Pheasant hunting requires less gear than other outdoor pursuits, and as a result, many hunters make the mistake of believing it doesn’t require as much strategy either.
In fact, most hunters think there are only a few rules to pheasant hunting—walk into the wind, follow the dog, don’t shoot hens. While it’s true these are the basics, underestimating the always-alert senses of today’s pheasants—especially educated birds that receive a lot of hunting pressure—is a quick way to turn a hunt into a spectator sport in which hunters are relegated to watching wild birds flush out of range.
With that in mind, here are three ways to increase your shot opportunities and step up your game as you chase pressured birds this fall.
The first thing you need to remember is you’re stepping into a world pheasants live in year-round. You’re playing by their rules, but many pheasant hunters forget this point and throw caution to the wind. Unfortunately, a similar scene plays out countless times each year as car doors and tailgates slam, whistles blow, and hunters yell at each other or their dogs as they start the haphazard hunt off on the wrong—and loud—foot. Soon after the first foreign noise, the opposite end of the field explodes with flushing birds and the hunt is over before it really started.
Simply stated, pressured birds don’t sit around and wait for a hunter to show up and shoot. They’ve been conditioned to associate manmade noises with danger and death. So, with that in mind, you need to commit to a stealthy approach that begins long before you ever set foot in the field.
First, park a significant distance from where you plan on hunting, especially if you’re on public ground where educated birds know the difference between a vehicle that’s passing by compared to a vehicle that’s pulling into a designated parking area. Putting the truck a quarter-mile from the field is sometimes too close. Yes, you read that correctly. I had to resist the urge to say a half-mile is too close. If you make the decision to go hunting, go all in and give yourself every chance at scoring, even if it means hoofing the extra mile to get to a field.
Second, do everything in your power to stay silent as you close vehicle doors and load guns. Game plans should be set prior to the hunt, and every hunter in the group should be prepared to start walking/hunting as soon as you arrive at the field. Any additional time at the road edge spent talking strategy or adding or subtracting layers of clothing gives birds a chance to sneak a few extra steps away from you.
One of my biggest pet peeves is people who aren’t ready all the time when we are out chasing pheasants. Being unprepared not only shows a shallow disrespect for pheasants, but also for hunting partners who have to wait for the slowpokes to go through an entire pregame workout between each field. Don’t be that guy.
Last, and this is all I’ll say about dogs, is that if you have a demon dog that only wants to tear through cover and not actually use its nose or hunt within range, then maybe the best place for that dog is the kennel. Dogs that go crazy and can’t be controlled without strong verbal attention will ruin your hunt.
You’ve likely heard the best approach to pheasant hunting is slowly working a field, even stopping at times to ensure you don’t walk past any birds. It’s a mantra the old timers repeated for decades that worked just fine on yesterday’s birds. Problem is, today’s wild birds are smarter, and it pays to remember that hunting pressure only fuels their run-first mentality.
Pheasants are built with a sprinter’s legs, which means you better keep up the pace. This strategy flies in the face of conventional pheasant hunting wisdom, but it’s been my experience when hunting pressured birds that moving slowly and hoping for a straggler to stick around while rooster after rooster flushes out of range is a sure-fire way to end up frustrated.
Even if you’re trying to be as quiet and stealthy as possible, a majority of the birds in the field are acutely aware of your presence, which means they’re probable heading in the opposite direction in a hurry. Taking a slow, methodical approach not only gives them a head start, but it also increases their lead as you work through the field. Close this gap by forcing the issue and taking the fight straight to the birds using speed to your advantage.
In other words, put constant pressure on pressured birds. I’m not saying race through a field or skip chunks of birdy-looking habitat. Rather, I’m advocating for a thorough, fast-paced sweep through a field to ultimately keep more birds in range. Stay the course until the birds eventually run out of room at the end of the field. That’s where your reward will be waiting.
Pheasants are known edge dwellers, and a common pheasant hunting practice is to work from one end of cover to the other, from the outside toward the middle.
However, a strategy I’ve used with success on ground where birds have seen significant pressure is to hunt the middle portions first. Think of it like working a field inside-out.
Because many pheasants hang out in edge habitat, pressured birds with a run-first mentality often dive into deeper cover at the first sign of danger. However, if they’re pushed toward the edges first, they’ll rarely retreat back to the heavy stuff after you’ve already walked through it.
Sure, some birds will always flush wild and out of range—that’s just how it is. However, forcing them out of the thick stuff first and working the edges last has provided me with some of my best days afield, especially when I’m hunting solo or in a small group.
It takes some extra work—busting through heavier cover can really make you sweat—but it’s worth the extra time and effort to come at educated, pressured birds from a different angle, pushing them toward edge areas where shots and retrieves can be made in the open. Plus, because pressured birds are more prone to flushing early I’d rather start by hunting the best habitat on a property, which is usually somewhere in the middle, rather than saving it for later in hopes a bird or two sits tight.
If you hunt behind a dog, remember to keep Ol’ Roy as close as possible while you hunt the middle. This accomplishes two things. First, you won’t burn up your dog before he or she can really shine later in the hunt while working the edges. Second, this tactic reduces the risk a dog will break from the middle and chase a bird too far toward the edge, causing it and possibly others to flush out of range.
Remember, a pressured bird’s first instinct is to run and find cover. Use this fact to your advantage and hunt the middle of a field first. You might be surprised at the number of extra flushes and shot opportunities present themselves as you clean up around the edges.
Feature image via John Hafner.