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Late Season Pheasant Hunting Tactics

Making the most of your dog's skills while targeting the toughest birds of the season.

Late Season Pheasant Hunting Tactics

Follow these tips to get your dog on as many late-season ring-necks as possible. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

During the early and middle part of pheasant season, you can get away with a little bit more than you can when the clock is starting to run out and the temperatures have dropped. Late-season birds are survivors, and they really don’t tolerate too many mistakes from us, or our dogs. It’s also some of the most enjoyable hunting you’ll find if you have access to the right cover.

This is almost always tall, gnarly habitat that soaks up the birds from a given section as the crop fields are picked, the snow flattens the lighter grass, and their cover options run low. This concentrates birds in a way that makes the hunting both pretty special, and really challenging.

This also necessitates precision field work dog-wise, because without it, you’ll watch bird after bird fly out of your life, well out of range of your shotgun.

Late-Season Control

If you hunt enough late-season roosters, you’ll encounter situations where just the click of a truck door or tailgate closing is enough to blow birds out of the far end of the slough. This is almost a guarantee on public land in calm conditions, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no hope—or no reason to try to be quiet when you enter the cover.

This is also a great way to figure out how solid your control is with your dog. If you can communicate without having to shout at the top of your lungs or constantly blow on your whistle, you’re on the right path. When it comes to December and January pheasants, there is no such thing as being too quiet.

They might not be able to see you due to the cover, but they can hear really well. Couple that with how calm it can get in the late-season and how well sound carries in cold air, and there are plenty of opportunities to send roosters running, and flying, way too early.

These conditions require maximum dog control, which in my case, involves using an e-collar. I can use tone or vibrate to communicate to my dog what I want him to do, without having to alert the local pheasants to my presence. This isn’t possible without the right training, obviously, and it varies quite a bit on a dog’s age and experience.

black labrador retriever with rooster ring-necked pheasant
Consider using silent, non-verbal strategies to communicate with your dog to ambush weary cold-weather roosters. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

Young dogs are usually tougher to control, and that might mean accepting some bird loss on his first hunts. It might also mean that you should plan more of your hunts around windy conditions, which really help mask hunter noise while simultaneously convincing a lot of the roosters to sit tight.

It also might be necessary to leash a young dog to keep him close, and bring him to the most birdy cover. While old dogs almost instantly know how to read a late-season cattail slough, young dogs don’t. They’ll go where you go most of the time, or take the easiest routes through the cover.

There’s another lesson here too with young dogs. While an older dog might let you skirt the cattails or other heavy cover while he dives in to work the thick stuff, a young dog won’t understand that program. You’ve got to get into the cover with him to put him on where the birds live. It’s simple, but a lot of hunters just hope that a dog will figure out to go into the deep cover while they are walking the short grass on the outside, but that’s not the best way to do it. In this case, you’ve got to lead by example.

You’ve also got to establish control once you’re in there—quietly. And you’ve got to understand how to set the right pace for your dog so that you’re not missing out on some of the action.

labrador retrievers with rooster ring-necked pheasant
Finish the season strong by maintaining proper control over your dogs so you can work together to outwit smart, late-season roosters. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

Too Fast, Too Slow, Just Right

Proper pacing for a specific spot during specific conditions is a great intangible that plays into all late-season pheasant hunts. What this means is that there are times for stop-and-go walking, and times to cover ground and get where you need to be. With a flusher, this is a dance during which there are times when you will lead, and times when you will follow.

At first, it’s usually on you to slow things down. Precision work in challenging conditions takes time, and a dog that is worried about staying in front of a quickly walking hunter will miss birds. You can count on that.

For reasons known only to them, some pheasants are jumpy and like to get out way ahead of danger, but others seem to develop a high level of confidence in their hiding skills. Those are the roosters you don’t want to walk right on by, and they often require a slow approach. In fact, I often walk into the cover and then stop for 10 or 15 seconds. Then I’ll cover a little ground and stop again.

As long as my dog understands his job is to keep hunting around me when I stop, we usually find birds for two reasons. The first is that the dog has time to really work the cover, which is necessary in the thick stuff. The second is that it seems to make the birds nervous. Even if the dog doesn’t put them up, a hunter stopping and waiting seems to make some of them too frightened to sit any longer.

The best part about that is even if only a hen gets up, I know we are on to something. Rarely are late-season pheasants alone, so that first hen might just be the tip of the iceberg. There are probably more birds sitting tight, which tells me how to pace even better.

Of course, it’s not all snail’s pace stuff. A common occurrence in high cover is a dog that gets on some birds, and because you can’t see him, gets out 40 or 50 yards (or more). When the birds get up, it’s time to get moving. There might be a little ditch in the slough, or some kind of opening, or really anything that they don’t want to cross. If you don’t hustle up there after the first few get up, you might miss out on more birds.

Now, this is something you want to avoid because a flusher getting out too far is a bad thing. But it happens when you can’t see your dog, and often, can’t hear them. This is also why I sometimes use a beeper collar on my Labs, so that if I need to hit the “hawk scream” button, I can locate them instantly (and they’ll know to check in).

Do what you have to in order to keep tabs on your dog in this type of cover and eventually you’ll both get it down, eventually. It takes time, but is worth it when the whole thing really clicks into place.

There’s a lot of planning and careful execution that needs to come together to walk out of a December slough with a limit of roosters. But it can be done, and even if you’re a couple birds shy, it’s still one of the most challenging and enjoyable times to hunt all season. That only gets better if you have real control over your dog and understand how slowly—or quickly— you need to take it through the wintering cover.

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