When it comes to pheasant hunting I think a lot of people think of it as an easy task. Grab your gun, shells, vest, boots, and hit the field to kick up some birds. While there might be some truth to that mentality, pheasant hunting should be a bit more complex than that, especially now with bird numbers, albeit on the rise, still lower than the 10 year average. Plain and simple if you want to bag more birds these days you have to work for them. Gone are the days of crossing over into a field and watching 50 birds fly up. However, less birds doesn’t have to mean less success. Below are several tactics and strategies to use this season when out hunting pheasants.
Keep Hunting Public Land
It is a common thought that once the first week of the season has come to an end that public hunting areas are a bust the rest of the season. While bird numbers will be down if you can find areas that have a cornfield next to them wait until that field has been harvested and then hit the public land right away. The birds will have no choice but to fly across the street into the cover…this could be some of the best hunting of the year no matter if it is public ground or not!
Another good time public hunting picks up is during the late season with snow and wind. Most public land in Iowa offers some decent protection from the elements because it was designed with bad weather in mind. When the weather turns nasty, and it will here in Iowa, the pheasants will return to ride out the weather. Hit some public land right after a storm or during a cold snap and the birds will be around.
Pheasants are notorious for running ahead of hunters and fleeing way out in front of any shotgun’s effective range. The use of blockers is a great deterrent for this headache. Make sure and place blockers in a safe location at the end of the cover and on the sides. Pheasants will run as far as they can ahead of the pushers. By having pushers at the end and the sides the pheasants will be less apt to fly early instead they will hunker down and hope that dangers passes them by. The result is an eventual flush with a short range shot by either the pusher or blocker.
Pheasants are very jittery birds and get very nervous when they are pressured, especially the later in the season it gets. A car door slamming, a dog barking, or your hunting partner yelling across the lot will be enough to send whatever birds are in the cover to a premature flight or at least put them on guard. When you are getting ready for your hunt do your best to be quiet. When you hit the field let your footsteps do the speaking for you. The pheasants will be tracking you based off the noise your steps are laying down. Stop and pause every 50 yards and let the pheasants anticipation build. The pause may result in a foolish pheasant thinking the coast is clear and result in a flush.
Dress for Success
I am not talking about a suit and tie here, I am talking about dressing so you don’t overheat. I used to be guilty of this all the time. I would put more layers on than I could comfortably walk in and looked more like the Michelin Man character than a hunter. Every time I set out on the first hunt of the day I found myself shedding layers before the first stretch was done.
Make sure and dress so that you are just warm enough not to be cold. The movement of the hunt will get your blood rushing and keep you warm. It is wise to pack extra clothes for the day as well, in the event you do need to be warmer you can simply add a layer.
Don’t shoot too soon.
I use to hunt with a guy that thought he had to be the fastest to pull the trigger on every bird that got up. He was a regular Billy the Kid with his Wingmaster by his side. The problem was he wasn’t too accurate with his trusty sidearm. Plus any birds he did hit were literally blown to pieces…what a waste! While you may need to be quick with your weapon as a gunfighter, there is no need for quickness when it comes to shooting a pheasant.
Take the time to gather information on the pheasant’s flight path, let your fundamentals take over, and let your choke be affective. If you fire on a bird that is a mere five yards away your pattern will be roughly the size of a baseball or softball. Let the bird get out there 20-25 yards when your choke is most effective.
Hunt The crops
Some of my best hunting has come when I push cornfields. This tactic is especially useful when it is hot out and the birds are not in the heavy cover. I know cornfields are enormous and hunting them would be virtually impossible, right? Yes that would be true, but I look for smaller patches that may be left behind by the farmer. When you hunt cornfields the pushers will be doing most of the shooting since the height of the corn will impact the visibility of the people walking. If you have a large enough group place blockers outside and on the side of the strip of corn about 60 yards ahead of the pushers. This will guard against any birds that fly too early and give shots to the side blockers. Obviously you want at least one blocker at the end of the push too.
Be There After The Harvest
We touched on it a bit already, but it is worth mentioning again. Iowa’s landscape is dominated by corn and soybean fields. It turns out that pheasants just happen to like these as cover too. These large fields are not ideal for hunting because of their size. Leaving you with hunting the nearby cover when you know the majority of the birds are in the fields laughing at you.
Be the one to get the last laugh. Talk to the farmer and see what his plans are for harvesting the crop. When the crop is removed hit the neighboring cover first thing. The birds no longer have the security of the fields and will fly to the closest cover they can find.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time.
Pheasants are habitual creatures much like most species we hunt. They will feed during the morning and evening hours and head back to cover during late morning through the afternoon. Pay attention to this pattern and plan to hunt grain fields and gravel road ditches during the morning and evening hours. Then during the mid-day focus your efforts on cover.
If you don’t like to road hunt for birds then I suggest sleeping in a bit longer or having another cup of coffee. Pheasants will be out in the fields for the first part of the day feeding making hunting the cover a bit foolish. Why waste a good section of property if the birds won’t even be there. Instead you can either road hunt like I mentioned or you can simply wait and give the birds some time to get back into cover. This works best for private lands that only you are going to be hunting. When it comes to public land you probably don’t want to wait because the land will be hunted regardless.
Select The Right Tools.
I like to stick with one load and one choke for the entire season just because I never know what a pheasant is going to do. Common thinking tells you a wider choke earlier in the season and a narrower choke late in the season. Same is true with shot shell size, lighter shot in the early season and heavier shot in the late season.
I don’t really pay attention to common thinking though because I am hunting a wild bird after all. There is nothing saying that a pheasant won’t flush at 35 yards on opening day or vice versa hold tight in the middle of December. So instead of switching up my chokes and shells I stick with a modified choke and #5 shot size being pushed by 1 ¼ ounces of powder. This set up lets me be right in the middle for distance and pattern size. I can shoot out to longer distances without worrying, yet feel comfortable enough for shorter shots.
I go with a modified choke that puts me right in the middle as far as range goes. For shot size I like #5 or #6 that is pushed by 1 ¼ ounces of powder.
Hunt thick cover in bad weather
This one is a no brainer, when the weather gets nasty and Mother Nature brings wind, snow, and cold the pheasants will head for dense thick cover because it provides protection and warmth. Find the areas on the land you hunt that have these characteristics and you will find the birds. Look for cattails, snake grass, small cedar tree stands, thick switch grass, etc.
Hunt into the wind
I must admit I don’t not like having a steady wind blowing into my face all day long, but when it comes to pheasant hunting it is a smart thing to do. First it will allow the dogs to detect a bird’s scent easier. Secondly when a bird flushes into the wind they will bust out of the cover in a much slower fashion due to the wind pushing against them. All of which gives you more time to make the shot because they will be flying slower. And third, the wind will cover the noise you make allowing you to get closer to the birds before they flush. The wind is your friend when it comes to pheasant hunting.
Pressure the Edge and Push To The Center
Pheasants love to flee out the sides of cover when being pressured. Instead of walking a field in a straight line or even zigzagging motion try and steer the birds towards the center. This will fight against any birds busting out the side. The best way to perform this is to walk the entire outer perimeter first and continue in a “square” like motion inward until you reach the middle. By doing this you will be pushing pheasants towards the middle of the cover and not fleeing out the sides too early. Once you reach the middle be prepared for a shot.
Stick To A Plan
Lastly and probably the most important thing to mention is having a plan on how to hunt a piece of property. Use the tips I discussed and form a plan out of them to give you the best success for the day. Don’t just start walking a piece of property with no real thought going into it. Before the hunt starts you should have an idea of where the blockers should be placed, where the pushers need to be placed and where they are going to walk to and from, what direction the wind is blowing, where will the birds likely be located, etc. Form a plan and stick to it.
While pheasant hunting is pretty simplistic in nature (walk, aim, shoot) take some time this year and analyze your hunts and use some of the tips above. Gone are the days when bagging three birds in the first walk was the norm…nowadays you have to use a little elbow grease to get your Iowa limit. Don’t let that deter you from hitting the fields this year though. We will have good pheasant hunting this year so get back out there and enjoy pheasant hunting again here in Iowa!