Late Season Pheasants
By Troy Hoepker
The clock was ticking on what was left of my pheasant hunting season and I dreaded the thought of no longer loading up my bird dog Ace and shooting those ringnecks over his points. It was January 2, 2019 and I wanted to make the most out of what was left in the season but for the first hour of the afternoon hunt Ace and I had yet to see a bird besides maybe a pointed hen or two. The walk across the ridge top and side hills that usually saw the release of multiple birds from the blue stem yielded almost nothing. I knew the birds were there, they had been all season, but where were they?
After hunting out the ridgeline I circled around and dropped off the east side of the property down the hill towards the bottom ground and even though there was no snow, the cold January breeze had a bite to it. I hoped to find some roosters flocked up out of the wind below the terraces or down in the bottom along the wooded fence line. Part way down the hill I saw bits and pieces of Ace in the grass as he worked towards the lowest terrace. I could see him moving the weeds around and then in a couple of bounds, he was up and over the terrace disappearing from view to the other side just as I began calling him back. We’ve all been there, just when you think the dog is working a little too far out and just as you call him back, it’s too late! A flurry of birds hit the air from the backside of that terrace and I was too far away to do anything about it.
My luck began to change however as we began working down through the bottom ground. Ace was once again birdy but I could tell by his slow, deliberate work that the birds were running ahead of us. He’d sniff his way forward and look, then sniff his way forward and look, all the while with that short, stubby tail moving at the pace of hummingbird wings! I followed his pace along the wooded fence line until a couple of birds burst from the end of the field too far to shoot. I began moving faster forcing Ace to keep up until he circled for the first time in the blue stem. He had one cornered and it was a short point before the desperate ringneck cackled his way airborne. I brought the bird down and I swear before the bird hit the ground, close to a dozen additional birds took to the air at the crack of the shot, all of them too far ahead to shoot at! But one was in the vest and we’d continue to work the field for more.
The birds were jumpy, typical of late season roosters but we had finally found them and hopes were high. After finishing out the bottom we climbed the hill on the backside of the farm. Occasionally, I’d catch a glimpse of a far ranging rooster leaving the danger of our path. By the time we got to the second terrace up the hill Ace was birdy once more with fresh scent! Another explosion of wings hit the air and I singled out a bird for an uphill shot. My pellets slammed against the bird as he side-winded for a bit barely maintaining flight. I could see a leg dangling beneath him as he went and then all of a sudden he dropped like a stone to the earth. I marked the line of sight and stayed with it not trying to attack any of the other birds that were escaping for the ridge where I had started my hunt. Calling Ace to follow, I stayed in line with where the bird fell up the hill not exactly knowing how far it was to where he dropped. I stopped in the general area where I believed he crashed and noticed Ace working scent. He dashed forward, wind in his face, working the blue stem until he locked up solidly on point. There was my bird in front of his nose!
We had worked our way through most of the property and had witnessed multiple birds flush and land across the same ridge we walked to start the hunt. I hoped we’d be able to get one of those birds to hold now that they were alone on our way back to the truck. Ace stayed excited all the way, flushing a hen and pointing a hen across the ridge. Getting closer to the truck Ace’s tail was vibrating once more as he dove off the ridge down the sidehill. “Trust the dog,” I told myself as I followed. Soon he locked up on a solid point. I stepped in front of his nose, and a rooster come up like a shot staying low and forcing me to turn 180 degrees to make the shot. Twice I fired at that rooster and must have been above him with each shot as he escaped into the distance. In all the commotion I almost didn’t realize that a second rooster a few yards away had taken flight the opposite direction. I spun and composed myself for the passing shot bringing the bird down. Ace bounded to the spot and I saw him jumping and then running. The rooster still had legs and as he ran out of the grass in the mowed lane, Ace scooped him up by the neck and made his way towards me with the bird’s wings battering him as he went!
That late season limit exhibited many of the traits you will see in pheasant behavior come December or January. Roosters were found in heavier cover behind windbreaks, they were jumpy and ran ahead of us and they were flocked up a little more than early season birds. Late season in Iowa can bring on all kinds of weather conditions and by this time of year, the roosters that have survived are sharp-eyed, spooky, veteran survivors.
Just as with my hunt, pheasants late in the year make certain adaptions in their routine to survive the elements and hunting pressure. Birds will seek out areas of heavier cover such as switchgrass, cattails, food plots, brushy shelterbelts and cedar groves to get out of the wind and give themselves protection from predators. Cattails and the like offer overhead cover and allow pheasants travel paths underneath when snow covers everything else. Protective areas like tree groves and windbreaks certainly hold flocks of birds but I always like to take into consideration how many spots like that the property I am hunting holds before venturing into them. Those areas are essential for bird survival so I’m vigilant to make sure birds have other similar areas they can escape if I spook them from their protective environment. Forcing birds into open areas especially late in the day can have deadly consequences for them in an Iowa winter so I want to make sure there are plenty of areas of cover for them to hold up for the night.
I especially look for areas of heavy cover that are close to a food source and water. Edge cover near cut beanfields or cut corn in low areas near a creek or a pond are great late season hides to flush a flock. These lowland, marshy areas hold heavy grasses and cattails and so the natural mix of everything they need is there. Some of the best times to find birds or learn what they like is after a light snowfall. Heavy tracks will tell you what they like and what kind of cover they prefer to be in.
After birds have been hunted a few times, they wise up quickly to the sounds of hunters. Slamming truck doors, beeper collars, the sounds of crunching snow under foot and rustling weeds pushed through by the dogs automatically put birds on edge. They’ll run or flush sooner and so late season hunts should be conducted stealthy. Don’t start the hunt where others have all season, instead find a different approach. That public hunting parking area isn’t the spot to begin walking in any longer. Once in the field, try the tactic of zig-zagging as you or your group walk in an effort to confuse running birds. Late season is the time to head to the deepest, darkest reaches of the property you are hunting. Go where you think other hunters haven’t and where birds are finding the farthest refuge. Push through those areas of the heaviest cover even where the walking is the toughest. Those are the spots where you’re likely to find birds flocked together. If you can push birds out then you can hunt them as singles by marking where they land and hopefully they’ll sit tighter when they are all alone.
When dealing with skittish ringnecks try posting some blockers around field edges or habitat edges such as food plots or cattail patches. Often times birds will never sit for the hunter and the dogs driving them, but once airborne they can be downed by blockers positioned with the wind in mind. A rooster likes to get into the wind to speed his get away. Normally I like to keep the wind in the dog’s face as they hunt but when you know you’re up against flighty, jumpy pheasants sometimes it’s okay to hunt the wind in favor of your blockers instead. Along with the wind, blockers should also try and cover areas between them and the next closest likely area a pheasant wants to fly to for cover.
Working through a field, you can also form a V-pattern as you walk with several hunters instead of the more traditional straight-line approach as you would earlier in the season. The hope is to try and funnel running birds ahead of you instead of letting them get away from you off to the sides. Flanking them as you walk can lead to good shot opportunities for those at the front of the V-formation. Along with runners, you’ll also have the occasional veteran bird try and let you walk right by. So slow down in that heavy cover and let the dogs work. Trusting in the dog is just as important as it is the rest of the year!
I’ve been known to carry a choke tube wrench and a couple of different chokes with me as well as some different shot shell sizes in my vest late in the year. Depending on how birds are acting, I can adjust on the fly. After snowy spells, frosty mornings or hunting wet ground conditions even late-season roosters can sit tight for a close shot. But generally speaking, if you’re after birds that have been hunted and hunting them in any other condition, then you’ll be faced with longer shots. Shot ranges can change throughout the hunt. The first bird that rises may do so at a close range but once that first shot is fired, the rest of the birds in the field are itchy and nervous and may never hold as tightly as that first one did. I may start the season with an improved cylinder but by Thanksgiving time, I’ve usually switched to a modified choke for the most part. Later in the year I’ll let the birds tell me when it’s time to switch to a full choke and 5-shot or even 4-shot. I prefer a heavier payload that will carry more energy farther downrange. There is some argument that velocities decrease slightly with colder conditions so I like high velocity shells capable of propelling shot as accurately as possible. Choosing a shell is very important. Do your research and don’t skimp in that area.
Some of the very best pheasant hunting is late in the year after many hunters have moved on to deer hunting or put the shotgun away for the year. A January sharp-spurred ringneck is a true trophy in Iowa so try a few of these tactics and see what late season pheasant hunting is all about!