Pheasant hunting is fun, and with over two million hunters heading into the cornfields and brush of the Midwest each fall there has got to be something to it! It has over the past few years become among my favorite type of hunting and is actually not all that difficult if you are properly prepared. If you are new to hunting there are two things that are imperative to ensure you not only have a great time, but a safe hunt as well. The first is to take a hunter’s safety education class to learn how to be a safe and ethical hunter, and the second, find someone who is proficient at this type of hunting and is willing to allow you to tag along to learn the ropes. Remember that each state may have a different set of rules regarding where and when you can hunt and what amount of blaze orange is required for safety. With that accomplished, let’s get down to the hunting.
No matter what type of hunting you do, knowing the terrain, and if animals are present is a key factor to a successful hunt. Pheasant hunting is no different, as a fair amount of scouting is needed to know where the birds are and some of their habits. Just like when I am scouting for Turkey, I like to drive around likely areas in the mornings and late afternoons looking for birds on the move. For Pheasant I check around the drainage ditches just off the roads that go by cornfields, other crops and grassy areas that are known to be favorites of Pheasant. Pheasant use the gravel along these roads to assist in grinding their food in the gizzard. The farmers who work those fields are generally your best source of information and quite often a friendly conversation can turn into access to incredible Pheasant Habitat. By understanding the needs of Pheasant in terms of habitat and seasonal conditions, you greatly enhance your chances of a successful hunt.
The gear needed for pheasant is really very simple, but from past experience I suggest that you don’t skimp when picking out a pair of hunting boots. You will be walking most of the hunt through a variety of terrain, so a good pair of comfortable waterproof boots is a must. Since you will be walking through a variety of brush it’s a good idea to wear very durable pants that can handle moisture as well as sticky things that will invariable trying tearing at your clothes. If you are not sure about the weather, its always a good idea to dress in layers you can take off or put on as need, but this is basically true for most types of hunting, however a vest with a pouch to put your birds on is always a good idea to avoid having to leave them under a tree until you pick them up on your way out.
If its your first few times Pheasant hunting you may be better trying to get out towards the beginning of the season. The reason for this is after time the birds get fairly educated as to the movements of hunters and as the “stupid” younger birds get harvested, it leaves the more “educated” Pheasant which newer or less dedicated hunters may have a hard time locating. The good news is that as you gain experience you will not only be able to anticipate the movements of these smarter birds, but you will more than likely have additional hunting areas to yourself as newer hunters may not want to hunt later in the season.
Most shotguns will work fine for hunting and anything from the smaller .410 to a 12 gauge will work depending on the proficiency of the user. Practicing before the season with clay pigeons is always recommended. Depending upon the time of the year and the distance you anticipate shots to be taken at anything from #4 – #7 shot will due just fine. Again, the key is to determine where and when the birds are going to want to be somewhere and work that area. This will assist you in determining what shot to use.
Later in the season when there is much less cover and possibly even snow your shots may tend to longer so prepare with the correct shot and choke for you gun. Also be as quiet as possible as Pheasant have excellent hearing and can take off running through the cover without you ever knowing they were there.
Here is the tough part, although you don’t need a dog to enjoy a Pheasant hunt, your chances by yourself of flushing a bird are fairly slim, yet not impossible. A dog’s pretty much a must and they are so much fun to watch as they work the field trying to catch a scent of a bird. Cool but humid days are good days to work a dog as the damp grass and other cover will hold the scent of a bird very well. To wet and the birds may not hold in that area.
If you do not have a dog, its tougher but all is not lost, you will just need to adapt your hunting style accordingly. Begin by walking the field very slowly, stopping to listen for cackling and maybe a running bird if it is quiet enough and not too windy. If you are hunting with just a few friends and no dog, you can try to push or drive the birds through the crop fields by working the edges and trying to push any birds towards the corners of the fields. Its important to make this push in areas that are not too big, perhaps 100-200 yards wide as the birds can just move through the gaps in your drive with ease.
Ok, now you know that early season birds are dumb, Its best to hunt with a dog but not absolutely mandatory and that techniques and preparation needs to change with the part of the you are hunting. The rest is up to you, don’t stay home and think about Pheasant hunting when you can actually be out there doing it. Your success will increase with experience, but remember if you are out there you will at least have a chance, I’ve never shot a bird sitting in my chair watch TV!
Anyone reading the articles or paging through the ads in the back of outdoors magazines might think that in order to hunt pheasants in the Dakotas you either need a blood relative who already lives there or a Swiss bank account. Yes, there are many wonderful lodges that will put you into a lot of birds (and take a lot of your money for the favor), but there are also ways that the average Joe and Jane can enjoy outstanding hunting opportunities without taking out a second mortgage. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from multiple trips to pheasant hunting’s promised land.
Land Access: It’s a myth that the Dakotas are all but closed to those seeking public access. In North Dakota, the hugely popular PLOTS (Private Lands Open To Sportsmen) program tallied over the million acre mark in ’08. Detailed maps are available at most sports shops and licensing outlets and the lands themselves are clearly posted with triangular yellow PLOTS signs. A similar “Walk-in Lands” program exists in South Dakota. Both are financed by hunting license dollars. You might also be interested to know that North Dakota’s liberal trespass policy allows hunters on most private land as long as it’s not posted nor has unharvested crops. Now, that’s just private land that’s accessible in both states – there’s also a wealth of federal, state, and county properties that are open and well mapped and signed. One caution: keep an eye out for WPA (Waterfowl Production Area) signs. The high ground may be loaded with pheasant, and you can hunt them there, but non-toxic shot is required. Read your regulations for more details.
Hunt Late Season: Frankly, I don’t understand why anyone would want to put up with the carnival of opening week. The corn is still standing (and sheltering birds), the weather can be warm enough to wilt even the most robust dogs, and many private farms are entertaining hordes of family and friends and don’t see much need to grant a stranger access. Wait until the December winds have frozen the cattail sloughs and you and your dog can enjoy some quality time with some sly roosters. I can tell you from personal experience that if you knock on a farmer’s door late season, present yourself well, and ask politely, the most common response you’ll get is, “Go ahead, have a great time!” That farmer might not be charging a fee for hunting, but it’s a good bet that he or she has a close friend or family member who directly benefits from your visits to the area restaurants, gas stations, and hotels. I’ve met many wonderful landowners through the years who continue to allow me onto their property on return trips and are genuinely happy to see non-residents visit their state. Just don’t overdo it – don’t have one smooth-talking guy secure access and then send a dozen hunters 4-wheeling across the picked cornfield. Be courteous to your host, respect the land/gates/livestock of the property owner, and use a little common sense. Leave the orange army for paid hunts. One, two, or maybe three conscientious hunters will be welcomed back next time around.
Food and Lodging: As mentioned above, Dakota businesses are happy to see you walk in the door, and you don’t have to pay an exorbitant amount for that privilege. Small town restaurants are famous for big portions, small bills, and early opening hours to accommodate hunters. Hotels and lodges will often supply game cleaning facilities, freezer space, and either outdoor kennels or policies that allow Fido to stay right in the room with you. You’ll literally lose count of how many “Welcome Hunters!” signs you’ll pass. In a professional sense Dakotans appreciate you helping out their local economy. In a personal sense, they’re some of the friendliest and warmest people you’re ever likely to meet.
Don’t be misled by all the hype in the magazines and TV shows about lavish lodges, guided hunts, and king’s ransom prices. For those who prefer and can afford that, fine – enjoy yourself. For the rest of you who just want a few quality days in the field with your friends and your dogs and still get to work a lot of birds, the Dakotas are waiting for you.
Thanks to overlapping licenses, I, along with my friend and brittany breeder Bruce, enjoyed 3 bird ND limits in the morning followed by 3 bird SD limits in the afternoon. We weren’t charged a dime for land access and our comfortable stay at Lynn Lake Lodge near Webster, SD was less than $40 per day per hunter.