For diehard bird hunters, opening day of pheasant season is better than our seventh birthday party, Christmas morning, or a Saturday night kegger. Count me as a card-carrying member of these bird dog-centric wingshooters. However, what may not be obvious is that opening morning is the culmination of a process that began at last season’s close. Weather swings and habitat quality are constantly tracked like the bird hunter’s S&P 500. Winter storms are analyzed for their severity and spring rains are evaluated as too cold or gully washers.
Regardless of the August roadside counts, we’ll take to the field on an autumn morning with frost on the grass, cackling in the air and a smile across our face. The following are five tips that will help put a little weight in the back of your game vest and broaden that opening morning smile on your face.
1) Scouting, Not Just for Deer Hunters. Whitetail hunters have perfected the art and science of preseason scouting. From trail cams to tree stands, good deer hunters spend as much time in the woods before the season as they do with a bow or firearm in their hands. For the bird hunter able to hunt their home state, scouting can take the form of early morning hikes to exercise the dog or a Sunday drive to evaluate habitat conditions on your favorite honey holes. The key is to spend some time eliminating areas that don’t hold the birds they have historically so you’re focused on the best spots come opening dawn.
2) Bird Hunting Batting Practice. Despite a 162-game season, professional baseball players take batting practice the afternoon of every game, including number 162. How many times have you shot clays this off-season? The best hitters work on their toughest pitches to handle and the same is true of the best wingshooters. Always have trouble with the crossing shot from left to right? Practice it before that longtail eats your opening morning breakfast and you end up kicking yourself for what could have been.
3) Bird Dog Refresher. Doves, grouse and game farms all provide opportunities to tune up your bird dog’s nose, retrieve, and handling before wily roosters start running circles around pups rusty from an offseason roaming dog parks. A couple of hours with planted pigeons to “remind” your pup of the excitement of a flush and retrieve can prevent an early opportunity miscue on the opener.
4) Broken Boot Laces and an Equipment Check. We’ve all been there. The hunting boots that haven’t been tightened since last year snap in two as we lace them up on opening morning. Elevated blood pressure can be controlled with a check of your gear in advance. Some obvious trouble spots, in addition to boot laces, include making sure your shotgun doesn’t still have those turkey choke tubes from last spring, your shell pouch has the correct bird shot, you’ve got multiple layers of clothing in case the random cold snap or warm front arrives, and your pup’s electronic collars are fully charged. Don’t let your gear ruin your favorite day of the year, because 364 more is a long time to wait!
5) Try Something New. I enjoy the challenge and excitement of learning. Trying new upland gear and bird hunting strategy helps me continue to improve as a bird hunter and enjoy the experience. Two years ago, I began using SoundGear hearing protection while hunting. I should have adopted that common sense years prior. Last year, I was intent on “doing the opposite” of the normal bird hunter. I refused to hunt property in the same paths as other hunters - my philosophy being that birds become educated to those tendencies and doing the opposite pays off in surprised birds. That theory proved true on public lands throughout last season. This year, I will be focused on my young shorthair, “Esky,” who has proven to have the talent if I have the patience.
What have I missed that should be part of every good bird hunter’s preseason catalog?
Bob St.Pierre is Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s vice president of marketing. Follow Bob on Twitter @BobStPierre, and listen to Bob and Billy Hildebrand every Saturday morning on FAN Outdoors radio on KFAN FM100.3.
Photo credits: Sam Stukel; Travis Frank, Ron Schara Productions