Following the Number for Ringnecks
By Tim Ackarman
Introduced to Iowa in the early 1900s, ringneck pheasants were the premier game species across most of state from the 1960s through the early 2000s. Beginning in 2007 habitat loss, changing agricultural practices and several consecutive years of unfavorable weather sent populations spiraling downward.
Meanwhile deer, turkey and waterfowl populations were all stable or growing. Many hunters abandoned ringnecks in favor of these opportunities. New traditions arose.
Although the “glory days” of pheasant hunting haven’t (and may never) return, populations have bounced back somewhat in recent years. Hunters have taken notice, and many are once again learning (or relearning) how to pursue Iowa’s one-time King of Gamebirds.
Distilled to the essentials pheasant hunting isn’t all that complicated: walk around in likely pheasant habitat until they flush, then shoot ‘em! Yet subtle refinements to this basic approach can produce more consistent results. The optimum strategy varies depending on the size of the party and the size, shape and type of habitat being hunted.
Leader of the Pack
When pheasants and hunters were plentiful sizable hunting parties were often the norm, especially on opening weekend. Since absolute stealth isn’t essential, particularly on early season birds, pheasant hunts lend themselves well to social outings.
Having lots of birds and several gunners in close proximity also increases the opportunity for mishaps. As with any type of party hunting, it’s best to have one or two seasoned gunners serve as leaders, helping to plan the hunt before taking the field and providing instruction as the day unfolds.
Larger public grasslands and CRP fields offering room for multiple hunters to operate lend themselves well to party hunts. During the early season and/or in heavier cover where the birds are apt to sit tightly, marching all of the hunters across the plot in a straight line is often quite effective.
The group should be deployed with hunters spaced evenly. Inexperienced hunters should either walk adjacent to a mentor or be flanked by more seasoned party members.
Groups with no dogs should be arrayed tightly, with not more than 30 yards between gunners. If dogs are available, the hunters can spread out a bit more with the dogs evenly spaced throughout the line. Obedient, close-working dogs are essential here. A dog running ahead and breaking birds—or a handler frantically chasing after her—can spoil the drive for everyone.
The drive should proceed slowly giving the dogs (if applicable) an opportunity to work. Individual hunters should list back and forth to hit “birdy” spots while remaining within their zone and never getting too far in front of the line. Hunters on the flanks may wish to stay just ahead of the group to funnel birds towards the center, although the gunners nearest them must execute disciplined shot selection to maintain safety.
Etiquette dictates the hunter nearest the flush should have the first opportunity to shoot unless an adjacent hunter obviously has a clearer or safer window.
If the parcel is large enough to require multiple passes it often works well to hunt the entire outside edge of the property first in order to push birds towards the middle. The interior can then be covered in a grid pattern, with special emphasis on any cover or terrain features likely to hold birds.
In lighter cover, standing crop fields or other situations where birds are running and/or flushing wild, it may be advantageous to post blockers. This also provides opportunity for hunters who lack the stamina or mobility for long drives.
Blockers can deploy in plain sight in hopes of holding birds in the field longer or attempt to remain hidden while looking for pass shooting opportunities. In either case they are best stationed at field corners, at edges created by changes in habitat type, at any narrow spots in the cover that create natural pinch points, or along a known/anticipated flight path to nearby escape cover.
It is imperative for blockers to stay where they are initially deployed and for every hunter to be aware of where the blockers are located. Pheasants will often run to the edge of the cover and then sit tight, flushing only when the drivers approach. This has the potential to put multiple birds and gunners in close proximity, thus making safe shot selection critical.
If the available habitat doesn’t lend itself well to a large party, the best bet may be to divide into smaller groups. This also might be a wise approach if the party includes multiple young or inexperienced hunters who would benefit from a little extra supervision and coaching. Swapping stories, trading jabs, catching up and the like can always wait until rest breaks or the end of the hunt.
Smaller parties (say 2-4 people) can also employ the “line up and march” approach. Yet since it has fewer moving parts, a small group can employ a wider variety of strategies safely and effectively.
In larger parcels the small group may be better served by concentrating on the best habitat. Cover immediately adjacent to harvested fields is often productive. Pheasants tend to favor edge cover such as the transition zone from short grass to tall, grasses to brush, upland to wetland, etc. Heavy thermal cover including thickets or shelterbelts, switchgrass and cattail sloughs is a great bet during frigid weather.
Hunters with well-trained dogs can send them into the heavier cover while remaining on the edge for unobstructed shooting. If the cover is too large for this approach one or two hunters may need to wade into the thick stuff while others work the edges.
Splitting up often works well when tackling circular or linear blocks of cover. Having one or two hunters on each side of a draw, drainage ditch, long and narrow shelter belt or heavy fenceline greatly increases the odds someone will get shooting. Hunters can work such areas with either a side-by-side or a drive-and-block approach.
Potholes rimmed with cattails or ponds surrounded by weeds and brush lend themselves well to a “pincer” maneuver. Starting at the six o’clock position one or two hunters work in opposite directions with a goal of meeting at twelve o’clock. Obviously safety is imperative as the two groups draw near.
An Army of One
While there may be strength in numbers, there are advantages to hunting solo as well. A quiet approach is often helpful on highly pressured birds, particularly in the late season. The loan hunter can set his or her own pace and alter plans on the fly as conditions dictate. And while camaraderie is a big part of hunting for many, solitude is a major draw for others.
The lone wolf needn’t shy away from large blocks of habitat. A single hunter with a dog can simply jump in, point his or her partner towards likely cover and try to keep up. Just as with a small group, concentrating on edges and transition zones is often beneficial.
Hunting alone without a dog is particularly challenging but not impossible. Birds will frequently sit tight or circle around a single hunter trudging along steadily in a straight line. The dogless gunner should work cover in an irregular pattern, varying the pace and speed while stopping frequently and doubling back occasionally.
Single hunters should be sure to fully work corners and any narrow fingers of cover that extend into open areas. Large parties maintaining rigid formation tend to miss such spots, and birds often learn to hunker there as danger passes. Yet these natural dead ends can leave the rooster with no choice but to flush when an attentive single hunter lands in his lap.
Another advantage of a solo outing is that the hunter needs only three birds to fill his or her limit. Like mature bucks, cagey roosters often find small, isolated patches of cover most hunters overlook.
An abandoned farm grove, a brushy draw in a pasture or field, a grass waterway or filter strip, an overgrown field corner or a heavy fenceline may hold a bird or two. Many times these little islands of habitat attract little if any hunting pressure, especially if they’re very far from the road. A loan hunter with or without a dog can hunt these small chunks quite effectively using a slow and stealthy approach.
Pheasants are tough, meaning disciplined, shot selection is always essential. This is especially true for the loan hunter and doubly so for one without a dog. A lightly peppered bird can sail a long way before going down, and a rooster that appeared to be upended can hit the ground moving if its running gear is intact. Even a stone-dead bird can be hard to locate in heavy cover.
The loan hunter should aspire for unobstructed shots well within range of either his or her gun/load combo and level of shooting skill. (Be honest with yourself, folks!) He or she should make and maintain a solid mark in heavy cover and try not to stray from it until the bird is recovered. While taking an “honest double” is always fun, the lone hunter with no dog or an inexperienced one should seriously consider downing only one bird at a time in all but the most open terrain.
The “King” deserves nothing less.