Strategic Rooster Hunting
By Kent Boucher
If I was asked to identify my greatest weaknesses I would be able to compile an extensive list within a moment, and one item on that list would be grocery shopping. I walk into the store, forget to grab a cart and then begin wandering aimlessly down the aisles waiting for my innate sense of direction to guide me to the exact items on my nonexistent list, that I was going to “remember when I got there.” Of course my hapless approach unravels quickly and what should have been a 35 minute task made easier on the wallet by carefully clipped coupons and price comparisons, turns into an odyssey which at its conclusion has doubled my time and money spent, and left me thinking about how much better the whole brainless ritual would have been had I only devised a sensible plan. When it comes to following your bird dogs on a frosty November morning the same principle applies, and if you pull up to the gate on the edge of the field with the same haphazard plan of “figuring it out when we get there,” you will have the same frustrated feeling of shoulda, coulda, woulda when you are loading your pups back into the truck.
A year ago I wrote an article discussing numerous pitfalls that beleaguer pheasant hunters one of which pertained to scouting a property before hunting there. 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. Competent scouting will help you address those needs, and it will also help you answer two key questions: 1. When should I hunt this property? 2. Who should I hunt with? Both of these questions will be answered in more detail later in this article.
Rooster or Roadrunner?
Pheasants are skillful aviators that can create unreachable distance between themselves and the barrel of your gun within seconds, but often they prefer to rely on their camouflage to keep them safe by remaining hidden on the ground in dense cover for as long as possible. In order to keep the fight on ground they will many times hold tight to the ground until you are nearly stepping on them before they take off in flight, or more typically they will use their speedy roadrunner like legs to outrun you. This is why having the right number of hunters in the field is so important. In Iowa, much of the pheasant ground is quite fragmented- CRP grasses 25 yards wide on each side of a creek, patchworks of grassy terraces and waterways in fields, small clusters of cattails along the banks of ponds, and cedar rows extending along the edges of timbered lots make up much of the pheasant territory here in the fields of opportunities. These small sections of habitat can effectively be covered by a couple of guns and one good bird dog. But when the small swatches of habitat give way to large swaths of grassy cover, you will want at least one gun, or dog for roughly every 15-25 yards width of the field. If the area of ground you and your hunting buddies are walking is too vast, the roosters will be able to remain undetected and maintain a safe enough distance that will leave you with a steep task for reaching your limit. But even if you manage to recruit the proper number of hunting companions for your opening day festivities, the running tactics of the roosters will still demand in-game adjustments to be made within your gameplan. One of the simplest adjustments is to increase your focus when you are approaching the edge of the field you are pushing towards. This is when the tables turn in your favor. Once the rooster runs out of covered real estate he will either become exposed on the ground or he will have to flush, and if you are prepared for this precise moment you will have a great chance at bagging a rooster against your limit. Furthermore, when roosters are running they will often cause the tall grass to move as they run, and if the swaying grass trail stops, then you know the rooster either changed direction or hunkered down which means you need to be ready for a flush.
Divide and Conquer
I’ll admit, it’s pretty idealistic to assume you will always be able to drum up enough hunting help to tackle every oversized field you have the opportunity to hunt. In fact, sometimes it’s just downright difficult to find one buddy who has no other obligations filling his schedule, but assuming you can find at least a couple of friends to pound the ground with you, there are some tactics you can use to break down larger portions of ground without walking around the birds. Most upland hunting with friends is done with all parties evenly spaced, standing on one end of the field, and then marching in unison toward the other end of the field. When there are enough guns and dogs to adequately cover a field of good habitat, this is probably the safest, and most thorough way to hunt the field. Most birds will be flushed, and all gun barrels are pointing safely down range, away from other hunters. But, that’s when you have plenty of help in the field. If you only have a couple of hunting buddies, and a dog or two with you, and you are approaching a large square shaped field, you are going to have to section it off into smaller, more manageable sections that will allow you to corral the birds in front of you. The best way to do this is by carefully breaking your team up to move at slightly different paces to swing through the field toward a natural end point, such as a creek bed or field edge where the birds will be more likely to be flushed. The key to maneuvering in this swinging pattern through the field is to maintain proper gun safety. I often say that safety is the most important aspect of hunting. I know I sound like a stodgy old stick in the mud, but it’s true. You only get one chance to not make a mistake when it comes to gun safety, and that chance comes every time you are handling a loaded gun. So when you are hunting with your friends and making this swinging push through the field, you will need to be sure that everyone is keeping their shotguns pointed downfield in a safe direction that never crosses the path of a fellow hunter or dog. As you divide the field into smaller chunks like this, and hunt from the inside out you should be able to cover the field in a way that will get most roosters to flush. It won’t work perfectly, but it’s better than walking into a field with three guns and one dog and hoping to hunt it like six guns and three dogs. Again, safety first.
Meeting the Need
Deer hunters are experts at identifying the necessities of their cagey quarry. Deer need food, water, cover, and during the romantic time of year love. So by identifying the areas where these needs are being met, hunters can set up an ambush plan to hopefully catch the deer off guard in a predictable location. Although hunting pheasants isn’t really viewed as ambush style hunting, you can still take a page from the wise bowhunter and hunt areas where the needs of a pheasant are met. Pheasants, like all birds, need food, water, cover, and gravel. A bowhunter would try to hunt areas that met as many of these needs as possible in order to increase her chances of spotting deer. Pheasant hunters should do the same. Look for pockets of cover along creek banks, with both food and gravel (birds need the help of small rocks in their gizzards for mechanically digesting food) close by. Nothing is guaranteed with finding game, but hunting areas that hold the birds’ necessities certainly increases your odds of bagging a few.
Keep Your Nose to the Wind
The best pheasant hunting tip I can offer is to hunt with a trained bird dog. Seriously, you will not only flush more birds, but you will recover almost every bird you shoot. As talented as these dogs can be though, they still can benefit from a few key tactical adjustments and one of those is to hunt into the wind. My second season hunting with my bird dog Theo I realized the need to make this key adjustment. As we marched across a strip of CRP with the wind at our backs I could tell Theo was struggling to lock in on the scent, he would stop periodically, but I could tell he wasn’t really dialing in. Eventually I made the switch and there was an immediate improvement. Instead of the scent stream running away from him, he was having the scent blowing right into his face. Hunting into the wind isn’t just good for the dogs though, it’s also good for you. The hardest shot on a flushing rooster is when the bird flushes out and away from you as opposed to up high and laterally away from you. But when you are hunting into the wind the pheasant can’t fly directly away from you nearly as quickly. The rooster’s large wings act like parachutes that hold the bird in mid air for an extra second. Plenty of time to click the safety off and throw some lead.
To Everything There is a Season
If you are a bowhunter you most likely have several different stand locations that you use depending on all sorts of variables, including the time of year. Your early October stand will most likely be in a different location than your rut stand, and so on. Once again, the same general principle applies to chasing roosters. Pre-harvest pheasant hunting in Iowa can be downright brutal. Standing corn provides such excellent cover for all sorts of critters, and pheasants aren’t about to miss out on the party. But when the corn is down, and the birds are still not pressured from hunting, you will have some of the best hunting of the season. A few weeks beyond the first successful hunt or two though, the birds will be starting to feel the pressure of hunters and dogs breathing down their ringed necks. Now is when pheasant hunting will become much more challenging. The birds will flush much earlier and will trigger a domino effect like flush response from all of the other pheasants in close proximity. At this point in the season you will need to pay close attention to your noise level, and maybe even use a tighter choke to try and extend the reach of your scattergun. Late season pheasant hunting can be quite physically demanding wading through snow, trying to stay warm and keep your dog warm add some additional hurdles. Thankfully though, the pheasants get a little easier to hunt. At this point in the season, cover becomes the most pressing need for the pheasants, and because of this shared need pheasants will begin congregating in the most effective thermal cover. The best places to search are patches of dense, dry grass, or pine and cedar trees that hold branches low to the ground. Once you locate these features be ready for action as you could experience very large flushes from the congregating birds.
The longer I hunt, the more I have come to understand that so much of a successful hunt is dependent on doing the background work and planning before I ever set foot on the hunting property. Incorporating some of these tips into your preseason plans will greatly improve your hunting experience. This fall when you pull up to the gate and the pups are howling, and roosters are cackling, don’t lose your grip on your well-designed approach. Carry your plan into the field and you will be carrying more roosters back to the truck.