Pheasants are wily, resilient birds. They’ve learned to cope with predators from hawks to coyotes, while surviving numbing winters and stifling droughts. Hunting success requires smarts and determination.
Pheasants need three primary habitat attributes:
Early in the season, pheasants disperse wherever habitat needs are met. But after harvest, birds are more concentrated, moving into the best cover. Typically feeding early- to mid-morning, they seek sunny spots protected from the wind. This can include ditch banks, the base of hills or south-facing slopes.
Success requires formulating and executing a game plan. Pheasants are wary, quickly learning to associate the sounds of vehicles and people with danger. Silence is golden when approaching holding cover!
Roosters would rather run than fly, so evaluate the cover and devise a strategy to capitalize on this. Your objective is to have birds flush within gun range.
Open-country hunts often mean groups of four to eight, with or without dogs, using a combination of “pushers” and “blockers.” Blockers position themselves at natural choke points, or at the end of holding cover. Once blockers are in place, pushers start moving towards them, usually into the wind to provide optimum scenting conditions for dogs.
Pushers should walk slowly in a zigzag pattern. Stopping periodically can unnerve roosters and they’ll typically respond by flushing.
Pheasants often move to the last available cover, where they’ll sit tight. Push right to the end!
The key to success is patience. Pheasants won’t always hold still when being pursued. Sometimes dogs will point where they believe a pheasant is holding, but when you walk up it has already moved on. These “false points” are a reality. Further, with just one or two hunters, it’s not unusual for a rooster to double back and run back behind you—don’t assume it’s going to only run away from you! Dogs often detect this and will want to hunt back in ground you’ve already covered. Trust their noses; stay close and follow them.
Stay close to your dog. Once a rooster runs, it’s hard to pin. It will generally keep going until it runs out of cover or is flushed by your dog. Remember, there’s a good chance it will flush upwind, then turn downwind, back in the direction from where you approached.
Ideally, choose habitat fringes and cover with limited hunting pressure. Ditch banks are productive and easily hunted alone or in pairs, as are brushy draws or coulees, fencerows, and shelterbelts. Some hunters split up and work towards each other in these habitats, acting as pushers and blockers for one another.
Hunt quietly and stealthily. Surprised roosters flush; suspicious ones run. The denser the habitat, the tighter roosters hold. In the thick stuff a stop-and-go approach pays dividends.
A pheasant’s tail can account for half its body length, so hunters tend to shoot behind them. Focus on a rooster’s distinctive white neck ring: consider it your target and swing your gun barrel in front it before pulling the trigger on an escaping pheasant.
Don’t rush your shot. Roosters rise often—nearly straight up—before leveling out and beginning a gradual, sailing descent. It’s easy to shoot over them, so hold below the bird as you swing.