Ringneck Hideaways

Pheasants seem to be everywhere on opening day but disappear soon afterward. Here are some pointers on how to find them again.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Pheasant hunters have always flocked to strip cover such as overgrown fencerows and ditches to find birds. Fence lines and ditches often bisect agricultural fields, providing ringnecks with another key ingredient: a nearby food source.

Unfortunately, strip cover is easy for everyone to identify, and during the first week of the hunting season, just about everybody hunts anything that looks like it could hide a ringneck. According to South Dakota's pheasant biologist Tony Leif, pheasants react to human intrusion within just a few days. "The birds are still looking for the same type of habitat; however, a field or fence line near a road or farmhouse that attracts a lot of hunting pressure will be used less often by pheasants as the season wears on," says Leif. "Ringnecks will move to more isolated patches that are harder for most hunters to reach."

Fall Hangouts
Look for larger blocks of roosting areas near food sources. In the fall pheasants will feed in fields of harvested crops, in standing corn and wherever a variety of weed seeds is found. Birds that rely on harvested crops such as corn, soybeans or sorghum usually feed for a few hours in the morning and then move to safe loafing cover.

It's important to distinguish roosting cover from loafing cover. Birds roost at night; therefore, roosting cover must provide protection from ground predators. Heavy growths of grass or weeds are preferred. During the day, however, loafing birds are primarily concerned with avian attacks. Leif suggests that hunters locate woody cover with protective canopies, such as plum or chokeberry thickets.

In the afternoon, plum thickets bordering a harvested crop field will likely hold plenty of birds. Later in the year, when temperatures drop, the pheasants might be forced to feed for extended periods or even all day. But early on you should be able to find several birds that are using loafing cover during the midday hours. South Dakota-based outfitter Mike Kuchera (sdpheasants.com; 605-996-1120) has spent more than 30 years guiding upland hunters and has learned that some plum thickets attract more pheasants than others. "The best plum thickets have a lot of older, thicker trees with really dense canopies that hawks can't make it through from above," says Kuchera. "Look for dusting spots and bird activity, too, such as where ringnecks trample short grass."

Ringneck Routines
Once done with their daily loafing, ringnecks return to food sources before dark. Since it's tough to hunt harvested crop fields, focus on the edges that separate crop fields from cover during the early-morning and late-afternoon feeding periods. Hunt the loafing cover during midday hours. On dark, cloudy mornings it's often best to hunt roosting cover first.

"While conducting some research projects, we have observed that birds leave the roost and go to feed when daylight appears to be sufficient enough for them to feel safe," says Leif. "On clear mornings this usually occurs around sunrise. On cloudy mornings the birds remain on the roost for as long as an hour after sunrise."

[pagebreak] Throughout the Midwest the pheasant opener coincides with the corn harvest, which means that in addition to harvested crops, adjacent standing corn is also likely to be present for at least a few weeks. Not only does the picked field provide ringnecks with a ready food source, but the nearby standing corn provides more food and overhead protection from raptors. Consequently, pheasants might remain in cornfields all day rather than head for loafing cover. Kuchera prefers standing corn plots that also support kochia, foxtail or wild sunflowers. He gauges bird activity by looking for bare, picked cobs that are still on the stalk.

Because roosters can effectively run and evade hunters in large standing cornfields, it's best to team up with other wing-shooters and employ trational block-and-drive tactics. Smaller plots of standing corn planted for wildlife can be hunted with fewer hunters and dogs.

Natural Food Sources
Pheasants also feed on natural weed seeds in the fall. Leif targets wetlands that have become temporarily dry due to lack of precipitation, which is typical in the upper Midwest during the fall. Kochia and wild sunflowers are usually plentiful in such areas. Additionally, the willows and cattails that grow thick among wetland plots provide the birds with roosting and loafing cover. Since all of their needs are met, some pheasants spend the day sifting through these dry wetland areas.

Leif notes that dry wetland plots as small as a quarter or half acre can be productive and hold several birds. In fact, the smaller plots seem to support more kochia and other protective weeds that ringnecks favor.

These smaller weed plots might be heavily pressured if they are close to roads. Here again, locate and hunt the plots that are more remote.

Winter Tactics
Later in the season hunting pressure fades and the problem isn't so much dealing with the competition from other wing-shooters as it is locating suitable cover. Weather is the driving factor influencing where pheasants hide in the winter.

"Public land holds some of the best winter cover because it's managed for wildlife," says Leif. "Early on it receives significant hunting pressure that causes pheasants to use less disturbed sites on adjacent private land. They choose remoteness over quality of habitat. When winter storms arrive, pheasants seek out the best habitat available. Many times it means they return to public land."[pagebreak]

Leif recommends that winter hunters concentrate on larger grassland tracts encompassing 20 acres or more. When the wind starts to howl and the snow starts to blow, these larger tracts offer protected habitat. The northern and western edges serve as snow catches; the southern and eastern sections provide the best cover for pheasants. Don't pass up woody edge cover such as plum thickets.

Tracts dominated by warm-season grasses, such as switchgrass, big bluestem, Indian grass, Canada wild rye or little bluestem, are particularly attractive. Because of their rigid stalks, these natural varieties hold up better than other plants this time of year. Switchgrass and Indian grass are particularly tough. Topography also becomes more critical when temperatures plummet. Tracts with shallow draws or ditches might harbor concentrations of birds, which gather in such depressions because they receive direct sunlight and are protected from the wind. A nearby food source is equally important. Roosters utilize harvested crop fields until snow buries the food. The best scenario is a crop field located along the southern or eastern side of a sizable grassland tract, partially sheltered from blowing snow by the grassland cover. Hunt the edges.

Corn remains a rich source of heat-producing calories in the winter. Although farm corn is harvested earlier and most of the fallen kernels will have already been gleaned, corn planted for wildlife on public areas might still be standing. Even a small plot might produce a limit of ringnecks.

[pagebreak] ** The Perfect Shelterbelt**
While cattails, switchgrass, and small plots of trees often harbor late-season birds, ringnecks require more substantial cover when severe winter storms strike.

The Thick Stuff"Shelterbelts, which can occur naturally but are also planted by hunters, wildlife agencies and conservation groups, make the best pheasant cover for the worst winter weather," says South Dakota hunting guide Mike Kuchera. "The ideal shelterbelt has a food plot on the south side and consists of at least fourteen to sixteen rows of shrubs and trees. Narrower shelterbelts can get covered with snowdrifts, which makes them a waste of time to hunt."

Shrubs and Trees Typically, a shelterbelt should have outer rows of shrubs and small trees such as chokeberry, mountain ash, crabapple, plum, or Washington hawthorn. Such cover flanks a row or two of tall hardwoods that might include black walnut, ash, oak, poplar or maple. The combination of smaller and larger trees reduces the effects of the ferocious winter winds for which the Great Plains are famous, and protects natural ground cover as well as pheasants.

Evergreens InsideThe innermost section of the shelterbelt should include at least four rows of conifers, which provide pheasants with ground-level cover and shield them from any residual winds. This section should be free of snow. Most cedars and spruces, along with jack pines and Douglas firs, provide good low-growth cover. According to Kuchera, pheasants will stay in a shelterbelt until a storm passes. Afterward, birds will begin feeding again in nearby food plots. Kuchera also notes that pheasants might feed for extended periods immediately before a storm arrives.aste of time to hunt."

Shrubs and Trees Typically, a shelterbelt should have outer rows of shrubs and small trees such as chokeberry, mountain ash, crabapple, plum, or Washington hawthorn. Such cover flanks a row or two of tall hardwoods that might include black walnut, ash, oak, poplar or maple. The combination of smaller and larger trees reduces the effects of the ferocious winter winds for which the Great Plains are famous, and protects natural ground cover as well as pheasants.

Evergreens InsideThe innermost section of the shelterbelt should include at least four rows of conifers, which provide pheasants with ground-level cover and shield them from any residual winds. This section should be free of snow. Most cedars and spruces, along with jack pines and Douglas firs, provide good low-growth cover. According to Kuchera, pheasants will stay in a shelterbelt until a storm passes. Afterward, birds will begin feeding again in nearby food plots. Kuchera also notes that pheasants might feed for extended periods immediately before a storm arrives.