I had never seen so many pheasants in one place at one time. That’s quite a statement for a hunter living in the heart of South Dakota’s best pheasant country, but it was true. The pheasants were like army ants. At least 1,000 birds were swarming through the snowy shelterbelt that had been providing them with winter cover–at least until we arrived. Our group was anything but stealthy and the pheasants were on edge.
Instead of parking in the distance and sneaking quietly into attack position, my buddies decided to drive up to the trees of the shelterbelt. The blockers circled their truck to the far end of the tree grove and the drivers readied at the opposite side. My non-hunting grandmother could have predicted the birds’ reaction to our invasion. Before we were even set up to hunt, the air filled with pheasants and wingbeats drowned out our astonished comments. We didn’t get one bird out of that poorly executed maneuver.
Late-season pheasant hunting requires a different approach from that of early-season hunts. There are fewer hunters afield, but by the time the snow flies, most of the dumb birds are gone. It’s not uncommon for more than half of a state’s pheasants to be harvested during the opening flurry of hunting. The survivors are seasoned and savvy. If a hunter doesn’t plan his hunting approaches carefully, he might as well stay home and put up Christmas lights.
Although a large group of hunters might encircle a flock of birds and cut off most of their escape routes, herding such a group in the direction you want them to go can be like tending preschoolers on a field trip.
In late season, small groups of three or four hunters have a better chance at a covert approach with a higher probability of success. With 30 years of pheasant-hunting experience throughout the Midwest behind him, Mike Moody, a South Dakota pheasant outfitter, believes that a low profile is the only way to hunt late-season birds. His tactics include using detailed plans with well-trained dogs and a handful of hunters.
“Late-season pheasants are a totally different bird from the ones you find on opening weekend,” declares Moody. “They’ve seen it all and you have to hunt them in the same sneaky manner you would if you were going after a big buck; anything less and you won’t get within 400 yards of a bird.”
Start at the beginning. Would you go on a whitetail hunt without a plan? No way. You’d consider deer behavior, time of day, wind direction and a dozen other factors. Do the same for late-season pheasants and make sure your group knows the plan before moving into earshot of the field.
First, check the weather. Nasty conditions drive pheasants into the thickest cover possible. Gauge the wind direction and move the hunters into the wind toward the cover. The wind will muffle the group’s approach.
Use hand-signal communication to coordinate retrieves and flushes using minimal voice commands. Hunters also need to learn an array of signals. Small groups particularly need to stay in contact. If pheasants begin slipping out of an edge unseen by a blocker, a driver needs to coordinate a change of plan without an exchange of shouts.
Once a plan has been embedded in everyone’s mind, scrutinize the approach, with stealth in mind. I recall more than once hunting with South Dakota outfitter Cody Warne and listening to his stern command to be quiet when getting out of the pickup. He warns clients not to make noise since otherwise pheasants will bail out the opposite end of the field even before the hunters start moving.
Late-season pheasants typically bunch up as the temperature drops. By the onset of winter, the harvest of crops is complete and the field cover is gone. The snow fills in and blankets what cover the combines didn’t flatten, and ringnecks are pushed into even tighter quarters elsewhere. Cattail sloughs, cedar groves and plum thickets that held a half-dozen birds during the opener might harbor anywhere from a dozen to 100 birds a month later.
Trying to get into range of posted ringneck sentries takes a special approach, though.
“I try to follow two rules when approaching a hunting area: Park out of sight and park out of hearing distance,” emphasizes Moody. “This can be tough in flat country, but you can use the terrain. If at all possible I park behind a rolling hill and never skyline my truck or myself.”
Generally, Moody will use a couple of hunters to hunt a field with one or two hunters blocking the opposite end. If he’s hunted the area before and knows the birds’ preferred escape routes, he’ll send blockers ahead to that cover instead of trying to ambush the pheasants in the initial push. When hunting, remember to note the escape patterns of the birds. Like whitetails, pheasants will use the same successful escape routes again and again.
Blockers also should avoid a skyline approach and be quiet. If pheasants have any indication that humans are near they’ll forsake preferred escape cover and leave. If the birds do the unexpected and head for another refuge, Moody advises that hunters should take a time-out.
“Big flocks of pheasants tend to follow each other to limited cover in the late season. Instead of charging straight to a new piece of cover where birds have landed, sit down and wait an hour,” Moody says. “Many of those birds will have landed on the edge and will flush again if they see you coming. Let them get inside the cover and settle in. Then move in quietly for another try.”
Even a pair of hunters can find success, if they can confuse pheasants into holding tight. If pheasants suspect that only two hunters are in the area, the birds can easily evade them. If ringnecks sense movement in different directions, however, they might hold tight out of confusion. The approach tactic here is for the hunters to start at opposite ends of cover and hunt slowly toward each other. Their course should zigzag and they should move steadily. Pheasants confused by the hunters will usually wait until the last moment to escape. Moody has modified the strategy to give birds a false sense of security before tightening the noose.
“One or two hunters enter a piece of cover with dogs, slowly hunting about 10 to 25 percent of the field. Then they back out, especially if the dogs are getting birdy,” Moody says. “Sneak quietly around to the other side and hunt the remainder of the field. The birds will be confused and again offer the possibility of a few close flushes.”
The weather might be colder, but the aspect of fewer hunters afield and bunched-up birds makes late-season pheasant hunting worth the shivering. Once you’ve witnessed the results of a quiet, low-key approach for yourself, you might want to keep that tactic quiet, too.
Contact: Mike Moody, South Dakota Hunting Service, 605-654-2465, www.sdhuntingservice.com; Cody Warne, 605-264-5325; www.dakotariver.com/warne