“How to Optimize Specific Pheasant Areas”

By Joel Johnson

As I stuffed the second rooster into my battered, blaze-orange, vest, I marveled at how many birds our party had just shot. It was mid-November, we had been hunting for less than an hour, and the action had been fast and furious.
The weather was overcast and mild with the mercury hovering in the low thirties, and the small parcels of North Central Iowa switchgrass were bursting with pheasants. The adjacent cornfields had only been picked the day before, and we started into the first 5-acre patch at 8am sharp.

Almost immediately the dogs were on the trail; flushing over a dozen birds wild and into the trap we’d set across the road. Blockers were posted on the far side of the perceived refuge, and we knew these once-flushed birds would hold tight on the next push.
“Once we cross the road and step into that grass, make sure the dogs work close and be ready for anything!” I hollered down the line of walkers.

“If you knock a bird down, make sure you mark it!” Jeff reminded.

“We have blockers on the end, so let the low flushers and skimmers go!” Shannon warned. “Keep it safe and mind your shots!”

A few steps into the tanglefoot the first rooster flushed between Jay’s legs. The staccato one-two report of the Ithaca double forecasted doom for the rookie bird, and the second pattern of #4 shot crumpled the ring neck 25 yards ahead. Right on cue, Gus the yellow lab expertly marked and fetched the bird back to hand. As we continued the march, bird after bird flushed out of the head-high grass; whipping the dogs into a frenzy; tails beating the brush and noses straining to interpret the overwhelming scent. Several more birds dropped into the ocean of grass and the dogs reliably located and fetched their quarry.

Nearing the end of the 6-acre chicken coop, our party slowed the pace, insuring the dogs left no stone unturned. The hunters and the hunted faced off until at last the pheasants broke cover.

When the walkers and dogs reached the last 30 yards, and the blockers were in sight, all heck broke loose. Hens and roosters erupted from the grass, escaping in every direction. The disciplined hunting party managed the chaos and patiently picked their shots. When the smoke cleared and the last bird was retrieved, several hunters had a brace of matching tail feathers protruding from their vests, myself included.

No matter where you hunt pheasants, a few critical elements must exist to optimize bird production. Robust winter cover that blocks the wind and stands up to heavy snow and ice is the number one priority. A close second is diverse nesting cover that provides good overhead protection and a dynamic understory that promotes effective escape routes. Finally, to strategically target birds and maximize their overall health, you can install diverse food sources throughout the property. In the state of Iowa, having available food sources is rarely a limiting factor to bird production due to intensive agriculture throughout the state. As a result, if budget is a concern, it is wise to spend your hard-earned dollars on cover first and food second.

The type of cover to implement depends largely on the size and layout of the property, and as a rule of thumb, more is better! No matter how many acres of land to you plan to develop, consulting the local FSA office or Pheasants Forever biologist should be your first step. These kind folks can help you develop the best possible strategy for the property and insure you are taking advantage of available cost-share opportunities. Their knowledge is invaluable, and they can uniquely leverage experience from other pheasant enhancement projects to help design the best approach.

In my experience, it doesn’t take hundreds of acres to establish a thriving local pheasant population. In fact, one of my go-to spots in Carroll county has less than 5 acres of grass, but it churns out numbers of pheasants every year. This honey-hole is simply a shallow drainage ditch with 60 feet of switch grass riparian strips on both sides. It runs roughly 100-150 yards in length and forms one side of a triangle with roads forming the other sides. The fields surrounding this spot are slightly rolling with established waterways, weedy road ditches, and brushy terraces. The birds have plenty of feed available throughout the year and multiple escape routes exist whether flying or running. During the day we often see them feeding in the open fields or loafing on or around the terraces. At these times the birds are rarely approachable for an effective hunt. However, in the evenings they almost always fly into the switch grass to roost; the thickest cover available in the section. This habit creates an ideal opportunity to harvest some of these birds, and when we time a morning hunt right after the corn harvest or after a snow storm the results can be extraordinary.

Large CRP fields can produce and hold consistent numbers of pheasants every season. These areas can be optimized by strategically planting trees and shrubs to create a living snow fence or shelterbelt on the north and west sides to provide relief from frigid arctic winds. Creating snow catch areas directly downwind can capture large volumes of snow and ice; enhancing the windbreak and preventing food sources from being buried.

Hunting large CRP tracts can be an exercise in patience, and one pro tip is to approach the fields unconventionally. Birds’ pea-sized brains somehow learn to pattern hunters coming in from the same entry point every time. Therefore, they often flush wild upon the first door slam or beeper collar test. Instead of coming at them from the most convenient parking lot or field lane entrance, consider going the extra mile and coming at them from side or hunt the property backwards. When hunting large areas with a small party also be sure to zig zag your way across the cover and pay close attention to your dogs’ nose. These places are ideally suited for rangy pointers and spaniels that can cover a lot of ground quickly. If you keep up with the dogs and post blockers strategically you will be rewarded for your persistence.

Big or small, any property can be optimized for pheasant production. Your top priorities should always be installing sturdy winter cover followed by diverse nesting habitat. If you have money left over, consider planting green food plots in the spring to maximize insect production for hens and chicks. In the fall consider plots with small grains to maximize tonnage for the birds and other wildlife. Designing and executing a pheasant enhancement project can be a tremendously rewarding endeavor; providing a legacy of hunting memories for several generations.