“We’ll flush about 150 birds today,” I told my new friend M.D. as we loaded our guns by his truck. A recent transplant to pheasant country at the time, M.D. raptly surveyed the wide fields, trying to picture 150 flying pheasants where he could see only a wide expanse of snow. “But only one of them will get up within gun range,” I predicted. “Don’t miss.”
The pheasants looked like tiny black checkmarks against the whiteness as they scooted in and out under the sparse cover of bushes and brushpiles. With the long grasses buried under the snow, the birds had nowhere to hide. They flushed in large, nervous flocks before we could close within 100 yards. Finally, we found the one bird we were looking for, holding tight in a lone patch of grass tufting up through the white crust.
M.D. missed, proving that when it comes to pheasants, knowledge is power only if you shoot straight.
Muffing deceptively difficult shots at close-flushing roosters is, perhaps, the most common error pheasant hunters make. But it’s not the only one. Here are ten lessons I’ve learned the hard way.
1. Don’t hunt pheasants in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Pheasants roost in thick, heavy grasses, walking or flying out to grainfields to feed in the morning. At midday, they hang around in light cover near food, then hit the fields again in the afternoon. Late in the day, birds will return to heavy roosting cover.
Many people believe pheasants linger on the roost on freezing cold winter days. Over the years, I wasted a lot of time getting up early on subzero mornings trying to kick-start sleepy pheasants out of their beds. In fact, when it’s 20 below zero and days are short, pheasants head for the fields at first light to load up on high-energy grain, so hunting their bedroom on a bitter cold morning is a waste of time. A nasty, windy, wet morning, is a different story: Hunt the roost early when it’s spitting and blowing, and you may well catch pheasants reluctant to leave their warm, weedy roosts.
By the same token, hunting good roosting cover at midday when the birds are still feeding yields poor results. Be there in the last 45 minutes of daylight, however, as pheasants return from the grainfields, and the hunting can be absolutely spectacular.
2. Don’t assume all public lands were “shot out” after opening day.
Early in the season, when hunter after hunter tramples public land, birds move out to nearby private acres where the pressure isn’t as intense. Gunwise birds sometimes use the public area as a bedroom, returning around dark to roost, then leaving at the crack of dawn.
Hunt a public area the day the corn is picked on the private land across the road and you’ll be amazed. Last fall I walked a small and heavily used county area on a whim, thinking I’d give the dog a good run if nothing else. I didn’t know at the time that the corn had been picked across the road the day before, and without a roof of cornstalks over their heads, the pheasants had retreated in confusion to the marsh grasses of the public land. What I thought was going to be a quiet dog walk turned into one of the noisiest hunts of the year.
Late in the season, when heavy snows have flattened sparser cover on private lands, public areas (especially wetlands) often hold birds again.
3. Don’t go over- or under-gunned
Pheasants don’t follow those neat rules of behavior printed on ammo boxes: “early season/close flushes” or “late season/wild flushes.” I’ve seen opening weekends where the wind blew and birds turned skittish, offering no shots closer than 35 yards. And wild-flushing late-season pheasants usually jump up a good 100 yards out of gun range; the birds you actually get a shot at are the few that sit tight until you’re right on top of them.
Rather than trying to guess day by day what the birds will do, I shoot the same Improved Cylinder/Modified-choked 12-gauge double, or Modified-choked 12-gauge pump, from day one to season’s end.