If you’ve hunted pheasants long enough, you’ve probably been in a group that uses blockers to seal off the edges and ends of a field. Chances are you’ve seen a rooster or two drop in the distance after a blocker made a good shot. Chances are higher that you’ve seen more escape unscathed, whether it’s from poor shooting, poor positioning, or both. This is where many pheasant drives fail.
I’ll admit I’ve missed more than my fair share of pheasants while walking and blocking, but along the way I’ve learned a few things. There is definitely an art to blocking, and it’s not as easy as most hunters think. However, with a few minor adjustments pheasant hunters can rediscover the art of blocking.
The Art of Blocking In some circles, blocking is a position of status that’s typically reserved for the elder hunter of the group. Pheasant hunters who have earned their stripes by trudging through every type of cover for decades are rewarded by plugging the gaps at the ends of fields as younger hunters pound the cover.
This is a great tradition, but there are times when tradition shouldn't stand in the way of success. That said, consider sprinkling in some crack shots with blockers who may not shoot or hunt as often as they once did.
The shot opportunities encountered while blocking are often the most difficult, as roosters often have a full head of steam by the time they’re in range of a blocker. Remember, a pheasant’s flight speed often reaches speeds upwards of 40 mph, and that number only goes up when the birds’ adrenaline is pumping or they have the wind at their back. Because of this, many shots require blockers to swing hard on a bird or shoot in an uncomfortable, vertical fashion at a high-speed, long-range target.
In reality, blocking is often more like pass-shooting ducks and geese than pheasant hunting, and the art of properly leading birds is a necessity. It only makes sense to make the best use out of hunters who handle a shotgun more often and are more accustomed to widely variable shot opportunities. If you hunt in a group where the status quo is to position the same individuals at the end of the field every time, consider switching things up to see if it leads to more success.
With that in mind, hunters face a decision when it comes time to make the best use of their shooting and hunting resources. If you have enough hunters to efficiently hunt the cover and also effectively close down all the exits with blockers, then it’s a win-win situation.
However, if you’re undermanned and don’t have enough hunters to do both, you have to pick your battle. Do you devote more hunters to pounding the cover and risk missing opportunities at birds that are sure to flush out of range? Or do you use more blockers to plug the gaps and risk missing tight-holding birds by not hunting the cover as efficiently?
The number of hunters in your party is the primary factor in making these decisions, but I would argue the answers also depend largely on whether you’re hunting during the early or late season.
If it’s early in the season, I advise using more walkers than blockers for a number of reasons.
First, if it’s early there's typically much more habitat available that gives pheasants too many options they can sneak into or hunker down in. That means you’re probably better off pounding the cover rather than expecting every bird in the field to grow anxious and take flight.
Also, with so many cover options available, it’s hard to guess where the birds might want to go, and choosing which escape routes to block becomes more difficult. And, rest assured that as soon as you pick one the pheasants will fly through the door you left open.
As the season progresses, the amount of suitable pheasant habitat is drastically reduced. Crop fields are combined and cold, snowy weather moves birds into thermal cover, effectively cutting down a pheasant’s cover options in half. With that in mind, it’s not a bad idea to employ more blockers than walkers.
With fewer habitat options around, it takes fewer walkers to efficiently cover an area, and hunters can better guess what direction birds will want to go. All things considered, this makes decisions on where to block much easier.
Also, if pheasants have been hunted and shot at a few times already, they’re more likely to flush wild than sit tight. To combat the jumpy nature of late-season birds, using more blockers than walkers will likely give your group more shot opportunities.
The Science of Blocking When it comes to blocking, hunters need to alter their mental approach to ensure they set themselves up for success. They cannot approach blocking with the same attacking mindset as if they were walking through cover. They must be patient, and once in position always stand at-the-ready for oncoming traffic.
Speaking of position, blockers often get lazy and drive to the end of the field, park their vehicle, slam their doors, and stand out in the wide open, hoping a pheasant will somehow ignore all the racket and fly directly at them. If you volunteer or are asked to block, do yourself and your friends a favor and move as silently as possible to your post and get ready for the action.
At the same time, it’s vitally important in any blocking scenario for the walkers to have enough patience to make sure all of the blockers are in position prior to entering a field. All too often walkers jump the gun and end up pushing birds out the end of the field before the blockers are set up and ready. My best advice is for walkers to just hold their horses and do it right, because jumping the gun defeats the purpose of having blockers in the first place.
Blockers should try to go over as much of the cover’s perimeter as possible, as pheasants will inevitably try to split the gap between blockers in an equidistant manner. It really is quite something, and quite frustrating, to see birds flush and fly just out of range in between blockers.
Try to cut off as many escape routes as possible, but if your group’s numbers are limited, position blockers between the cover you’re walking and any other type of security habitat in the area. In other words, determine where pheasants want to go and get in their way.
Also, have blockers try to match up their shooting radius—think 40 to 50 yards—with that of other blockers posted on the sides and ends of the field, which will effectively maximize your group’s shooting range. About 80 to 100 yards apart is ideal. If blockers are standing too close to each other, it leaves holes in the trap. The same advice goes for standing too far apart.
As you prepare to block, pick a spot that offers level footing and clear sight lines. If you’re standing in a cut cornfield, it’s easy to end up in a spot where a false step left or right puts your front foot on a plowed-up chunk of dirt or into a row of 6-inch corn stalks. If you’re standing in grass, weeds, or a fence line, lightly tramp down the cover to ensure no holes, rocks or other obstructions will affect your footing should you have to alter your stance and swing on a hard-charging bird.
And last, understand that if you’re blocking, it’s highly unlikely you’ll have a shot at less than 30 yards, which means you need to use shells that pack a punch. I recommend high-quality, high-velocity loads in 4- and 5-shot sizes that give you extended range and knockdown power. I’ve had great luck using Federal’s Prairie Storm loads all throughout the season. Their consistent pattern density and knockdown power at extended ranges have sold me over the years, and since it ain’t broke I don’t plan on fixing it anytime soon.
The Voodoo of Blocking There are times when you can set up perfectly and birds will still give you the slip. I can think of dozens of times when pheasants bucked a 30 mile per hour prairie wind to go the opposite direction than they were “supposed” to go, fleeing upwind while all the blockers were positioned on the downwind side of a patch of cover. At other times, even hunters who rarely miss can come up empty on a blocking assignment. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.
When it comes to blocking, there are no guarantees. It’s simply an educated guess at cutting birds off at where they’re likely to go—nothing more, nothing less. And while it’s far from a perfect solution, blocking is still one of the best ways to end up with more birds at the end of a group pheasant hunt. This fall put a little more thought into your blocking strategies and see if you and your buddies can’t drop a few more roosters along the way.
Feature image via John Hafner.