5 Tips for Late-Season Pheasants

By Tim Ackarman

After several bleak seasons, pheasant hunters are enjoying a resurgence of Iowa’s premier gamebird. As fall yields to winter however, many turn their attention to deer hunting, ice fishing, or couch sitting.

Yet hunters can still find birds right up until 4:30 p.m. on January 10 with a little resilience, a lot of determination and a slightly different approach. For youngsters discovering ringnecks, or veterans rediscovering them, these five tips will help put birds in the bag when others are chasing crappie or watching bowl games.

Scout ‘Em Out
Most deer and turkey hunters spend as much time scouting as hunting. Yet too many upland bird enthusiasts simply hit past hotspots and hope for the best. Hunters who do a little reconnaissance up their odds for success considerably.
With crops harvested and perhaps some snow on the ground, pheasants are at their most visible. If weather has been severe they’re likely bunched up in winter cover and feeding in open fields. A quick drive past likely spots in the morning or evening will often show where birds are congregated and help hunters develop a plan to target them.

Those without the time or inclination to travel can do a lot of the legwork by phone. Many people log considerable miles in rural areas, including DNR conservation officers and wildlife area managers, county sheriffs and deputies, mail carriers, delivery drivers, snowplow operators, farmers, and ATV/snowmobile riders, among others. They likely know where birds are plentiful and are often willing to share information. Most hunters probably know a few such folks, and the savvy ones take advantage.

Bring Enough Gun
Pheasants are tough critters. By late season even young-of-the-year birds are full grown, fully feathered and sporting enough fat to see them through the lean days ahead. Winter roosters often flush early and fly fast, meaning shots are frequently long. Hunters should select guns and ammo accordingly.

This isn’t to say everyone needs a 10 gauge with 3 ½- inch loads after Thanksgiving. A perfectly placed head shot from a tightly choked 28 gauge is capable of bringing down the plumpest rooster at 50 yards.

Yet truth is few hunters are skillful enough to consistently brain pheasants with a tightly choked 28 gauge even under ideal conditions. And considering late-season often means cold hands, bulky clothing, and high winds, ideal conditions are the exception rather than the rule.

Carrying a bigger gun doesn’t excuse poor shot selection or mitigate subpar shooting. Yet a bigger payload makes a denser and slightly larger effective pattern, providing a little greater margin for error. A good rule of thumb for pheasant hunters is to bring the largest gauge shotgun he or she can carry and shoot comfortably.

Those who use open chokes, light loads, and small pellets early may also want to step things up a bit during the late season. My pheasant gun is a Ruger Red Label choked improved cylinder and modified. I shoot three-inch shells loaded with number three steel shot for everything from teal to Canada geese over decoys. This keep-it-simple approach assures I’ll always have the right ammo whether hunting upland game or waterfowl on public land or private. It also eliminates environmental concerns about spreading lead around wildlife habitat.

Since steel is less dense than lead and tends to pattern a little tighter, a comparable setup for lead or equivalent non-toxics might feature 2 ¾ – or 3-inch shells loaded with number four or five shot fired through modified and full barrels.

Keep It Down
Early season pheasant hunts can be noisy affairs. Parties are often large and conversation frequently steady. Dogs may be a bit over-exuberant if not downright undisciplined, requiring repeated shouts, and whistles to keep them in range and on task.
December roosters won’t tolerate such antics. Slam the truck door at the parking area on public ground and they’re immediately on high alert, if they haven’t already taken flight.

Late-season hunters should attack pheasant cover as they would a deer bedding area by keeping noise to a minimum and using terrain to shield their approach. Birds that know a hunter is coming from a half-mile away have time to take evasive action, while those that suddenly find the gunner in their laps are more apt to sit tight and flush in range.

Change It Up
Most pheasant hunting parties behave predictably in the early season: line up about 40 yards apart and march from one end of a field to the other and back in a grid pattern. This serves well early on and may still work on lightly hunted late-season birds. Yet roosters that have already outflanked numerous such processions may require a different approach.

Typical hunters start at the most convenient parking lot or driveway. Those willing to hike to the backside (get permission before crossing private ground) may catch birds off guard.

Late season roosters are as apt to run as to fly. Posting blockers along anticipated escape routes may hold them in, providing better shooting for both pushers and blockers.

A few hunters tackling a large block of cover should try working the edges first rather than using the standard grid approach. Birds often hold near the edges, and hitting the outside initially will either cause them to flush (hopefully in range) or push them towards the middle where they’ll be accessible on subsequent passes.

Another option is to stagger the line, with a few hunters pushing ahead and others hanging back. When the leaders are out of gun range, they stop and wait while the others catch up and move ahead, creating a series of mini-drives.

For smaller linear (filter strips, drainage ditches, fence lines, etc.) or roughly circular pieces (thickets, cattail sloughs, etc.) hunters might want to split up and hunt towards each other, hopefully squeezing birds in the middle.

Obviously the above mentioned tactics require excellent planning, constant awareness, and extreme discipline in shot selection. Safety is always paramount.

Think Outside The Box
Standard late season advice is to focus on winter cover: shelterbelts, cattail sloughs, willow or plum thickets, switchgrass, etc. While pheasants rely on these areas when conditions turn nasty, Iowa isn’t the artic. Winter weather hereabouts is fickle, and birds will respond accordingly.

If conditions remain relatively mild throughout the late season, pheasants may still inhabit their November haunts. Even if birds have taken to winter habitat, they will feed and loaf in adjacent lighter cover during unseasonably mild days. Hunters shouldn’t be afraid to tromp knee-high grass if late-season conditions dictate.

Although competition is often less intense, large flocks of late season pheasants will probably attract other hunters. Yet like an old buck turned solitary, some cagey roosters will choose safety over companionship. Bits of cover such as overgrown fence lines or field corners, abandoned farmsteads, gnarly ravines, etc. may hold a few overlooked birds. A lone gunner who lines up enough of these hideouts might enjoy multiple undisturbed late season outings.

Finally, Iowa has several waterfowl refuges off limits during the duck season. When the season closes or the wetlands freeze up, managers open these areas to public hunting. Refuges frequently offer a mix of upland habitat interspersed with thickets and cattail sloughs, providing ideal pheasant habitat and hosting unpressured birds.

Most locals know about these late season honey holes, so hunters hoping to take advantage need to contact refuge managers to find out when they’ll be accessible. For those on the ball it’s like opening day round two.