The ring-necked pheasant was introduced to North America in 1881. It is one of those storied game birds that keeps hunters motivated every season. While many states have game preserves set up for pheasant hunts, no other state has reached the mecca status that South Dakota has. Wherever you’re hunting pheasants, there are a few steps you can take to have a better hunt.
Get in shape
I am far from one to tell you to get in shape, but I will say this. I was unprepared the first time I went pheasant hunting. The amount of thick cover we walked through chasing after birds proved daunting. And I mean real pheasant hunting in the thick cover of property managed for pheasants in South Dakota. My knee, which I had rehabbed the summer before after an injury, gave me fits. So it is important to know your personal and physical limitations.
A common method for pheasant hunting is to combine dogs with walkers and blockers. A pheasant will often run long before it bursts cover and flies. Like any wild creature, it is what the bird can’t see that makes it nervous enough to take flight. A blocker will often have a great shot on a bird right in front of him or her because the walkers and dogs pushed that bird right to the blocker. I’ve taken this position many times and enjoy it. I’ve taken some really nice roosters that jumped right in front of me.
Make sure you carry water with you, as well as some for your dog too. Even if it is cold out, staying hydrated will make your pheasant experience better.
Life on the edge
Pheasants need edges to grow successfully. By that, I mean the edges of fields are favored habitats for pheasants to rear chicks and live their lives. A field that is routinely harvested for crops is not going to hold birds. Land managed specifically for pheasants is allowed to grow thick and tight, hence the need for being in shape. As farmland became premium, farmers began using all of their available land for crops. In many cases, they harvest right to the edge of a road, and remove much of the valuable habitat for birds. This is why groups like Pheasants Forever are so valuable to conservation.
If you want to make your pheasant hunt better, you need to look to the edge. Look for those areas that have deep growth of ground cover and work them. I’ve been on do-it-yourself hunts with two other hunters and it is very effective to work on old fence line by having one hunter block at the end of a row, with two walkers, one on either side of the fence and a dog working down the line. Regardless of the number in your hunting party, or where you’re hunting, look to the older, overgrown areas for birds.
Practice the fast shot
Head to a sporting clays range and practice, practice, practice. Pheasants can fly fast. Their average speed is 28-32 MPH, but when they are alarmed or chased, they can burst up to and unbelievable 60 MPH! You need to be able to swing shoot and follow through on an unpredictably fast target.
Shooting sporting clays is a great way to get you ready for a pheasant hunt. The last range I was at had a special pheasant hunting course set up, with smaller clay pigeons and some crazy angles. I had a lot of fun doing things like closing my eyes as I called for the pull. The sudden rush is good practice.
Carry the right gun
I have learned over the years that you can never have too many guns. You really do need more than one. When I’m waterfowl hunting, the weight of my shotgun doesn’t matter as much. I’m usually shooting 3.5-inch magnum loads. For pheasants, I want the lightest shotgun I can carry and shoot effectively. A 20 gauge or a 28 gauge is the perfect choice as far as I’m concerned. Beretta’s new A400 28-gauge made the hair on my arms tingle as I thought about roosters and ruffed grouse.
So what makes the right gun for you? Make sure it fits you well. Pheasants and other upland birds often call for quick shots. You don’t always have time to adjust your mount on the rise. So make sure the gun fits you well from the start. I also like to make sure I’m using the lightest gun I can for the hunt I’m on. Let’s face it; lugging a heavy gun all day long, through some thick brush and cover country, can really detract from the hunt.
Much like hunting turkeys, ducks, geese or anything else, working your shotgun’s pattern out well beforehand is the way to go. Some areas require the use of non-toxic shot. You may grumble about it, but steel shot and other alternatives have come so far that, at realistic hunting ranges, you’re not going to lose performance. Federal Premium’s Prairie Storm FS Steel is an awesome load for upland hunts. I’ve tried it personally and love the way it patterns in both 12 and 20 gauge.
The worst thing that can happen is to cripple a bird. No hunter wants to be in this situation, but it does happen. Wounded birds will hold tighter than anything, and you’ll spend a ton of time searching for them. The worst feeling comes when you don’t ever find it. The best defense against this is to be sure of your shot. This is why I stress patterning and practice. Plus, there is a great feeling of confidence knowing you’re able to make the best shot you can. It definitely makes for a better pheasant hunt.
And, if you're thinking about introducing someone to the world of hunting, here are a few tips.