Hunting Early Season Pheasants

By Jessica Graham

October is finally here and for pheasant hunters, that means Iowa’s pheasant season will soon open. We know from survey results that last year’s pheasant hunting was phenomenal. In fact, hunters harvested more pheasants last year than any year in the last decade. We want this year to be just as fun and successful. To get on those first pheasants, we will look at some important pre-season scouting tips. This will help you get on birds quicker, and maximize your time hunting. Also, we will take a look at preferred habitats and food sources for pheasants, which can greatly help your hunting strategy once October 29th rolls around.

Scouting
I would be willing to wager that a majority of pheasant hunters neglect this first and most important step when it comes to hunting new territory: scouting. If you have been chasing roosters long enough, you know that not all hunting ground is equal: property access, cover, available feed, size, and hazardous terrain are all considerations that go into formation of a hunting property with high pheasant potential. This seems basic, but you can’t harvest pheasants that aren’t there. Meaning, before you begin hunting for the season, you should do some scouting to evaluate the presence of pheasants. To begin scouting for pheasants, you can take a drive to your hunting area in the morning. Did you see pheasants in the area or in a field or crossing a road? If so, this is a sure indicator that pheasants are in the area. I like to sit and listen for a pheasant cackle in the morning to see if there are some in the field. I would be willing to wager that a majority of pheasant hunters neglect this first and most important step when it comes to hunting new territory. If you have been chasing roosters long enough, you know that not all hunting ground is equal: property access, cover, available feed, size, hazardous terrain are all considerations that go into formation of a hunting property with high pheasant potential. Additionally, past performance of a piece of ground can let you know if pheasants have been in the area. If you are hunting a new piece of ground, I recommend taking a look at what the property has to offer for cover, food, and habitat.

Native Warm Season Grasses
If your hunting area is lacking: habitat, cover, or food, while others are readily available on adjacent properties, the pheasants may spend most of their time on the other property. At my own pheasant haven, for example, there is a small shelterbelt on a bordering pubic hunting area and two larger ones each less than a quarter mile away on private land. Given this abundance of cover I’ve focused my efforts almost exclusively on nesting habitat, with outstanding results. Although pheasants can and do utilize a variety of habitat types, they are primarily and upland bird. They nest and raise their young almost exclusively on grassland areas and prefer to roost and loaf there as well unless weather conditions force them to do otherwise.

Larger blocks of grassland provide better habitat than linear strips such as fence lines, filter strips, waterways, road ditches, etc. These strips, while infinitely better than no habitat at all, are easier for predators to target efficiently, and are often vulnerable to flooding and fill with snow relatively quickly. It may be hard to find large areas of native warm season grasses in Iowa. Most Iowa land was once covered in upland grasses and will readily support them if given the opportunity. Not all grasslands are equally beneficial, however. Wildlife thrives on diversity, so a large tract composed exclusively or primarily of a single grass (a monoculture) provides limited habitat relative to one offering a diverse mix of species. Native-type grasslands attract a variety of insects that serve as the primary diet for growing pheasants. A native Iowa prairie contains several species of warm-season grasses and forbs. The plants tend to be tall, providing overhead as well as ground cover, and stand up relatively well to wind, rain and snow. They also serve as habitat for other ground-nesting birds and a large number of additional wildlife species. When seeking pheasants for hunting, we often find them in large grass lands.

Food Plots
A good food plot in the right location can make for some of the best pheasant hunting once fall comes around. Pheasants are masters of finding waste grain in Iowa fields. Many forbs and grasses along with some trees and shrubs provide food sources as well. This is why you will be sure to find pheasants hiding in and around food plots. Some of our favorite food plots to hunt the first part of pheasant season include: cornfields and milo.

Standing corn is a given in Iowa when it comes to pheasant hunting. Standing corn is a nightmare to hunt from, but you know the birds will be in the field. This is done best if you have a group that can walk through the standing corn. Spread out about 20 yards apart. The outside hunter should be about 5-6 rows deep in order to get a shot at a pheasant fleeing out the sides.

Milo is another staple in pheasant food plots. Often Milo can be used in pusher and blocker scenarios. Position the blocker at the end of the drive in the middle of the plot. Then the pusher can commence by zig-zagging the food plot in order to cover as much ground as possible with one person. Make sure and stop from time to time, the pause creates tension and can cause a bird to flush and provide a shot opportunity.

Summing It Up
Iowa was once booming with pheasants because our climate and landscape are nearly ideal for raising ringnecks. When finding those first birds, be sure to find areas that have a healthy pheasant population. Your time spent scouting before the season begins will lead to a smoother hunting strategy. Once you know pheasants are in the area, your chances of success begin. Food, habitat and cover should be plentiful in ideal locations. Be sure to spend time in native warm season grasslands and cover those food sources. Best of luck this 2022 pheasant season!