Almost overnight, pheasants have had to adjust to conditions which turned the season from a warm, Indian-summer-type autumn into what seems to be the dead of winter. Where you were seeing birds two weeks ago – in light grasses along just-harvested fields – is not where they are going to be now.
Thanks to inches of fresh snow (or more in other stretches of pheasant country and a very cold shift in the weather pattern, late season hunting conditions have arrived. So, even though it’s November, you’ll want to shift your tactics to adjust to where the birds are now located and hunt like it’s the end of the season. Using winter strategies now will fill the pouches in your game vest.
The Game Has Changed
It’s not uncommon as the end of the season approaches to have pheasants flush wildly, sometimes over 100 yards away. Having been on the receiving end of the autumn chase has made birds wise. The slightest sound – be it a truck door slamming, a command to a dog, or the crunch of snow underfoot – sends pheasants skyward. Many times, there is nothing a hunter can do about it; that’s just the nature of winter birds.
However, by being as stealthy as possible, you can up the odds in your favor. Start by being ready when you pull up to your hunting spot. Remove the keys from the ignition before opening the door, and be sure the radio is off. When closing vehicle doors, don’t slam them; gently close them and press them shut. Quietly let your hunting buddy out of his kennel, and if you can direct him with hand signals or slight whistles, that will help your chances too. As you begin your pursuit, try to step on soft snow, as opposed to wind-hardened or melted and refrozen snow, which is crunchier and louder underfoot. Even the slight sound of snow can set birds off at a distance. Limit in-field conversations as well – the human voice is a big red panic button for roosters this time of year.
Tromping through Thick Cover
Just as you may add blankets on your bed as winter sets in, pheasants look for cover that will help keep them warm as cold temperatures become the norm and snow accumulations push them from lighter grasses. Brush and willow thickets, along with evergreen trees like spruce, juniper and cedar provide excellent buffers against the wind. With a good amount of grass around the bases and lower limbs, these windrows form perfect pockets where birds can hunker down, and walking these areas can help you identify staging spots for wily winter roosters.
Thick cattails also provide thermal cover, and the snow gives hunters an advantage in locating where the birds are in winter sloughs. Cold weather has not only started to freeze the water in these areas of cover, opening up more space for birds to run through, but it also provides hunters the opportunity to access places that were too waterlogged to walk earlier in the season. It’s a great chance to see what portions of a slough are being used frequently by pheasants, just make sure the ice you’re walking on is solid and provides firm footing, for you and your bird dog!
Eyes on the Ground
By walking the edge of thick cattail cover and keeping an eye out for tracks and wing or tail marks along the perimeter, you’ll know exactly where the birds have been entering or exiting the slough and where to start your dog on the search. Tracking bird movements, thanks to recent snowfall, is a hunter’s greatest advantage at this time of the year. The sign proves birds are around, shows where they are moving and gives insight into the daily habits of the local pheasant population. You’ll want to key in on places where you find a number of tracks and areas where the birds are holing up or scratching for food. From season to season, these areas of cover with super-highways of four-toed tracks will be places to check out on each hunt, whether early in the year or later on.
Ain’t Over ‘Till It’s Over
Just because the weather is colder and the birds are spookier, doesn’t mean hunting is done. Until the last light of the season’s final day, even the wariest rooster can be had with a few modifications to your hunting style, and awareness to pheasants’ seasonal needs. Try these tips to find success as late season hunting takes flight!
Photo credits: David Strandberg (top), Pheasants Forever file photo (middle), Craig Armstrong (bottom)