense system.
Only one thing to do, and that is to go in! Bird hunters have several options that can work in their favor for late-season pheasant hunting.
Approach the field silently
Silence starts long before stepping into a field. Parking too close and getting out and banging gear around is a sure way of letting pheasants know that hunters have come to try and shoot them.
Keeping dogs under control is another important strategy in maintaining your silence. They are always excited to get hunting, so consider leaving them kenneled until everything else is ready to go. Barking and running dogs will put the pheasants on high alert before the hunt even begins.
Embrace the cold
Winter is when the passionate and hardcore hunters separate themselves from the rest of the pack of fair-weather hunters. Fields can be barren this time of year.
And let’s not forget the snow, either. Accumulation from a dusting to a couple of inches is perfect for looking for bird tracks. Once that white powder starts to accumulate, though, it causes problems for upland hunters to maneuver through.
Invest in quality gear that is both waterproof and windproof. Layer up. Wear wool. The cold winter elements will be working against hunters, but these same conditions will force birds into more predictable areas. Because there is less pressure, and with the onslaught of cold weather, pheasants will tend to bunch up in heavy cover.
Areas to launch an offensive include cane grass, willows, and cattails—in other words, wetlands. The cold will likely cause birds to hold tight. If they are not eating, then they are hunkering down to reserve much-needed energy to stay warm.
Use the wind to your advantage
Adding wind to the mix of late-season pheasant hunting adds another layer of obstacles. Some will say that high winds are a pheasant hunter’s ally, because the sound of the approach is masked. Others swear that windy conditions make pheasants jumpy and cause them to flush early and far. I personally have seen both outcomes and adjust accordingly. One of the constant similarities is that pheasants will typically seek out low-lying areas out of the wind. Locations may consist of sloughs, shelterbelts, tree lines, weedy fence rows, and ditches along roads.
Look for areas of larger cover
Hunt big cover to increase your chances. Roll the dice out onto the uplands and see what you get. Small patches of cover might appear more attractive, and in fact, there are times when hunting small areas can benefit hunters. However, during the colder months, hunters can increase their odds by going bigger.
In theory, more pheasants are holed up in larger tracts. Mind you, these tracts must have good cover that can withstand heavy snows and provide places to get out of the three Ws: wind, water, and weather. Look for thick cover and shelterbelts. Tree lines of evergreens are excellent places to hunt. Work the edges and push towards the corners. Don’t avoid or ignore trees; step into the woods and walk them.
Look for creases and seams in the land
A seam is a line where two objects are connected. In the uplands, the highest-percentage areas for hunters to focus on are almost always along seams that separate a food source from cover. The fundamental element to hunting the seams on a tract of land is setting up and positioning for the flush. The second part is the follow-up, which results from the shots taken at flushing long-tails. Follow those indentations and breaks in the topography to put yourself in front or in the middle of where you need to be when birds launch from their hiding location.
The key is to know where the birds are going to attempt to make their escape. This is where reading the lay of the land comes into play. Once you’ve made a guess at where the birds are and where they are likely to go once pressured, you need to position yourself to cut off their escape route.
Pheasants are, for the most part, always trying to get back to their safe haven and shelter. If birds are in a food plot, then hunters need to position themselves between the food and cover. Understand that there may be birds walking and loafing in the area, too. Those loafers are the most likely to flush. The birds that are filling their bellies will make up the second flush, as they take flight heading towards cover to seek sanctuary when shots ring out.
Hunt the feed fields late in the day
Late in the day, when the temperature is starting to drop and the sun is approaching the horizon, is the prime time to hit those feed fields. Roosters and hens alike will need to replenish their energy for the long, frigid night. The last couple of hours will also be a bird hunter’s zero hour to intercept birds making their way from feeding and cover areas. This means the potential of more birds traveling along those seams.
In general, maintaining strict noise discipline and using the wintry elements of snow, cold temperatures, and wind to your advantage will greatly increase your chances of successfully hunting late-season pheasants.
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.