Run your own roadside survey to check late-summer habitat conditions and pheasant numbers in the areas you plan to hunt … and set yourself up for success this fall
By John Pollmann and Andrew Johnson
A common mistake many pheasant hunters make is failing to scout the areas they plan to hunt each fall.
Yes, you can and should scout for pheasants. Here’s why:
» Reports from brood or roadside surveys (if they’re even available) conducted by various state wildlife agencies, and the state-by-state forecasts from Pheasants Forever, are valuable resources that can paint a broad picture of pheasant populations and habitat conditions. But those macro-level reports can’t beat the micro-level intel you gather and gain when you make your own milk run.
» Scouting for pheasants is different than scouting for waterfowl or big game.
» Pheasants don’t migrate. So, unlike scouting for waterfowl, you don’t need to find the “X” or the exact spot on the spot in a field or wetland that migrating birds are using.
» Scouting for pheasants isn’t like scouting for big game, either, where locking in on a buck or bull and patterning its behavior is often the name of the game.
» Rather, scouting for pheasants is scouting for habitat that not only promotes pheasant production, but also promises to hold pheasants during fall and then winter. In other words: Finding quality habitat where birds are likely to be found is far more important than actually seeing birds during your scouting roadtrip.
» That said, it’s hard to beat the excitement of seeing birds and a brood or two in the areas you plan to hunt. What’s more, waking up early and driving the gravel roads with the windows down while the late-summer, early-morning air is still cool is good for a hunter’s soul.
Failing to scout for pheasants is the biggest mistake to make in the off-season.
Keep the following 3 considerations in mind when you decide to run your own redneck roadside survey.
1- Habitat Conditions
It’s worth saying again: The most important observation you can make while out scouting is taking note of the habitat conditions in a particular area. Quantity and quality of the available cover is going to provide the biggest insight into the kind of conditions the pheasants had during summer’s nesting and brood-rearing season. Your evaluation of the cover is also going to help you narrow down your top hunting destinations for the fall.
Ground that has been hayed can create more edges to hunt and more opportunities to find birds.
In regard to placing a higher priority on habitat, keep in mind you’ll probably never see all of the pheasant chicks that hatched in a particular piece of grass out on the adjacent gravel road all at the same time. Put more stock into how good — or not-so-good — the cover is on your favorite public hunting area rather than the number of chicks you see. As goes the habitat, so go the birds. If the cover is there, odds are the birds are, too.
It's important to remember that areas can look dramatically different year to year.
Everyone has their own method for taking notes. The “how” doesn’t matter as much as just doing it. Whether you have a hard-copy top map in hand or your smartphone with onX up, circle, mark and pin your best observations:
» Good grassy cover on that state-owned game production area? Mark it.
» A good mix of cover types that’ll hold birds all season on that Waterfowl Production Area over there? Mark it twice.
» Heavy cattails and grass in the middle of a quarter-section surrounded by corn? Mark it three times and add a snowman emoji, because the first snowstorm of the season that’s where you’ll be.
2- Food Sources
Speaking of cattails and grass surrounded by corn, noting the proximity of food resources to areas of quality cover while out scouting is extremely important. Don’t overlook nontraditional food types, either. Pheasants love small grains such as wheat, and they will gladly forage on sweet clover or the seeds from a cover crop.
That said, corn always gets the most attention, and for good reason: It will help hold birds in an area from the beginning of the season to the very end. But there is value in knowing what other food sources will be available for birds in a particular area as the harvest season progresses.
Mix of cover types: nesting cover, winter cover and adjacent food source. Money!
Bottom line: quality cover + food = a spot that a hunter should visit this fall.
3- Bird Numbers
A preseason scouting trip gives you an opportunity to catch a glimpse of how productive the summer nesting and brood-rearing season was for a localized pheasant population. The best time to scout is during the late summer from the end of July through mid-August, but September can work too.
While you can observe habitat conditions any time of day, your best chance to see birds is the first few hours after sunup.
Encountering a brood in flight!
Ideal conditions for observing young pheasants on the road include heavy dew, little to no wind, cool temperatures and clear skies. But don’t be discouraged with less-than-perfect weather, as there’s still a good chance you’ll see birds out on the road grabbing some gravel before a morning of feasting on bugs and weed seeds.
In other words, if your schedule is busy (and whose isn’t these days?), simply go when you can. Remember, the point is to observe habitat. Any birds you see on the road are an added bonus.
Speaking of birds, don’t gloss over the size of any pheasant chicks that you come across. Young birds that are going to appear like adults on opening day will be in their “gawky” teenage phase by mid-August, about half the size of an adult, with roosters just starting to show their true colors. Chicks from a later hatch might be half the size of an adult bird, and they’ll be hard to identify in mid-October, which is good to know ahead of time.
Overall, approach your scouting trip with a curious mind, and take note of everything you see. Come on, ride along on our own redneck roadside survey.
We ran our survey in August, starting at sunrise and driving east to west as much as possible to keep the rising run at our backs. We chose a specific 25-mile route that took us past about a dozen public hunting areas, as well as by a patch of private ground that we have permission to hunt.
We have hunted together for nearly 30 years and were familiar with the area. More importantly, we were curious to see what the habitat and food source conditions were like; we’ve learned the hard way that no two years are ever the same.
Admittedly, we ran the route in less-than-ideal conditions. The dewpoint was low and the wind picked up quickly, meaning most of the cover in the ditches dried a bit and wasn’t as damp as we had hoped. However, a few spotty rain showers that morning helped our cause, wetting the grass enough in some places to help push birds out to the road to dry out their feathers.
Here are our totals after two hours. The results were on par with our expectations:
- Broods: 7
- Hens: 5
- Chicks: 49
- Roosters: 5
Not surprisingly, five of the seven broods were immediately adjacent to high-quality habitat. What was surprising, however, was the amount of habitat that had already been impacted by the FSA’s recent decision to open up CRP for emergency and haying due to drought.
A piece of private ground that has been hayed--still a good amount of cover to try out this fall.
Over half of the publicly accessible CREP areas we drove past were already mowed and baled, and one even had a temporary electric fence around it, signaling the landowner intended to graze it in the near future. In addition, half the CRP on a private farm we have permission to hunt was also cut, lying in windrows waiting for the baler.
As a result of the haying, we completely ruled out several CREP areas that had produced birds in years past. They’ll bounce back next year, but we know this hunting season our time would be better spent hunting elsewhere.
On a few other areas where haying had occurred, we chose to keep them on our hit list for fall. Why? Sometimes a reduction in cover can benefit a solo hunter or a small group of hunters, as mid-contract management or emergency haying on CRP can effectively remove half the cover — or half the areas birds can hide — and create another edge to hunt. In other words, a half-mowed CRP area can be a glass half-full scenario and provide a dynamite location that might be overlooked by other hunters.
During our survey we did observe two CREP areas that contained a nice mix of habitat, including early and late-season cover. Even better, both were bordered by standing corn. The fact that we also saw pheasant broods scurrying down the gravel roads adjacent to these fields means we already have two promising public-land prospects we’ll be sure to revisit when the season opens in mid-October … but then with two eager yellow Labs in tow.
Instead of hunting memories or assuming the fields you hunt will look the same as last year, invest some windshield time at the end of summer and see things for yourself. See what’s going on for habitat and birds in places you know. Maybe more importantly, check out some new areas.
Don wait for ideal conditions. Just go. Take notes. Drop pins. Have fun. When pheasant season finally arrives, you’ll be glad you did.
John Pollmann and Andrew Johnson spend many a waking moment all year long thinking about ring-necked pheasants. They are PF stalwarts from South Dakota.