Pheasants

I might as well start with the most popular game bird and some of my experiences hunting them. I think there is a reason Labs and Pheasants are the most popular, that reason is convenience. The Labs fit nicely into the lifestyle of the average Joe forty hour work week guy with a wife and 2.6 kids living in a cul-de-sac. This guy gets out maybe five days per year bird hunting. The pheasant fits perfectly because just about anywhere in the US with ten acres of land you can have a kick and shoot pheasant operation. Even though I don’t consider releasing any pen raised birds for us to shoot as “hunting”, but that is a topic for another discussion. I do realize that in many parts of the country especially east of the Mississippi River hunting preserves are the only thing some people have that resembles wild game hunting. If I had to rate pheasants from 0-100 on difficulty of hunting 0 being the easiest and 100 the hardest for a GWP I would probably say they range from 1-99. There are a lot of factors that go into difficulty in hunting pheasants. I actually think hunting old wise wild roosters is more herding than hunting. I will list some of the experiences I have had with pheasants since I started hunting as a kid, and the last fourteen years with GWP’s. Most of my time with GWP’s was while living in South Dakota on heavily hunted public lands, but there are many other states in the west that have pretty good populations of wild pheasants where I have hunted.

I started shooting pheasants with the aid of Australian Shepard cattle dogs on our ranch in Idaho with a single shot 410 in the mid 70’s when my age was in the single digits. While in high school buddies and I would go shoot a couple almost every noon hour back when you didn’t have to pay farmers to hunt their lands. I’ve been shooting wild pheasants a long time.

  On the easy end of the scale would be the pen raised pheasants that have not been flight conditioned. We had some wildlife management areas in Idaho I would go to when I first started training dogs. I knew when they released the birds, and it offered a little different controlled environment for me to do some training on broke dogs. Since these birds never flew very far I could work the same birds over and over if I just blanked them offering some good training birds. Occasionally I would take a young dog that I wanted to get on some birds without running a long ways out to these areas, but I didn’t spend much time in the preserves. The nice thing was these birds would just sit there like a statue while I worked the dogs in on them and I knew for sure there were birds in the areas. Of course the dogs could just walk up and grab them if they really wanted to get them. This is the problem with pen raised birds, they aren’t wild. Young pheasants in the wild that haven’t been hunted or chased by predators can be almost as simple to hunt because they will just sit there until you get very close. Any of these birds would offer little challenge to a GWP and be very low on the difficulty scale.

Sometimes you even get a water retrieve while pheasant hunting. Ernie owned by Jim and Joanne Long in Colorado had to swim for this one.

Sometimes you even get a water retrieve while pheasant hunting. Ernie owned by Jim and Joanne Long in Colorado had to swim for this one.

While hunting as a resident in South Dakota during the five years I lived there I started to realize old wild public land pheasants were maybe the 99 on the scale of difficulty. The thing about the smart pheasants is they rarely let you or a dog get within rifle range let alone shot gun range. Any noise made by you will probably get these birds running out of the area. Smart pheasants like to run, and run, then run some more, until they are forced to fly, but given the choice they will just keep running. This is where herding them to someone else is a good option, but if it is just you and a GWP you can’t be a herder unless you have a good area to trap them. These running birds are just not a good match for a pointing dog, especially a young dog. If you are hunting these types of birds I have found a couple ways to get a good chance at shooting. The best way is to wait until the weather can help you out. If you wait until it is real cold and the wind is howling even the wildest birds will hold pretty tight. These days aren’t ideal for us humans, but the GWP’s can put up with some pretty nasty weather. I had a young bitch in south Dakota a few years ago I took hunting on a very cold windy day in late December. It was almost too miserable of weather for me completely bundled up to handle, but I put my head down and charged forward into the wind. The area I was hunting was about two hundred acres of public land with thick cover. Most of the fields for miles were cleared off with just remints of crops left behind. We started from the vehicle on the east side and worked into the wind coming straight out of the west. She started tracking birds right off the bat and I could tell she had scent overload. I knew there would be some birds, but not birds like you see in TV advertisements for hunting pheasants in South Dakota. Even with all the wind, and me being what I thought was noiseless quite a few birds were flushing well ahead of us. Most were landing in the far corner, and a few were just heading out across the open lands. I still don’t know for sure how they knew we were there, but they did know of our presence. The dog was covering quite a bit of land in a nice quartering manner so I think she just made enough noise and got close enough they knew we were after them. She did have a few points as we worked toward the corner, but all of them were hens, or sharp-tail grouse. I had decided not to shoot anything but a couple roosters over point, and I wanted to work them all the way to the end of the cover. When we got about a hundred yards from edge she pointed and a rooster flushed. I shot it and she took off after it for the retrieve. This is when the sky turned black. She was already almost back to me with the bird and I was just standing there slack jawed. I got the bird from her and she turned and I think she was slack jawed as well. I would guess five hundred sharp-tails, and a sky full of pheasants were in the air, and they just kept boiling out from everywhere. Something I will maybe never see again in my life. I’m sure there were birds running around us and back into the cover, and most were just flying back over our heads into the cover, but they just kept coming up like a volcano was shooting them into the sky. I finally shot a couple more roosters without even taking a step. I had hunted this area early in the season on a nice calm quiet day and lots birds just flushed way ahead of me and the dog, or they ran out across the open grain fields. I was extremely quiet during that hunt. I think all total we probably got a hundred birds in the air on that day, but some of the adjacent fields had standing crops, and most of the birds were just doing what they like to do, run, run, and run.  I was patient and in time the older dog I was working with that day slowed down to a snail’s pace and got some birds locked down. We worked the area for a couple hours before I got any in shooting range, and they were all that years hatch of birds, no old birds.

Adam Cunningham and his dog Ryder’s 1st pheasant. Photo courtesy Monica Bird. Adam Cunningham and his dog Ryder’s 1st pheasant. Photo courtesy Monica Bird.

 The most impressive GWP pheasant dog I have seen was in Idaho twelve years ago. My dad had a buddy that had gotten a dog from one of the strong field trial lines and he wanted me to watch it hunt. I talked to him about the dog before we went out, and he said she was four years old. He said all he had ever done was take her pheasant hunting in thick cover since she was a little puppy. After we met up the next day he said he would take me to one of his spots he had permission to hunt. We drove out to a still standing sugar beet field about one hundred acres right next to a very busy highway, and he said what do you think of this field? The field wasn’t fenced, and my first thought was I don’t want my dogs getting ran over if they wonder out to the road. I told him to run his dog and I would watch. There were four of us humans and the one guy said this dog is just phenomenal at getting these pheasants pointed. I just kept thinking big running field trial dog, highway, flushing pheasants in the distance, train wreck coming. He turned his dog loose and she just started walking at a very slow pace through the big leafed sugar beet plants. I kept waiting for her to take off, but she just put her nose on the ground and started tracking. Most of the time she would just go real slow and get one to lock up close to the edge of the field. Then one of us would go shoot it. We took turns doing this, and after a couple hours standing around telling stories while she hunted we all had a limit. Many of these birds were old and had been hunted, but I think she just knew how and when to push them. While I was watching her sometimes she would stop and circle out around it, and push it back the way it come from, then start tracking again. A few of the birds would flush wild at a distance, but I don’t think the birds wanted to leave the thick cover in the field because that is where they felt the safest. Eventually they would lock up somewhere with the dog pointing them usually fairly close to the birds. After watching this dog work and some of mine in South Dakota that have done a decent job I think slower is defiantly the way to go with wild pheasants in thick cover, especially if you are alone. If you think you are moving to slow, you are probably still going too fast. We took this dog out hunting sage grouse and chukar later that year and she ran like crazy, and busted birds everywhere. When she would get the scent she would start tracking and get way to close for the covey birds. She was probably one of the worst covey bird dogs I have ever watch hunt. I’m sure she had taught herself to track, and not point at long distances needed for the wild covey birds.

 I have found pheasants in some peculiar areas, but I think is key to pheasants, more so than other game birds, is food and cover. Out in Idaho and here in Wyoming I have found them in the sagebrush quite often as long as there are some croplands not too far away. Here within the city limits of Sheridan Wyoming there are pheasants everywhere. You will see them eating out of bird feeders and many times they are walking right down the streets living in bits of cover along the creek or very small grass lots. In South Dakota they were simply everywhere, but some of the marshlands held way more birds that I would expect. When you walked through these areas it was hard to find a spot without water for them to sit, but they were still there. I remember one time going into an area and seeing a few dozen pheasant roosting in leafless trees. The nice thing about a GWP is they can be just as happy wading through a marsh as they are running through sagebrush, or a grain field. As far as hunting them in town I’m sure GWP’s could adapt to hunting in someone’s backyard if asked to do so.

 A GWP is a great dog for pheasants, but don’t hunt your young GWP too much with the Labs or your pointer might get tired of getting birds flushed out from in front of their noses and start becoming a flushing dog themselves.

5 month old Plum with a pheasant almost as big as her.

5 month old Plum with a pheasant almost as big as her.

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