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How to Hunt Ring-Necked Pheasants in Winter

If you can deal with sniffles, shivers, and snow, wintertime hunting for pheasants can be very productive.

How to Hunt Ring-Necked Pheasants in Winter

Like a Currier & Ives illustration, a winter pheasant hunt becomes the stuff of personal legend. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

We’d been walking numbly back to the truck, shivering, and eagerly anticipating a mid-morning hot chocolate when a sparkling cloud of powder enveloped a rooster erupting from a snow-covered thicket. Numb fingers searched for triggers, one of us finally getting off a shot and dropped that vividly-colored mid-December bird. It was the only ringneck we saw that day, but it painted a surreal picture that summed up a lifetime of winter pheasant hunts, reminding me that sometimes the best time to go hunting is when nobody else will. I love fall colors and the rattle of corn stalks as much as the next guy, but when there is a mob scene of “next guys” in every field, winter hunting takes on even more allure.

The air is crisp, movements brisk, even the dog courses with greater intent, a notch faster than on sultry fall hunts. You’ll retain the mental picture for years: Rising bird against crystal-blue sky, the cloud of feathers drifting downwind, and the gentle delivery to hand by a loyal dog. Rosy-cheeked faces smiling for the camera, breath in clouds as the shutter is snapped. Damn the sniffling noses and numb toes, this is hunting.

Why Winter Pheasant Hunting?

Fewer hunters, less-crowded grounds, concentrated birds, heck, even lodging is easier to find at the tail-end of pheasant season. If you’re willing to brave challenging driving conditions and risk hypothermia for you and your dog, winter might be the best hunting of the year. Looking at a stark winter landscape in pheasant country, the likeliest rooster hiding places are a little more obvious, and while tracking birds in snow is often futile, a tracery of footprints at least proves there are birds somewhere nearby. If the snow is deeper, the birds may even hold instead of scuttling away from your frustrated dog.

For some intangible reason, the cold and snow seem to make every hunt an adventure. There’s risk, inherent discomfort, often a more solitary experience. Sounds are muffled—except when the winds are gale-force. You ghost through a field, footfalls softened by powder, dog bounding or bulldozing through it. Cold temperatures are invigorating for my dog—his pace quicker, intensity greater, and I think, enhanced scenting ability.

The stuff of magazine covers and calendar pages, ringnecks and snow are an unbeatable combination and not just for aesthetic reasons. Beyond lack of competition, there is the challenge of hunting for the most experienced birds. Having fended off hordes of fair-weather hunters, predators, and weather, these wily survivors are true trophies for you and your dog. A snuffling, trailing shorthair, nose in the snow as he tracks a skulking ringneck is one of those images indelibly etched in your mind. When a sparkling cloud of snow announces a flushing bird, it’s like pyrotechnics at a rock concert—unexpected and exhilarating.


Where to Find Ring-Necked Pheasants in Winter

Bunched-up birds are a bonus. A brightly-feathered prey animal on a stark white background is a tempting morsel for every avian predator, so pheasants often stay close to thick cover, and as birds of a feather, well, you know. I am still haunted by a North Dakota field full of little black check marks in the distance…hundreds of them…each a pheasant scratching for corn. Dig into some of those milo fields, plum thickets or tree lines and you may find bare ground, protection from wind, and warmer ambient temperatures. While advantageous to the bird, those places should also be a first-call option for hunters and their dogs. Post your fellows around it and send that little cocker into the ugliest stuff to root out reluctant roosters.

ring-necked pheasant rooster walking in snow
During the winter, you’re likely to find pheasants in areas with thick, thermal cover adjacent to agricultural fields and other food sources. (Photo By: Danita Delimont-Shutterstock.com)

Give special attention to shelterbelts, those linear havens that scream “bird in here.” An old one, fully-formed and branches extending, sheltering, to ground level are as good as it gets. Young tree lines may not have enough value to a ringneck hunkering for warmth. Stand in the middle during a strong breeze—if you’re feeling it, so are the birds.

On many public-access plots, cattails are the analog of shelterbelts on cultivated ground. They hold up well to heavy snow, and the warren of tunnels created by the arcing stalks that rebuff you and your dog are a lifeline for winter birds. Find entrances, search for tracks, and concentrate on the edges. If there are folds in the landscape, seek out the bottoms of draws and gullies. Wind-sheltered and often holding the only moisture in the area, they will grow thicker cover and thus, birds.


Winter Hot Spots for Late Season Ringnecks

I’m always game for chasing winter pheasants in the top spots: Well-known towns in South Dakota include Huron, Aberdeen, and Redfield. Dickinson and Mott, North Dakota see serious winter weather but are worth the risk of a blizzard based on the sheer number of birds you might find. For my money, northeast Montana and the “High Line” may require tire chains and long underwear, but many birds never hear a shot after Halloween.

Sure, the weather is often your adversary when winter pheasant hunting. Cursing Mother Nature is practically a sport among winter pheasant hunters. But staying flexible and open-minded might pay off. We were sitting in a motel room on a “storm team coverage” kind of day, if there were television stations in the back of beyond. Hail battered the grimy window as we gazed out sullenly and weighed our options. With nothing better to do, I suggested a scouting trip—and by sheer dumb luck we headed south and down in elevation. Within a half hour’s drive, skies cleared, ground was dry, and the game was afoot again.

pheasant hunter walking in a snow-covered field with hunting vest
Don’t hang it up just because the cold and snow have crept in. Wintertime hunting for pheasants can be a great way to stay active in the outdoors during the long, cold winter months. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

And finally, let’s not forget there are a lot of pheasant hotspots (okay, some are lukewarm spots) that offer shelter from the storm, literally. Even if you’re a fair-weather hunter, your season can extend into deep winter in some locales. Western Kansas is one of those, and includes a four-bird daily limit, too. Walk-in areas near Osborne, Scott City, Colby, and Jetmore are good starting points. Not as revered, southwestern Nebraska often has less snow than its northern neighbors. And dig into this: Calexico, California Ole’ cazadores.

Yes, winter pheasant hunting is frustration and fascination, Mother Nature at her worst and birds at their best: Hard-flying and elusive, brightly-colored and fully-feathered. But if the choices are more football on TV or honey-do chores that really should wait until spring, a brisk walk in four fresh inches of snow might be just what the doctor ordered.

At the end of the day, slumped in a favorite chair, we gaze into a crackling fire, dog’s head on our knee, something hot and bracing in a nearby mug. Every chase, each flush, all the shots you took that frigid day are replayed…and on the recounting every bird held for your staunch dog, each shot connected, and all the birds were delivered gently to hand. At least it seems that way.

Winter Dog Dangers

Cold kills—take it seriously. You’re a big boy or girl but your dog relies on you to take care of him in cold weather. A few lost degrees of body temperature can kill him, so be constantly mindful of his condition. Some indications of hypothermia include shivering, chattering teeth, disorientation, and lethargy. Get him to a warm, dry environment immediately to prevent internal organ or brain damage.

Frostbite is also a risk—imagine if you were hunting naked and barefoot in ten-degree weather. At greatest risk are noses, ears, feet, scrotum, and tail tip. When you get home, closely examine those areas for discoloration. Black or dark red skin may indicate frostbitten tissue. Pads and legs cut by ice are also a risk.

Consider short hunts with plenty of warming and drying time in the truck; put an insulated vest on him, maybe boots. Feed a high-fat food and keep him hydrated. If he won’t drink, bait his water with a few bits of food or treat. Never put him to bed wet. No bird is worth your dog’s life, so be cautious.

pheasant hunter with an english springer spaniel and a rooster ring-necked pheasant
Bird hunters use both flushing and pointing dogs when hunting for ring-necked pheasants in winter, and are encouraged to pay special attention to cold-stress and other winter dangers their dogs may encounter. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)
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