While I love chasing pheasants in October, I secretly long for the shorter, colder days after Thanksgiving when birds are bunched up. There’s just something about flushing groups of roosters from thick cover while fewer hunters are afield.
The reality is that most folks just don’t know how good pheasant hunting can be in December and January. Selfishly I want to keep that to myself—but it’s true that hunting only gets better as the season wears on. With that in mind, here are four tips that will put more roosters in your game bag before the season’s closing bell.
Hunt Thermal Cover
With temps dipping lower and lower each day, thermal cover becomes increasingly important for pheasant survival. Temperatures between 40 and 104 degrees are within a pheasant’s “thermoneutral zone,” according to a Pheasants Forever report. That means, in temps below 40 degrees, pheasants must start consuming more food to create enough energy to stay warm. It also means they need to find appropriate roosting cover that helps them conserve precious energy. Hunters are wise to consider these facts when deciding when and where to hunt during the late season.
In the Upper Midwest, thermal cover such as cattail sloughs are pheasant magnets when it’s cold, especially if that habitat is near or adjacent to a reliable food source. Further south in more moderate climes, birds often prefer early successional habitat—a fancy term for a diverse blend of native grasses, weeds, and forbs.
Tree strips or shelterbelts with thick underbrush offer protection from wind and snow, while willows, plum thickets, and cane are also ideal places to target loafing birds on sunny winter days.
If possible, however, start the day hunting in or near food sources since birds move to feed first thing in the morning. Any standing crops such as corn, millet, or milo are good bets, but draws, sloughs, and other pockets of heavy cover in close proximity to food are areas pheasants gravitate toward throughout the afternoon.
As the day progresses, shift your attention to heavier cover such as cattails or other early successional habitat that can pass as winter roosting cover. Remember, pheasants must find and use these areas of thermal cover as roost locations if they are to survive the long winter nights. Use that dependence to your advantage.
Pray for Snow
Snow can be your best friend simply because it further reduces the number of places pheasants can feed, loaf, or roost. This inevitably pushes birds toward areas of quality habitat, including public hunting parcels.
Many people believe public areas get burned up after the first few weekends of heavy pressure, but I believe quality shot opportunities increase on certain public ground as the season wears on. When the snow flies, these habitat islands in the form of CRP can sometimes offer the best cover for miles around.
I’m a huge advocate for picking up the pace during most pheasant hunts, but hunting after a fresh snow calls for a slow approach. Force yourself to weave through the best habitat. Wander this way and that. A dusting of fresh snow offers prime scenting conditions, so trust and follow your dog wherever it may go.
Now here’s the tough part: Even if you’ve taken a slow, stealthy approach, it’s likely some birds busted from cover well out of range or ran the gauntlet unscathed. Remember, you’re no longer hunting those birds. They’re gone. But that doesn’t mean every single rooster in the field has flown or run away, so stay the course, work slow, and focus on the stragglers.
If you kicked up a bunch of birds on your first pass, it’s not a bad idea to work the cover a second time on the way back to the truck. Oftentimes the extra effort can be just the ticket to spring a locked-down bird or cagey rooster that tried to slip through the back door. This is a great tactic to use if you’re on a solo mission or in a small group.
Make the Shot Count
Many hunters spend plenty of money on clothing, gas, licenses, guns, and whatever else, but suddenly get cheap when it comes to shells. Pheasants don’t care what you look like, and a thousand-dollar gun ain’t worth much if it’s firing bargain-bin ammo.
Late-season pheasants are dedicated to putting on fat for winter, which gives the already resilient birds an added layer of padding. Combine that with the fact that long-range shots are more the norm than the exception come December, and you’ve got one tough bird to kill. That said, an extra 250 feet per second on a shotshell box might not seem like much, but today’s high-velocity, hard-hitting loads made by reputable manufacturers are game-changers when roosters flush.
I’ve had the best luck with Federal’s Prairie Storm 2 ¾-inch copper-plated #5 shot where lead is permitted on private and select public lands. For nontoxic loads, I like Federal’s Prairie Storm Steel 3-inch #4 or Bismuth 3-inch #4. I don’t change shells or chokes as the season wears on either. I run a full choke in my autoloader all season. In my over-under, the bottom barrel sports an improved-modified choke, while the top barrel is fully choked. They’ll both be rigged that way next year, too.
Some hunters make adjustments to their load and choke combo throughout the season, but I prefer to know exactly how mine performs whether it’s opening day or New Year’s Day. That way I’m not guessing if I can make a shot when a bird erupts from cover on the edge of shotgun range. I feel this breeds confidence any time I shoulder my gun, which inevitably leads to clean, ethical kills and saves me from potentially crippling more birds.
Find Pheasant Sign
Make sure to always check for pheasant sign in and around the edges of cover. Droppings, feathers, or tracks in dirt, mud, or snow are more visible late season. The absence of pheasant sign should be a red flag. But some hunters, including me, often hedge their bets thinking all late-season cattail or switchgrass stands are created equal.
A few years ago during the first weekend of December, some friends from Wisconsin joined me for a hunt in my home state of South Dakota. Winter weather arrived with them, and the combination of freezing temps and snow had us excited to hunt. I had a few cattail sloughs earmarked on some public ground where I thought birds would be hunkered in tight, but the first day didn’t pan out as expected—leaving us with only three birds to show for our effort.
We were stumped, but one thing we all agreed on was there was a noticeable lack of pheasant sign anywhere in and around the public areas we walked.
We returned to the same area the next day. But instead of pounding the same spots in hopes the birds would be there, we scouted a half dozen other public parcels until we found a Walk-In Area with pheasant tracks racing up and down the ditch. Two hours later we had nine birds in hand, which can make any below-freezing day seem balmy.
The moral of the story? Instead of hunting traditional areas that might look good on paper or places you’ve shot birds in the past, do your homework and know without a doubt that there are birds in the area. Just like with fishing, you don’t want to hunt memories.
The cold winds and drifting snow might make the walk seem a little longer, but the combination of fewer hunters and bunched-up birds make hunting late-season pheasants worth the effort. Give it a try in the coming weeks and see if you have the stamina and willpower to run the anchor leg of pheasant season.
Feature image via John Hafner.