Tricking late season roosters into your game vest
Pheasant hunters use words like “wily” and “educated” to characterize ring-necked pheasants this time of year. Those are well-earned descriptors for roosters who have navigated 50-some days of hunting pressure to survive in northern pheasant country states like Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota. Any longtails sticking out of your game vest as the calendar closes in on Christmas are testaments to your bird hunting moxie.
Simply put, there are fewer birds alive than earlier in the season, and the ones still roaming your favorite hunting grounds won't offer many layup shots. You’re going to shoot less soften, those shots will be at a greater distance, and there won’t be many second-chance opportunities. Consequently, here are five suggestions to help even the odds.
1.) Take a snow day. If you have any PTO remaining to convert before the calendar turns, submit your forms for days forecasted to receive a fresh morning snow flurry. There is no greater friend to the December pheasant hunter than two to four inches of fresh powder. Fresh snow automatically makes you a quieter hunter and provides fresh scenting conditions for your bird dog. Additionally, it’s been my experience that late season pheasants hold tighter the morning after a fresh snow.
2.) Hit the heavy habitat. As the temperatures spiral downward, pheasants head to “thermal” cover. Cattail sloughs, shelter belts, wood groves, and willow thickets all fit this definition. Keep in mind, however: Busting cattail sloughs covered in snow is heart attack-inducing hard work suitable only for the physically fit pheasant hunter.
3.) Islands. This is my favorite tip, but the hardest to tackle on a whim. I hunt a lot of federal Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) during the pheasant season. As the name indicates, these public land gems feature a lot of water in the form of wetlands, sloughs, streams, and ditches. Many of these areas have islands of habitat not accessible during the early weeks of the pheasant season without a pair of hip waders. When I encounter these water barricades during the early days of the season, I make a mental note for a late-season rendezvous. Generally speaking, these pheasant hunting El Dorados hold roosters that have escaped most of the harsh public lands pressure of other birds. In addition to your own boot leather scouting for these habitat islands, fire up Google’s satellite mapping tool on some WPAs to identify potential pheasant islands.
4.) Slow & Quiet. Pretty straightforward reminder to not yell at your bird dog, don’t slam your truck door, and walk slowly through heavy cover. December roosters are alive today because they’ve learned to avoid dogs, avoid flushing in front of a shotgun, and successfully have avoided early-season hunters. Slow down and shut up. Even the “smartest” rooster in the field will lose patience… eventually.
5) Destination Kansas. After a few years of drought and lower bird numbers, the Kanas pheasant survey indicated a 51-percent surge in pheasants this year. Add that eye-popping stat to their late Nov. 14 opening day, a 48-percent increase in bobwhite quail numbers, and a late Jan. 31 closing date, and it’s clear why northern snow bird hunters migrate to Kansas to extend their season a month longer.
Admittedly, I prefer October days of 40 degrees, autumn colors, and hard-holding roosters over my German shorthairs. That said, there is dramatic beauty in holding a fully-plumed ringneck in all its colorful glory under a flurry of December snow. Without doubt, late season roosters are true trophies.