Nervous. Skittish. Spooky. Suspicious. Paranoid. Edgy. Jumpy. Flighty. High-Strung. Tough. Tenacious.
Oh. And add Educated to the list.
A late season ring-necked rooster is one difficult bird to hunt. Getting close enough to flush a long-tailed, sharp-spurred cockbird in range of your shotgun — let alone bringing him down for the count — is a challenging proposition indeed. After chasing wild South Dakota birds for two gray, windy and snowy December days, I gleaned six tips from two of my partners to take to the pheasant hunting bank whenever late-season roosters beckon.
Expert 1: Casey Weismantel
Executive Director, Aberdeen South Dakota Convention and Visitors Bureau and HuntFishSD.com
Expert 2: Jared Wiklund
Public Relations Specialist, Pheasants Forever
1. Hit the Heavy Cover
“Late season isn’t the time to go for a pleasant stroll in the pheasant fields,” says Weismantel. “Cattails are now the prime pheasant cover. Yes, they are tough for people to walk through and for dogs to work through. But that’s where the birds are. Cattails offer overhead cover and allow pheasants to tunnel underneath snow caves. Brushy shelterbelts run a close second to cattails.”
2. Hunt around Water
“It always seems like late season pheasants are around water sources,” says Weismantel. “This means slough edges, creekbottoms, river banks … it’s probably the cattails and heavy cover that bring them here.” There’s some question as to whether pheasants have to drink water or not, but the abundant cover is good enough reason to study public land maps for waterways, ditches, lakes, ponds and marshes.
3. Don’t Undergun
“You can’t overestimate how hard it is to bring down a late-season rooster,” says Weismantel. “For instance, today our group shot 9 birds and not one came back stone-cold dead. Do not go with any shot smaller then No. 4, in a high brass load.” He recommends a 12-gauge gun, even if you love your little 20 earlier in the season, and adds: “Use a modified or full choke … one of each if you are shooting a double barrel.”
4. Follow the Dog
“It’s the first rule of bird hunting,” says Wiklund. “The dog’s nose knows more than you. This is good advice any time of the season, but especially important when hunting with a few people in late season. It’s easy for a small group to follow the dogs wherever they lead. Dogs can put you on birds in places you never would have walked naturally in a marching line of ten hunters.”
5. Start Somewhere Unexpected
“Don’t start at the parking lot,” says Wiklund. “As a predominately public land hunter, I know I’m never the first pheasant hunter to walk a property. Hunting groups have been pulling up, hopping out and walking nearly the same loop all fall. Park and/or start your hunt at a more unconventional spot and play the wind. It works.”
6. Go the Distance
“Prepare yourself to go where no bird hunter has gone since 10 inches of snow fell,” says Wiklund. “Late-season roosters seek out areas of low-disturbance next to a food source. You must put in your time and put on the miles, but the reward is big numbers of birds in small areas of winter cover. Once you find them!”