A master class in outwitting roosters
By Dick Donnelly
We sat in desks, the kind with attached chairs, in Henryville Middle School. The sight of 30 full-grown adults wearing blaze caps and crammed into little chairs was none too attractive.
We were there to learn, if possible. Pheasant season opened in two weeks. Counts were down. Way down. We needed any edge we could get.
Our instructor was a man named Vern, a retired Department of Natural Resources employee. An avid bird hunter, he had pursued pheasants for more than 50 years in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Nebraska. He had few other qualifications besides a rather authoritative manner. Let’s call him The Professor.
“There will be no talking, texting, gum or chewing tobacco,” The Professor said. A few students swallowed, hard.
“Consider this Pheasant College. You’ve been to high school. You can shoot—or think you can. May I remind you I’ve hunted with more than a few of you. Now it’s time for an advanced course. Birds are fewer, smarter and harder to find. We will drill down to the core of what works. That’s why you’re here.”
The Professor wrote three words on the chalkboard: Feed. Cover. Escape. He used a pointer. Repeat after me, he commanded: “Feed, cover, escape.”
“Feed, cover, escape.”
“Commit these words to memory. They are the keys to finding pheasants. Let us examine each.” The speech progressed as follows:
“Feed. You will never see pheasants far from where they can find food—and lots of it. Sort of like many of you, but let’s not get personal.
“What do pheasants eat? Spring brings seeds, grass shoots and tiny bugs. In summer it’s grasshoppers, spiders and berries. They forage far and wide. When fall arrives, a virtual pheasant smorgasbord is available in the form of waste grain from harvested fields. Once cut, oats and alfalfa fields leave bushels of seeds. Birds will key on these. But the real deal for foraging birds is soybean and cornfields. Pheasants concentrate on these large kernels.
“Don’t ignore newly turned fields. Although waste grain may be buried, these offer pheasants a host of grubs and other insects. Also, pheasants are experts at finding kernels in even the most barren field. A picked field in any condition attracts birds. Period.
“Of course, feeding in an open field leaves pheasants exposed. With hawks and foxes on the prowl, an exposed pheasant is a dead pheasant. This leads to our next word: cover. Hunt the thickest grass. Walk the edges, where feeding birds duck in when approached. Fencerows with scrub willow are ideal. Pond edges and dry sloughs are also excellent hiding places, as long as they are next to picked fields.
“Now, the pheasant is a runner, and the vaster the cover the better. But even narrow strips of prairie grass may hold birds. As long as we have our next and perhaps most important feature: escape. Pheasants always have a back door. They will never feed or loaf far from escape—a place they can fly when forced. Keep in mind that pheasants don’t want to fly very far. It takes energy they would rather not expend. Flights are short but effective, with speeds reaching 50 miles per hour. Scan the horizon. A standing grainfield, dry slough, switchgrass field or treeline must be readily available. They aren’t going to land in an open field. So look for a predetermined escape lane leading to cover. Typically, this should be no more than 200 yards away.
“Think like a pheasant. Look for their escape routes. That unpicked cornfield just over the hill? That’s where they’re headed. Ideally, place yourself between birds and escape. When they hear you coming, they’ll start running. Right into you. Which brings us to our next topic: the approach.
“You’ve heard it before. But entering a field from obvious points is a poor way to hunt. Walking in from the road or from the state-provided parking lot is the least preferred. The pheasants know you’re coming. How? About a hundred other hunters have taken that same, worn path.
“Surprise them. Approach from the most unconventional angles. I have walked across a quarter-mile of picked cornfield, the dog at heel, and then cut into the grass. That is not what the pheasants are used to. It works.
“Hit and move. Everyone knows hunters who want to walk. And walk. And . . . . You get the idea. Putting in miles is the most over-hyped strategy I’ve ever heard. Because if you don’t bump a bird in the first 10 minutes, you probably won’t flush one in the next hour. Take a hint, and try another field. A morning spent in a half-dozen fields will out-produce one spent in a single field every time. Hit and move. Keep your legs fresh. It will pay off in shots . . . and roosters.
“Educated birds. I don’t want to hear the words ‘educated birds.’ Pheasants are no more educated than any of you. Which doesn’t sound right, but here’s what I mean. An educated pheasant is nothing more than a pheasant utilizing its natural strategy. Early in the season inexperienced birds occupy areas with poor escape routes. They quickly get shot or run out, never to return. For survivors, the inability to fly to safe cover leaves an impression. Pheasants are great travelers. They can and will find areas that suit them. Next time these pheasants are jumped, they will have places to fly.
“Any rooster slow to adapt ends up in the kettle. Speaking of adapting, islands of switchgrass or cattails with absolutely no escape available attract hunters all season long. That brushy draw in the middle of a vast, picked cornfield just looks too good to pass up. It’s always empty, leaving the hunter scratching his head. Which does make you wonder who’s more ‘educated.’
“Clock management. Birds move in the morning and evening and feed in between. At daybreak they walk to grainfields from roosts in heavy grass. At nightfall they return to roosts, this time flying. This allows them to bed down without leaving a scent trail. After all, foxes, coyotes and mink have noses as good as any bird dog’s.
“Early morning, when allowed by regulations, can make for slow hunting. Fields are wet or frosty. Pheasants wait for the sun to dry fields before heading out to feed. From mid-morning on, the birds have arrived at picked corn, wheat, oat and soybean plots and are feeding on waste grain. They loaf through the day along fencelines and field edges, giving hunters their best opportunities. Again, use the feed-cover-escape rule for identifying holding areas.
“The last hour of the day is Pheasant Happy Hour. Pheasants group up, identifying each other by sight and sound, before flying into heavy grass to roost. Short display flights of 10 feet or less are common, with birds popping up and down. In a good field you can occasionally spot dozens of birds going through this pre-bedding ritual.
“I have a trick. Wait for them. If you see activity one evening, sneak in the next about an hour before sundown. Approach the field from deep cover. As you close in, get ready for action.
“Weather. Wind is the pheasant’s enemy. Pheasants love fair, calm weather—unlike ducks, which prefer lots of wind. One of the beauties of autumn is that the weather is always good. Remember the rule: Cold and rainy? Duck hunting, plainly. Sunny and pleasant? Boot up for pheasant.
“Why do pheasants hate blustery days? Because wind interferes with their prime defense: Hearing. Wind rattles the cornstalks like castanets. Cattails thrash and whistle. You can’t hear your buddy 10 yards away. Neither can a pheasant.
“No one has to tell a hunter how acute a rooster’s hearing can be. Flushes at the sound of car doors attest to that. Once, spotting two roosters feeding, I parked well away from the fencerow. Silently approaching, the dog beside me, I slipped number fours into my 12-gauge over/under. Then I snapped the gun closed. Both birds flushed well out of range.
“Late season. The best hunting is in December—if you can stand it. Snow packs the ditches. Switchgrass is matted down. Corn is finally in the hopper. The pheasants are there, with few places to hide. “Cattail sloughs can offer tremendous opportunities. Inaccessible through the fall, late-December ponds are frozen solid. Birds run the edges and hide in hillocks. There aren’t many sports as exciting as gunning for pheasants on cold, clear days, chicken tracks peppering the snow.
“If there are two or more sloughs close together, pheasants will flush from one to the other. Go ahead and chase them. Keep the dog close. The birds will be winded and hold until right under your feet.
“Dogs. Get one. Or find a friend with one. Or make friends with someone who has one. Dogs are essential to pheasant hunting. You will put up far more birds—and avoid the heartbreak of losing a shot bird, running and hiding, to the skunks.
“Follow the dog. He’s the one with the nose. Too many hunters don’t want to trust their dogs. I’ve done it too. The dog trails off into light cover. You whistle him ahead. Then cuss. You know the birds are over by that abandoned barn. You shout; he trails. Then a hundred yards back the dog puts up the rooster.
“One more word about hunting dogs. A good dog is relative. You want an effective flusher. But I’ll take a retrieving expert any day. I had a friend who hunted an old, fat mutt. Rusty looked a little like a poodle one day, a little like a cocker the next. He was not a big flusher, and he tired out fast. But what he did, he did well. He could find anything with feathers.
“Rusty’s owner told me his dog never lost a bird. Ever. ‘We might trail awhile,’ he said. ‘We might walk a piece. But we get the bird.’
“A dog that can find a downed bird is a hunting dog. Period. I’m not saying you should bring your neighbor’s Miniature Schnauzer hunting. Or
am I . . . ?
“Now put it all together. Your advanced education can be summed up as follows: Hunt ’em where they are. Use your time productively. Follow the dog.”
The Professor was finished. He threw his Styrofoam cup into the wastebasket and erased the chalkboard. Someone had a question.
“Say, Vern. I know you hunt a lot. But the last few times we run into each other, I never see you with birds. What gives?”
The Professor put his blaze hat on his head and adjusted the bill. He grabbed his jacket. “Pete, I shot 97 roosters last year. How many did you shoot?”
The questioner rubbed his chin in thought.
“I think we’ve got our answer. Class dismissed.”