I’d promised my wife that I wouldn’t hunt, and that the roads wouldn’t be too bad.
Since she’ll never read this piece, I can say that both were outright lies. The storm that had blown in from the west and left a layer of ice on both the roads and the cattails had been a good one, and it wasn’t quite finished wreaking havoc.
The wind on the tail end of the front was pushing 50-mph gusts, and according to the weather update on my smartphone, could produce ground blizzards, which is when ice and snow are lifted from the ground by high winds and whipped into whiteout conditions.
When I stepped out of the truck, I knew it was nearly a lost cause, but the long cattail slough had a few spots where I’d be able to hunt out of the wind. I figured any rooster with the slightest bit of common sense would be tucked in tight. After following my Lab, Luna, for nearly a mile, I realized a few things.
The first was that the random pheasants she’d flushed thus far got up, and I never heard them over the wind. Not being able to hear a pheasant flush is a major disadvantage if you have any desire to shoot at them while they are within range. The second problem was that once they cleared the cattails, they were only a few wingbeats away from catching a serious tailwind and going so fast that it was almost a guarantee I’d shoot behind them.
This is exactly what happened when a rooster finally got up within range. The next rooster to do so was gone before I could even shoulder my gun. Luna and I hiked out, birdless and covered in ice. We hunted one small spot on the way to the hotel, where the roosters were stacked in a plum thicket and well aware of our approach. It was dejecting. But the good news was that the wind was supposed to keep heading east, and in its wake, we’d have a calm morning to hunt.
Winter Cover Matters Most
Calm it was—and cold! Well below zero at the 9 a.m. opener, Luna and I waded into an old favorite. Within a few minutes, I could hear her tail whipping against the dry cattails and hens started popping out of the cover. Then, a young rooster busted out from underfoot, and we were on the board. As I was giving Luna hand signals to find the downed bird, at least a half-dozen more slipped out in front of us.
We worked around a frozen lake, with random pheasants getting up just out of range. It was bitter cold, but the birds were there, and so we crossed a county road into a similar spot. While hunting toward the farthest corner of the good cover, I could see a willow thicket that looked like a prime spot for roosters.
Before we got there, Luna pushed up a long-tailed ringneck right in front of me, and I missed twice before a cattail stem got jammed into the action of my semi-auto, leaving me temporarily with a gun as effective on roosters as a baseball bat would’ve been.
While swearing under my breath, I brought Luna to heel, cleared out the action, reloaded, and set out for the island of cover. As if scripted, she pushed up a rooster in front of me that crumpled on the first shot, which sent the slough into a frenzy. I picked out another rooster, and while not a true double, it pretty much was a two-shot double on wild, late-season birds.
We hiked out with nearly six hours of shooting light left, a three-bird limit in my vest, and the prospect of scouting new properties for the following day’s hunt. This, as it turns out, wasn’t a one-off miracle event in the public-land cover.
Pheasants Are Back
We aren’t back to highwater numbers, but we aren’t scraping the bottom of the rooster barrel now either. There are pheasants to be had in the grain-belt states, and if you’re willing to work, you can find them. If you’re willing to wait until December, or in some states January, you can not only find them, but you’ll have them to yourself.
The key to this type of hunting is to understand the cover and the timing of your hunt, and then get in the mindset that you’ll have to put on some miles to find pockets of birds. Earlier in the season, pheasants will be scattered across more marginal cover, which is easier to walk in, and easier to find and to hunt.
Late-season hunting is all about geothermal cover; the kind of stuff that’s thick, gnarly, and protects birds against the elements and all two- and four-legged predators. This means that where you find one bird, you should find many, and because of that, you’ll see a fair amount of pheasants vacate the cover as soon as you step into it.
I don’t know why this is, but some roosters are runners, and others are hiders. The runners are those birds that get out 300 yards away, and really are just out of the game from most of us. They’ve been pushed around by hunters and dogs all season, and they don’t take any chances.
The good news is, not all ringnecks are wired that way. Some, for reasons known only to them, are hiders. They’ll tuck into the thick cover, and wait for you to walk past. This is something they are very, very good at. A dog with some late-season hunts under his belt will learn all about this trick, and should be given the time to truly work thick cover.
Don’t be afraid to wade into cover with your dog. I see a lot of hunters take the easy routes on the outside edge of the thick stuff, while sending their dog in. Not only are you covering a tiny fraction of the good stuff when you do this, but you’re also hunting like most people. This means that the roosters need only go 50 yards deeper into the cover, and they are virtually guaranteed to see another sunrise.
If you can muster up a friend to hunt with you, then by all means send someone on the outer edge. But get in with your dog to pinch birds between the two of you. This is a strategy my buddies and I use a lot, and it works very well.
Time & Timing
While the best pheasant hunts typically occur in the afternoon, when the birds are flying or walking their way back into roosting cover, the late-season seems to smooth out the daily ups and downs of activity. If the weather is pleasant, you’ll see this case play out more as birds spend their days picking grain in nearby ag fields.
If the weather is nasty, the birds will often stay in the cover all day long, or just make short forays into nearby food sources. This does two things for the public-land hunter: It allows for good hunting all day, and the nasty weather prompts much of the competition to stay home.
Now, it’s important to note that the best cover is often found around water. This might be a small pothole lake, or it might be a creek. Depending on the time of season and the recent temperatures, everything might be iced over and safe to walk on—or not. Be careful out there, and understand that it doesn’t take much ice to support a rooster, but it does take a fair amount to support you and your dog. When it comes to ice, err on the side of caution. Always.
Some of the best winter cover out there is located on public land, and you can bet the local roosters know how to find it. If you’re into late-season adventure, wild ringnecks, and having whole sections to yourself, consider getting out there and covering some miles. It won’t be easy, but it will be fun. And if you follow a good dog long enough, you’ll get your chances.