Common Errors made by Pheasant Hunters
By Kent Boucher
One of my favorite experiences is the sudden machine gun-like cadence of an eruption of flapping wings, accompanied by the appearance of a long streamer of tail feathers and the beautiful cola colored outline of a rooster pheasant. In the age of digital media overstimulation it’s hard to find an activity that provides such sensory overload, but good old pheasant hunting remains one of those rare activities. Unlike most other species you can hunt in Iowa, pheasants almost always catch you by surprise. The resulting adrenaline rush is what keeps upland hunters in the field every late autumn, and it’s this same nature of the hunt that makes reaching a bag limit of roosters a challenging endeavor. This natural challenge can be further escalated into a virtual impossibility by falling into a number of common pitfalls that plague the game bags and freezers of many rooster chasers.
Opening day of pheasant season in Iowa is a hectic ordeal. Last year my best friend Weston and I met well before sunrise to hit a public land parcel near his house. As we rolled up to the parking area we saw another parking area to the west of us was already occupied by fellow hunters. Although we knew the property would be crowded we figured we were fortunate to have the edge on the eastern side as we watched trucks humming back and forth on the gravel road behind us looking for their own space to hunt. While we sat for the remaining 45 minutes before the legal shooting hour I began doing what I should have done the night before- I began studying the map closely to see what this hunting area had to offer. I didn’t have to study too long to develop a nervous knot in my stomach. The eastern part of the property was much smaller than the western portion and the two portions were separated by a broad stream. As we began following the dogs my fears were more than confirmed. All the ground on our side of the stream was filled with 10-12 foot high shrubby bushes on a steep, nearly impassible hillside and the stream was about 20 feet wide and about 4-5 feet deep, too much water to cross without waders. So that was it. Our first hunting spot that we had already invested multiple hours into reaching was a total bust and we only were able to “hunt” for about 15 minutes. We learned our lesson though: don’t be content to just find land to hunt, but actually study the property to know what it has to offer.
After shooting my first pheasant I was astounded by the ability the birds have to disappear. I watched where the rooster dropped and expected to immediately find the bird if my 1 year old Brittany named Theo didn’t find it first. Just as quickly as the excitement of watching my first rooster fall to the grass arrived, the regret of killing an animal and not being able to recover it began to swoop in on me as I scoured the ground where I believed the bird fell. As this negativity was swirling in my mind Theo did exactly what he was bred to do, he saved the hunt! Even as I peeled back the layers of grass I still had a hard time finding the ornately colored bird. It was at this moment I realized the invaluable advantage a good bird dog provided on an upland hunt. Since that first rooster nearly every other bird I have knocked out of the sky has been recovered by Theo or my other bird dog Tess. And those are only the recoveries. Many more shot opportunities have been provided by their points and flushes as well. To state my point plainly, good bird dogs equate to exponentially more shot opportunities and birds against your limit.
Do you remember the first time you tried your hand at shooting clay targets out of a thrower? If your experience was anything like my own it took you more than a handful of shells to get the hang of hitting the small, orange, airborne targets. Of course, once you did learn how to consistently shatter the targets you continued to improve your consistency as you spent more time practicing. Obviously the purpose of shooting clays is to improve your accuracy in the field when you’re firing at live targets. The problem is that hunting and shooting require time and space, two commodities that aren’t always easy to find. This reality prevents many hunters from taking the time to sharpen their aim before opening day and unfortunately means they will put fewer birds in their game bag by the time closing day rolls around. In order to overcome this reality I suggest setting an attainable goal of shooting through a box or two of shells during the final months leading up to pheasant season. Making the time spent practicing as close to an actual hunting scenario will be the most helpful.
Another problem that time at the gun range can help cure is determining the right shells to pair with your particular scatter gun and your shooting abilities. Hunters are creatures of habit. When we find something that works we often stick with it until we can’t buy it anymore. Many habits we develop as hunters are helpful, but one that can be problematic is only using one type of pheasant load year after year. A few seasons ago I found myself consistently missing birds that flushed and flew directly away from me. The next season I decided to try some new shells and was very pleased to see my problem in large part resolved. A change in ammunition should also be taken into consideration when factoring in the weather, habitat, and hunting pressure in the area you will be hunting. Early flushes with longer shots may require more powder or a size lighter shot so you can send a few more pellets towards the bird (don’t go too light here though as lighter pellets lose velocity faster), whereas areas with tighter flushes and shorter shots lend themselves to heavier shot size with less powder so as not to damage the meat (or your teeth) any more than necessary. It’s a slight change in approach, but it should lead to more pheasant featured cuisine by the conclusion of the season.
One of my favorite aspects of pheasant hunting is its somewhat relaxed nature. During deer season I obsess over keeping myself and my gear as scent free and silent as possible, but during pheasant season these considerations take nowhere near the same prioritization. However, I think many pheasant hunters (myself included) should give their noise level a little more thought. In the moments leading up to a hunt there is usually a cacophony of excitement as the dogs whine, truck doors slam, shells are hastily jammed into receivers and chambered, hunters talk excitedly and…pheasants are notified of their arrival. Jumpy birds are harder to hunt. They flush early and fly beyond your legal boundaries for hunting. Keeping the noise level down while walking a field should help keep the birds flushing within a shooting range.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am far from the perfect pheasant hunter. I also will fess up to the fact that although I have provided this list of improvements that all pheasant hunters would be wise to consider, I should follow my own advice a little more closely. But perhaps that’s part of what makes hunting so appealing to us, there is always something we can improve on, and the results are tangible. More roosters in the game bag and the freezer.