Pheasant Hunting Tactics, “Hunt Like a Predator” 2023
Pheasant Hunting can be as simple as you want to make it, or as complex as you want to make it. I hate to say it, but I’m the complex kind of guy. I get into the location, the direction of the sun, what kind of cover are they in, are there trees, are there high spots out in the field or a patch of cattails? These are all things I put way too much thought into and sometimes I end up talking myself out of hunting a field that is a perfectly good field because I’m just looking for a better field, when in actuality I should be more concerned about the wind and what affect it will have on my dog.
(My girls, Gemma on the left, Sadie in the middle, and Eva on the right, this was a private land hunt at Clear Creek Sportsmans Club where you are legally to shoot hens because they are planted)
Now those other things are just as important but let’s be honest, if you’re hunting planted birds that have been placed in a field just prior to you walking out in the field then these things all matter very little. But the wind still matters.
Released birds still have instincts, they just haven’t honed those instincts the way the wild birds have. But give them a couple days and they will start to figure it out. Most people who hunt planted birds tend to rush in on them, pop them up “bang, bang” and go home. I appreciate these types of hunters, because they walk past birds and miss birds and leave plenty of birds for me to come back and get later.
This last weekend November 11th and 12th was the Pheasant Season opener for California. I was hunting my usual spots and decided to take some notes of some of the things I observed that people were doing wrong, I even noticed some of my own mistakes.
Let’s go over a few things that you can do to increase the number of birds you encounter on both public and private land and planted and wild bird hunts.
First is unnecessary noise.
Noise Discipline is probably the number one mistake I see and hear hunters making. They pull up to a field or ditch bank to hunt. They get out, go pee, put on their vests, talk about it, grab a gun, talk about it some more, slam the truck doors, let the dogs run, holler at the dogs a few times, and then start their hunt. Then as they go along their merry way, they are talking to each other and calling the dog, “Back, over, come, here, heal, get in the ditch, no squirrel” all way too much noise.
Pheasants have great hearing, they call to each other all the time, if you know what they sound like and have ever tried to run a pheasant down by hearing them call, you know how good their hearing is. When they hear that truck pull up, they lay down, or crawl or even run full speed as hard as they can to get as much distance from that noise as possible. Often when hunting truly wild birds you can slam your car door and see pheasants fly up a field or two away.
(my three girls with three birds, I believe these were left over from a junior hunt the week before)
Noise discipline is key to getting more birds. If you see a field or ditch bank you want to hunt, stop prior to getting there and get yourself ready, so when you arrive at the hunting location a quarter mile away, you can just hop out, grab your gun, slowly press your doors closed and release your dog that hopefully has already had a “pit stop” before you let him out. Then walk as quietly as possible giving your dog hand signals and avoiding chit chat until you’re back at the truck.
Play the Wind
The second mistake is not hunting into or across the wind. Hunt like a coyote hunts, they always hunt with their nose into the wind or with the wind coming at an angle across their nose from the front.
Try to plan your hunting so that when you hunt your preferred field or ditch that you have the wind in your face or, at least, blowing across your face at an oblique angle. This can be difficult to do but you should try this for the majority of the hunt. At some point, you have to return to your vehicle so you will eventually, at somewhere along the way, walk with the wind at your back. Try and plan your return to be along the route that you don’t really consider to be the best place to hold birds or a route that you have already hunted with the wind correctly in your face.
Now, your dog will still hunt with the wind at its back, but the dog will run forward then run back to you and eventually in back of you trying to hunt the wind. It's a very difficult hunt for the dog and the easier you can make it for your dog, the more birds the dog will find and the less work the dog will have to do. Set your dog up to win, not to lose.
When you are evaluating a field, don’t just look at the cover, and tell yourself the birds will be easy to spot with your eyes. Instead look at it as if “YOU” had to smell the birds not the dog. And then put the dog downwind of any potential area where a bird may be.
Third would be, overuse of, or exhausting your dog. Your dog walks double or even triple the distance that you do. He runs left and right of you, in front of you, in back of you, back and forth and it all really adds up and at the end of the day your dog has basically run a marathon. Any little bit of help you can give that dog will help save his energy and reduce fatigue and allow him to hunt better that afternoon, or the next day.
If your dog likes to play chase with the other dog or run back and forth just blowing off energy, you need to bring him under control, all that running around is extra mileage on his body. An out-of-control dog is a vet bill waiting to happen, barbed wire, glass and holes in the ground can appear almost anywhere, watch for dangerous objects and carry a first aid kit for your dog, include a set of wire cutters and learn how to remove your dog from animal traps and snares.
Keep your dog watered, offer water before and after every hunt, carry enough water for you and your dog. If you can only carry one bottle, then that bottle belongs to the dog, not you, he’s the one doing all the work. Heat stroke can happen even in milder weather, it doesn’t have to be hot. Watch your dog for heat stroke and know what to do.
Hunting with the wrong shot size comes in a distant forth but is critical to bringing home more birds. Most people who have hunted pheasants have hunted planted birds, or they have read articles on hunting pheasants and repeat what the writers have said over and over, “shoot #5 or #6 lead” or ‘#4 steel”, I call a ton of B.S. on this. In the old days when we had lead shot, sure I would maybe use #4 lead, but it's all steel shot in California so let’s focus on that.
Steel #4 is for small fast flying ducks like Teal. Teal are easy to bring down and will fly right into your decoys. Pheasants are usually flying away from you to the left or right or directly away from you. To kill a pheasant clean on the first shot, you ideally need to hit the bird with three pellets. One in the wing to stop flight, one in the vitals to stop the heart and one in at least one leg to stop the run. Now realistically any one of those will result in a crippled or dead bird. But you break a wing that bird can run into the next county, you break a leg it still flies, you hit it in the vitals, and it could still sail for a hundred yards before piling up. So use enough steel to get the job done.
(My Sadie, this is a snow goose I shot while hunting pheasants, often crippled geese and ducks will hide in drain ditches or tall grass near water)
I personally use #2 steel; it breaks them down and you don’t end up with a bird full of tiny #4 pellets. #2 Royal Blue Steel is an awesome pheasant load. Now many of you are laughing at that thinking that #2 steel is over kill, well I have another reason for it. In the area where I hunt, every season I boost Mallards and/or Wood Ducks up out of the drain ditches and I can shoot ducks as well with this load. I have also spotted geese coming in and knelt down and killed geese while pheasant hunting. Also, it's better to shoot one #2 and drop the bird than to shoot three #4 shells and watch it sail into another field for a long retrieve or no retrieve at all. Increase your shot size for a cleaner kill.
Fourth would be, not Finishing.
By this I mean not finishing your corners or your ditches or your Rice checks (not the cereal).
When you hunt a ditch bank or rice check, the birds will see you or hear you coming and start walking straight down the through the grass and the weeds walking straight away from you. You will notice your dog acting birdy, but nothing will pop up, then just before the end of the ditch or rice check you give up and decide to go a different direction because you think there aren’t any birds there, but the dog wants to keep going. You call him off and go another way. Instead finish the ditch or rice check. Those birds will go right to the end, and when there is no choice left, they will pop up or run out. Finish your ditches and your rice checks.
Hunt as a team. If you hunt with another person, take turns walking the ditches and have one person “Post” up at the opposite end of the ditch. They can drive down to where the ditch or rice check is that you’re walking and block the escape route of the pheasants you’re herding. This works very well on wild birds and just a hint, the blocker usually gets most of the shots.
When you hunt a field, do your best to cover the entire field. The birds will push to the corners, to high spots and to any brush or structures within the field. Don’t bypass rough spots and when you get to the edges or especially the corners walk all the way to the end of the corner. I always see big groups of hunters walking a field and just before they get to the corners they turn to the center or sweep left or right and bypass the area they just pushed the birds into. Try to finish your corners.
Trust your Dog
I can't say this enough, probably the most important thing to do when you’re hunting any upland bird is to “Trust your Dog”. Especially if you have a seasoned dog with a couple years of hunting under her belt. If she says there is a bird in that ditch, then there is a bird in that ditch, or one just flew out of it that you didn’t see.
(my three girls with three wild birds)
That dog’s nose is the most important tool in your arsenal. It can smell the slightest hint of a bird. I have learned this lesson so many times and I have to re-learn it every year. Every year my dog will tell me there’s a bird in a certain spot and we look, and we look, and we can't find it, only to come back later and re-hunt it and pop up a bird. Birds can hide in squirrel holes, hollow logs, in drain ditch pipes and believe it or not, in a tree 30 yards away but the thermals are forcing the scent down towards the ground and the dog is picking up the scent from the thermal. Several times I have had dogs go crazy getting super birdy in a dry drain ditch, but nothing was there. Once I crawled down and found a small 6-inch pipe that went to another ditch and found the pheasant hiding inside the pipe. He was safe for another day. Another time I had a dog go nuts in a dry drain ditch but no bird. Found a pipe coming into the ditch, no bird, but put the dog in the ditch where the pipe was coming from in the other ditch and Bingo a bird pops up. The scent was traveling from one ditch through to the other ditch via the drainpipe.
Another dog my friends had, he was a crazy chocolate lab, got stuck inside a hollowed-out log laying on the ground. when we pulled him out, he had a live rooster in his mouth that had been hiding inside the log.
The moral of the story Always Trust the Dog!
Good luck out there and be safe.