5 early season tips for pheasant hunting success
After three years in the gutter, bird counts across the heart of ring-necked pheasant country finally are improving. The reports are well documented – 55-percent surge in Nebraska, 51-percent jump in Kansas, South Dakota pops up 42 percent, Iowa gains 37 percent, and Minnesota gains 33 percent. Those encouraging statistics aside, the overall populations are a far cry from “the good old days” of 2007 and 2008 when we experienced 40- and 60-year milestones in bird numbers. Consequently, it’s important we shoot straight given the privilege of a flush off our pup’s nose. The mulligans just aren’t out there on the landscape until our overall habitat base improves. So without further ado, here are five tips for early season success.
1.) Always follow the dog. How many times has your dog broken right when, for the last 100 yards, you’ve been eyeing the birdy-looking cover to your left? I’ve made the same mistake 1.5 million other pheasant hunters will make again this year and continue on to the left. And 1.4 million times, the pup will boost a rooster as big as the harvest moon . . . if only you’d have followed the dog to the right. Will you learn the lesson this year? Your gun dog’s nose is more adept at finding birds than your eyes. Trust the nose and always follow the dog. Always.
2.) Find the food. Pheasants eat waste grain. That’s why the edges of picked corn fields can be so productive after harvest. In some years, however, the pheasant opener happens before the first hard frost of the season. When that happens, young pheasants likely are still feasting on the same diet of insects they have been munching on since they hatched from their eggs in June. I always open up the crop of the first bird bagged of the season to see what the food source is inside. If it’s corn, that tells you to focus on crop field edges. If the crop still is predominately grasshoppers, then those young birds may still be in the big grassland expanses of a CRP field or wildlife area.
3.) Identify the trend. Successful anglers are experts at identifying the pattern for hungry fish on any lake, river, or stream. They narrow down a forage source, lure color, time of day, depth, and speed of retrieve to find the biters. The same puzzle exists for pheasant hunters. What kind of habitat are the early season roosters spending their time in during different day parts. Are they in the cattails, field edges, grassy middles, or in the corn all day until roosting time? Are the roosters running or holding tight? Just like largemouth bass and walleyes, pheasant hunting can be patterned if you’re thinking about the “puzzle” and savvy enough to identify the trends.
4.) Do the opposite. People tend to come into public hunting areas from the same direction, park in the same place, and hunt the same patterns. By the second weekend of the season, “wily” roosters start to earn their nickname and become “educated.” This season, do the opposite of everyone else and figure out what the natural pathway on your favorite hunting parcels is, then go a different direction. The birds won’t know what hit them… literally!
5.) The golden hour. I’ve saved the best tip for the readers who have traveled with me to the end of the field. Any seasoned bird hunter knows the single best time of the day to bag a rooster is the last hour before sunset. Early season pheasants typically spend their days loafing in protected anonymity in corn rows before moving into grassy cover to roost during the final hour of the day. This movement into roosting habitat generally equates to birds flying into WMAs, WPAs, walk-in areas and other public lands featuring an area’s best grassland habitat. This final hour, or “The Golden Hour,” is magic. So the lesson is not to burn out all your leg energy busting cover through the middle of the day so you’re out of gas at the last best opportunity of the entire day. Take the time to enjoy lunch in the local café or a tailgate picnic, so you’re ready to rock when “The Golden Hour” arrives.
What have I missed that should be part of every good bird hunter’s early season repertoire?