I know this may sound a little counter-intuitive to many pheasant hunters. Hunting wild game of any kind is always a bit of a gamble, but with pheasants, the timing of your hunt plays a big factor in your success. If you are truly interested in upping your odds for a successful hunt, later is generally your best bet. Early season hunts-in my opinion anyway-are more steeped in tradition and focus on social gatherings rather than being based solely on filling game bags. They also serve a role in that they are better suited for those who are truly averse to any weather below room temperature.
And, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that either. Here in South Dakota, opener most definitely is an event that involves much more than just wrangling ourselves and our floppy eared friends (most of them canines) through the weeds for roosters. For us, it is a signal that Fall is now officially upon on us. As we have a limited amount of trees in which to see colorful leaves falling, we can always look forward to all of the orange and brown clad hunters that begin showing up like clockwork each and every year around the 3rd week in October.
There is no doubt that some of the overly style conscious hunters that arrive are your classic “Cabela’s Cowboy” types, but there are also many more down to earth hunters that are our family members and friends, resident and non-resident alike that perennially return to visit and bless us with their presence…and even bag a few birds. The noon start the first week of season is an indication of the social aspect. There are a few different viewpoints on how this first came about, but I subscribe to and heartily endorse the theory that this allows for a bit later nights catching up with said friends and family over an abundance-and at times an over indulgence-of food and drink. Thus, allowing plenty of time for rest and recovery in preparation for a nice strenuous walk and the discharging of noisy smoke poles.
The first few weeks of season can no doubt offer some good hunting. But as good as that can be depending on conditions, it will only get better as we pass Halloween and start heading towards Thanksgiving and even into and beyond Christmas holidays. The major drawbacks to early season hunting are un-harvested corn and warm temps. These factors are completely out of our control, but both do tend to take care of themselves and steadily disappear as we leave October behind.
The sheer amount of standing corn that often accompanies early season gives the birds a perfect place to avoid our attempts harvesting them, no matter how diligent your efforts or how many gold stars you put on your dog’s report card. And on the subject of dogs, the warmer temperatures are more than just hard on them; it can be flat out deadly. Unfortunately, we see this on a regular basis as hunters with checkbooks larger than their frontal lobes show up with what I term “store bought” dogs that have done little other than point at a pen raised bird placed directly in front of them. Just so their well-compensated trainers can show the proud new owners just what a good hunting dog they have. This is a recipe for disaster that the previously mentioned “Cabela’s Cowboys” just seem to have to learn for themselves…at their dogs expense.
We can also dispel the myths that, “most of the roosters will be shot” or “the remaining birds will be all wised up.” The hunting actually becomes much easier, for several reasons. The aforementioned warm temps do more than just make it tough on our dogs and uncomfortable for us. It deters the pheasants from settling into any forms of traditional cover. They can be-and are-literally everywhere. The un-harvested corn is an obvious place for them to reside. But, they can just as easily be found in harvested corn and wheat fields, un-grazed pastures, sparse CRP, or any light cover they can find. About anything that will break up their outline will work and this lighter cover is good for them as they can more easily detect approaching predators, including us. And, factor in that they are beginning to put on fat and feathers in preparation for Winter, and you quickly realize that thick cover is just as uncomfortable for them to run around in as it is for us to wear heavy winter clothing hunting while trekking after them.
As temps begin to fall and the combines retreat back to the farms, we see the pheasants start to migrate into much more predictable and smaller, more manageable areas. The shelterbelts, sloughs, weed patches, food plots, heavy grass and weed patches will now see more than just a smattering of birds. You will be finding increasingly larger numbers each and every day the season progresses. This is also where a sensible “farm the best and save the rest” approach versus a “factory farming” mentality really pays off as the birds have areas of valuable sanctuary to settle into.
Thus it is easier for us to hunt in a more efficient manner as we can concentrate on more confined areas with correspondingly increasing success. Instead of walking endlessly for scattered birds that are often spooky and flush long before we get close enough for a shot, we can focus our efforts on precise areas with fewer escape routes and allowing ourselves more reasonable shots. And, the real beauty of this is as the season wears on you will experience the truly big flushes. When you and a couple of buddies can hit small areas and watch bird after bird literally boil out and erupt in a wing slapping, cackling, cauldron of acceleration towards a baby blue sky on a crystalline clear day- for the upland bird hunter, it just does not get any better than that…ever.
There are some other aesthetic benefits in that everything is just more visually stimulating and appealing, to me anyway. The more mundane, drab and dusty hues of early Fall are replaced with more starkly contrasting colors of white snow against the varying shades and tints of remaining standing vegetation and dark leafless trunks and branches of the trees. The coloring of the pheasants themselves is much more pronounced and vivid as well. Young of the year roosters are proudly displaying their full complement of bright plumage by now and the old cocks are well…just cocky. They have also put on some weight as they bulk up for the winter and have that “puffed out” look as their feathers are heavier as well. Breathe deeply and suck in a deep lung full of crisp clean air for seasoning and you now have the recipe that leads to a complete course of a perfect late fall outing.
Some other factors to consider are that this is a hunt that offers added relaxation as the vast majority of other hunters are long gone. The dogs will not only be more comfortable working cover for you, you will find that they have a definite spring in their steps as they instinctively know they are going to be richly rewarded with bountiful flushes and plenty of roosters to retrieve as just return for their loyal efforts. Although the thermometer may look a bit foreboding, the actual hunting is never terribly chilly. As we are concentrating on small spots with heavy cover, we are quite literally employing run and gun tactics that only leave us out of the vehicle and exposed to the elements for short periods of time.
Some advice as to gun and shell choice for these last chance pheasants would be to forget all of the romantic, gentlemanly stereotypical aspects of an upland bird hunt. Those fell by the wayside with the leaves and the departure of the masses of hunters. Leave the fast, light, and lively little dual barreled 20 and even 12 gauges in their warm confines at home. This is a manly hunt and deserving of more stout and heavy everything. Meaning reliable autoloaders filled to the brim with shells to take advantage of multiple shot opportunities with every flush. And, the shells should be made of serious stuff too. 3 inch magnum loads of the hottest and fastest varieties are the rule here-not the exception. Plated number 4 or even 2 shot ran through increasingly tighter chokes is called for. Think more along the lines of downing a goose rather than a dove.
So, there you have it; my two-or perhaps more-cents worth of reasons to weigh when considering if a late season pheasant hunt is in your future. If you have never experienced what I have described and many of us have known for years, I believe you owe it to yourself and your hunting partners to check it out and see firsthand what you have been missing. After all, there is no sweat involved, pun most certainly intended.