Sidestepping Pheasants

The prickly-pear thorns were beginning to take their toll on my buddy's Labrador retriever. She was beginning to limp noticeably, but it hadn't slowed her down much, and the Lab's enthusiasm suggested that it didn't bother her if we were hunting ringnecks in the wrong place. Instead of the more typical cornfields and cattails, the land about was dotted with cactus and yucca plants. To get away from the crowds, we wanted to hunt apart from the mainstream habitat. We succeeded. We were so far from other hunters that we hadn't heard another shot all afternoon.

"She's definitely on the trail of a bird," my friend said as he watched the dog, her wagging tail in overdrive. "That plum thicket ahead looks like the best hideout. Get ready."

With fresh scent driving her, the Lab charged in for the flush. You couldn't have scripted a better ending to our hunt. Two tie-dye-colored roosters burst from the dark interior and catapulted past my buddy, who caught them both in a rapid-fire pattern of No. 5s. Sunset ended our fun, and although we were one bird shy of our limit, it had been a perfect afternoon.

That hunt took place more than an hour from some of the best and most famous pheasant-hunting territory in North America. Leased land, high-priced hunts and crowds of other wing-shooters had steered us away from easier pickings to hunt habitat off the beaten path.

Limits and nonstop action might not be guaranteed in such places, but you can find quality hunting by sidestepping the high-density areas where other hunters throng.

GOOD ALTERNATIVES

For more than a dozen years, while I worked for the South Dakota Department of Tourism, I spent winter weekends at sports shows fielding questions on a variety of topics. Right behind "When are they going to finish that monument to Crazy Horse in the Black Hills?" the most common question was "Where's the best place in South Dakota to get a limit of pheasants?" Most of those who asked were working-class folks like me. One guided hunt a year was a luxury; anything else had to be an on-your-own outing.

Instead of pointing the hunters in the direction of the Department of Game, Fish and Park's "pheasant county of the year," I steered them to areas that didn't make the list of top spots for ringnecks. The places I circled on the map typically had good quantities of public land, limited leased land and scattered densities of pheasants. I knew that by using a bit of shoe leather, they'd have a good hunt without having to take out a second mortgage or raid junior's college fund.

SECOND-RATE HOUSING

Even though you want to steer clear of the top pheasant-producing counties in a state, take the time to find out where the hot spots are located. Why? Like a bull's-eye, each consecutive circle away from the center puts you one step closer to an overlooked, unpressured honey hole.

Moving away from the center of a high-density area doesn't automatically put you into birds. Pheasants still require certain necessities to thrive, and even though mediocre areas lack the best habitat, a few basic resources go a long way in producing pheasants. For pheasants to sustain a population they must have access to food, water, habitat and, particularly, winter habitat.

Pheasant populations have exploded in the nation's midsection due to the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). In places such as Iowa and central South Dakota, where grassland habitat is interspersed with grain fields, pheasants do particularly well, especially when ideal winter habitat is nearby. When those CRP fields are situated farther away from grain country--often in the western reaches of the pheasant belt--they are not as productive but still attract birds. CRP grasslands provide both critical nesting and security habitat.

"You need to look for habitat, and CRP is the best," says Tommie Berger, a 30-year veteran pheasant hunter. Berger, a Kansas native who works for the Kansas Department of Wildlife as an environmental specialist, first looks for suitable habitat in low-density areas. "I'll often drive around a two- or three-county area just to locate CRP fields. I always note those that are surrounded by grain fields. Later in the season, grain fields close to CRP are the focus of my hunts. Any pheasant in the country will be close to a food source and heavy cover. That's what I try to find."

WHEN WINTER HOWLS

CRP provides a good home, except when winter winds howl. Then, pheasants require timber and brush. Many second-best pheasant locales depend on shelterbelts, river and creek bottoms to provide this habitat. Ideal winter range includes dense stands of conifers and shrubs. Groves around farms with two to three rows of shrubs provide small pockets of ringnecks with vital cover. Thick pockets of other vegetation can also shelter birds. Cattail wetlands, plum thickets and steep ravines lined with shrubs provide suitable habitat in snow season.

"Some of the best hunting in low-density areas occurs when the weather turns nasty," explains Berger. "Not only does a foot-and-a-half of snow weed out the average hunter, but it tends to bunch the pheasants in good habitat. I always look for ringnecks after a snowstorm in thick, weedy shelterbelts, especially those around farmyards."

Berger also recommends that a hunter revisit some of the early-season hunting locations that might not have yielded good results then. Heavy snow and nasty weather have a way of moving dozens of birds into good habitat that didn't appeal to them in the fall. Those same birds might have been scattered across two sections of land in the early season. Pheasants are gregarious and will congregate in small tracts of winter cover. If food is found next to the cover, the birds will fare even better.

Unlike a herd of cattle, small pockets of pheasants require little in food quantity. Pheasants are granivores, or seed-eaters. Corn meets that need in much of the pheasant belt, but soybeans, sunflowers, wheat, milo, oats and a medley of weed seeds fill out a ringneck's menu. Greens also make the year-round list and include alfalfa, clover, grasses and dandelions.

In marginal farm ground, which frequently is where you'll find good pheasant hunting, drought-tolerant crops such as wheat and sunflowers make up the bulk of the grain acreage. You'll also discover that in such "second-best" locales, cattle grazing increases as corn production decreases. Although habitat is the key consideration, remoteness can guarantee decreased hunting pressure. Unimproved roads, habitat a mile from any trail and habitat hidden from sight might result in less hunting pressure. Keying in on good areas with limited access can result in great hunting.

PINPOINTING A HOT SPOT

If you live in a pheasant-rich state, a weekend drive will help you find a hunting location away from the mania of high-density hot spots. If you live outside the region, the phone and Internet will be your best links to pheasants until the season opens. Since pheasant numbers depend on habitat, it pays to contact the habitat specialists in pheasant country.

Before ringing the phone of a state's pheasant biologist, search the Internet for up-to-date information regarding pheasant surveys and counts, harvest statistics and hunting license sales. These indicators will provide you with an educated guess on the pheasant density and detail hunting pressure in a state. Next, contact either the state's upland biologist or a conservation officer in the region you plan to hunt. These folks can give you details on specific populations and likely hunting pressure in that area.

To locate CRP habitat in a county or region, contact a county Natural Resources Conservation Service office. These offices assist with the management of federal agriculture and habitat programs such as CRP. Staff members will be able to tell you how many acres of CRP are in the area and, through personal experience, perhaps make observations about likely pheasant numbers you might encounter.

Develop local, on-site contacts. Berger suggests that you glean information from relatives, friends or classmates who live in marginal pheasant country. Then, too, coffee-shop and convenience-store conversations often center on pheasants.

Sure, it's great fun for a hunter to be in a ringneck Disneyland amid hundreds of flushing birds. But as is the case with the famous theme park, it's becoming a pay-to-play environment in the heart of the best pheasant country. Sidestep the traditional hot spots and you'll find that the pheasant hunting is just as satisfying off the beaten path.

Labradors vs. Pointers

Any well-trained bird dog will do okay for pheasants. Still, certain breeds handle pheasant situations differently from others. Historically, pointing breeds are not the dogs of choice in densely populated pheasant country. Too much scent and running birds often confuses overexcited pointers and results in unproductive hunts.

Retrievers Rule: Retrievers, particularly Labradors, are to pheasant hunting as mud flaps are to pickup trucks, and for good reason. Labs don't focus on one scent, but rather work cover to roust a group of pheasants. If they've been trained well, they'll stay close and not run ahead wildly hunting or flushing on their own. They are extremely adaptable, too. You can drop them into a wetland or desert environment and they'll do the job as long as they get a belly rub at the end of the day. If you plan on hunting an area overrun with pheasants, use a retriever.

A Place for Pointers: In second-rate pheasant areas you'll encounter "pockets" of pheasants, not evenly scattered birds. You might walk a half mile without a flush, then cross into a brushy draw adjacent to a crop field and hit the mother lode. In this situation, pointing breeds have the upper hand. Instead of running into a wall of scent, pointers can target specific birds in the niche habitat. Plus, by using hunter-blocking techniques and natural barriers to slow a ringneck's escape, you can force a rooster to hold for a point in the interspersed cover.

All-around Breeds: Brittany spaniels, springer spaniels, English setters, English pointers and German shorthairs all handle pheasants well. Even if a bumper crop of pheasants escapes in front of you, trust a dog's point. Often one or two savvy roosters will hold tight, hoping they'll go unnoticed.

Pheasant Forecast

NORTH DAKOTA

In 2003, North Dakota's pheasant brood-count information indicated a pre-hunt population that had increased more than 56 percent from 2002. The best hunting is found south of Interstate 94. Counties with the highest percentage of pheasants taken were Hettinger, Stark, Burleigh, McLean, Mercer, Sargent and Emmons.

North Dakota still allows hunting on private property without permission unless land is posted. In addition, North Dakota's PLOTS (private lands open to sportsmen) program provides access to 537,000 acres of private land leased for public walk-in access. State wildlife management areas (WMAs) provide another 123,000 acres of public land in pheasant-rich habitat. Richland, Ransom and La Moure counties are prime sidestepping locales. Contact: North Dakota Game and Fish Department, 701-328-6300, www.state.nd.us/gnf; North Dakota Tourism Division, 800-435-5663, www.ndtourism.com.

SOUTH DAKOTA

South Dakota's pheasant population saw an incredible jump of more than 120 percent in 2003 and a mild winter promises another good breeding cycle in 2004. South Dakota's core pheasant area lies in the central part of the state. That region saw a 51 percent increase last year, with the popular Winner area showing a 112 percent increase in 2003.

The Mobridge area posted a 127 percent increase in 2003. A bonus here: If you hunt along the Missouri River, you'll be able to bag a combination of pheasants and sharptails. South Dakota manages a walk-in program that leases private land and opens it to the public. Nearly 1 million acres were enrolled in 2003. Campbell, McPherson and Walworth counties provide excellent sidestep opportunities. Contact: South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, 605-773-3485, www.state.sd.us/gfp; South Dakota Department of State Development and Tourism, 800-732-5682, www.travelsd.com.

NEBRASKA

Overall, the outlook is good for the 2004 season. Pheasant surveys last year indicated an overall increase of 65 percent in the statewide population. All areas of the state showed significant increases except for the extreme western regions.

Nebraska provides more than 200,000 acres of good pheasant hunting through its public WMAs. Nebraska's CRP Management Access program leases private land and opens it to public hunting. In 2003 the program opened 173,000 acres to the public. In addition, there are nearly 800,000 acres of public land on some 300 state and federal areas scattered across the state. Contact: Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 402-471-0641, www.ngpc.state.ne.us; Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism, 877-632-7275, www.visitnebraska.org.

IOWA

Roadside surveys determined that the statewide population jumped 40 percent in 2003. A mild winter bodes well for the 2004 season.

Iowa has 340 public hunting areas totaling more than 270,000 acres. Top Iowa counties far from the madding crowd include Jefferson, Keokuk and Iowa. Contact: Iowa DNR, 515-281-5918, www.state.ia.us/government/dnr/fwdiv; Iowa Tourism Office, 888-472-6035, www.traveliowa.com.

KANSAS

Ideal spring weather in 2003 nearly doubled the population over 2002. The highest densities are in the northwestern and north-central regions of the state.

Upland hunters have access to more than 200,000 acres of public hunting land managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. In addition, Kansas has implemented the Walk-In Hunting Area program, which leases nearly a million acres of private land and opens it for walk-in access. The southwestern counties of Ford, Edwards and Kiowa offer good hunting away from the state's hot spots. Contact: Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, 785-296-2281, www.kdwp.state.ks.us; Kansas Department of Travel and Tourism, 800-252-6727, www.travelks.com.

WOODSSMARTS

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