November Pheasant Hunting

By Troy Hoepker

Say the words “November in Iowa” to a devoted bird hunter and the mind conjures up a multitude of ambient memories. Memories of birds in flight, dogs bounding through the grasses with nose to ground, and the camaraderie shared by family and friends in the field whom share the same passion. But down deep, it’s a passion that’s more than that …one that’s felt deep in the soul. That first chill in the air of fall that finds its way into your core also fills your body with the presence of knowing you are right where you’re supposed to be. The time of living green earth has passed and is replaced by a sea of chromatic golden grasses that sway in the wind. You feel it against your body just as you feel it within you.

Iowa pheasant season may begin each year in October but it is November that holds the changes of the season we must adapt to for any success we can hold in our hands. It is early season hunting and late season hunting mixed into one. A month that can present bluebird 80-degree days, or shin-deep snow in freezing conditions; November challenges us to bring wild game bird from field to table. The same field seemingly devoid of birds one day may hold the motherload the next? Birds that take off from the sound of a muffled sneeze a mile away on a windy day are replaced by the bird that jolts your heart into instant A-fib when it comes screaming out from under your foot the next calm day. Iowa pheasant hunting can certainly be a misunderstood phenomenon equal to the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. Yet we keep coming back and maybe that’s why?

We had parked a fair distance away on purpose, hoping the first sounds of a gunshot tipping off the inhabitants of the field to our arrival would be on birds well within range. Maybe we could down one or two ringnecks before the whole tribe knew we were there?

At the field, Ace disappeared into the abyss of bluestem as I glanced to the screen of my GPS handheld to make sure it was marking his location correctly. Displaying 90-feet away and gaining, at times the screen would be all I would have to know where Ace would be. Not usually one to roam too far, occasionally he will get glued to the scent of a bird on the run and may far out pace me however.

Within fifty yards into the field I saw that I was catching him, a sure sign that he was working scent and likely on a bird. Sure enough, just as I noticed his dawdling, the handheld buzzed indicating Ace was on point somewhere ahead. I walked to the spot where I thought the dog would be and found nothing but the entanglement of briars. My lack of movement must have unleashed the rooster from its nervous hide and it shot forth airborne less than ten feet to my right and directly in front of Ace’s nose as he leaped helplessly after it.

I sidestepped in turn bringing the barrel towards the target as the rooster began to bring himself down in a dive back towards the slope of the hill in escape away from me. His tail feathers tipped towards the earth as BB’s crushed his frame and gravity took hold. As tiny feathers sailed off in the puff of wind, Ace dashed overtop of the bird.

Now the whole world knew we were here. But the plan had worked for at least one rooster caught off guard. Sure enough as we advanced I saw multiple birds rise and sail off to safety up ahead of our path. It was evident in Ace’s actions also. He was working scent time after time of running roosters but never getting close.

Ace has developed his own way of dealing with birds fleet of foot. The first time I saw him do it, I thought he was venturing too far and would tone him to bring him back. But after a while I began to notice that he was simply running ahead with purpose. Ace had figured out that if he would run ahead of any birds off to the side of where we were pushing, he could turn in and work back towards me trapping the birds between him and I. I wish I could say I taught him that trick, but I’m just not that good of a dog trainer.

Ace tried the tactic throughout the field several times but each time there was nothing to show for it. Finally I saw him trying the tactic flanking a terrace as we dropped down a sidehill. As I came up and over the terrace, there was Ace on the other side locked up in a statuesque point. Looking down upon the dog with the bird somewhere between him and I, the bird shot out from the side of the terrace like a missile from a bunker. The bird was below me making for a bit of an unorthodox shot but I managed to send him tumbling into the grass with Ace in hot pursuit.

It was not lost on me what had happened. With countless footsteps trod chasing birds that were faster than us, I realized that structure could hold them long enough for us to get close, as it did with this bird. Looking around my immediate area I was fresh out of terraces, but a quarter of a mile away was a large pond dam. I turned Ace towards it and off we went.

As we came around the low end of the dam Ace turned instantly birdy. His head turned dramatically as his body lined out in direction of scent. Slight left turns followed back to the right each time all the while trained intently ahead, his feet hit the ground a little softer with each step. I can always tell when a bird is super close before Ace locks into a point. There is so much fresh, live scent in Ace’s nose that he’s readied himself in keen focus for the loud rise of a pheasant at any moment. If I snap a twig, touch his body in any way; it startles him to a jump as if he’s forgotten I’m there entirely.

Ace moved forward effortlessly leaping over a little wash out in one bound as I tried to follow. As my feet hit the other side of the washout, Ace disappeared over a small rise. That’s when I heard the rising cackle of our adversary. As I came over the rise, there was already a smoke trail coming from the bird in the air and with one well placed, well aimed shot, I promptly missed the ringneck. A tough shot no doubt, but one I felt as though I should have made.

That was our chance at a limit that November day and he was sailing away just like we’d seen many other birds do from a distance. It was time to pack it in and get Ace some water and rest. The weight of two birds in my pack reminded me that it had been a pretty good day regardless and it wasn’t about a limit anyway. It was about that dog, and that place and forgetting life for a while in nature.

A very large percentage of pheasant hunters only hunt opening weekend in Iowa. I am bewildered as to why so many choose to quit bird hunting just when it is at its best. As the crops come out throughout November pheasants have less and less cover and are forced into more predictable patterns and areas of cover. Keep a close eye on the places you hunt and if you can, hunt them as soon as the crops around them are harvested. After that continue to hunt the field with those picked grain fields as a food source in mind. That means finding birds near those food sources early and late in the day.

Pheasants absolutely feel pressure when you and your party are in the same field as they are. As a hunter I always try and think of where I am in relation to any bird’s potential location in front of me and the surroundings of cover around both of us. The more you push a bird toward a lack of cover, the more anxious that bird becomes. Push him to a larger area of cover and you’ll more oftentimes get a bird that wants to run endlessly or sit tight and let you pass right by. If you can force that bird into a flee in flight or die situation, the more likely he is to rise for a shot. But he may just use most of the cover available to him before he does so. Sure you may lose a few birds that get up too far for a shot, but you may get one to hold at the edge.

When you get to that edge it’s important to walk it out to the very last bits of grass. Pheasants can hide in only a few strands of grass. Touch the corner post or move up and down the edge once you’ve pushed to the end. Stop as you walk through the field or even at the end of the field and hold still frequently as you move. Birds that think you’ll pass by will get itchy to jump if they can’t hear the threat any longer but know it’s still close.

November brings on the frosts and snows that hold birds tighter and sometimes bunches them up. Let your dog work close and don’t be afraid to work at a slower pace following the dog’s pace as he works. Birds may be found closer to heavier cover when it’s cold, especially if that cover has a reliable food source very near. Whenever possible try to put the dog’s nose into the wind and crisscross the dog over the field as you work so he gets as much scent as possible. Those days when moisture stays on the grasses longer tend to be better days for your dog to scent.

It’s hard to imagine a more fair chase hunt than hunting for an Iowa rooster. They have as much of a chance to escape us as they wish yet somehow we manage to down our fair share. Sometimes they win and sometimes we win, but either way it’s not who wins or loses, it’s the hunt that becomes part of your spirit and fuels the passion in your soul.