Today, the social aspects of hunting pheasants weigh as heavily as the actual hunt itself. Renewing old friendships, tailgate lunches and hearty wisecracks about missed shots of yesteryear are a big part of opening day. That wasn’t the case during my youth. In those days, the pheasant opener took on the seriousness of the Daytona 500. It was race day, and my eyes were set on beating the competition to the pheasant hunting winner’s circle.
Although my “race face” has mellowed through the years, opening day is still the best time to get a crack at inexperienced young-of-the-year roosters. After opening weekend, these birds will either be well-educated or taking a long, cold ride in a Coleman cooler.
Winning the opening day race takes planning, scouting and common sense. It also requires competitive civility when encountering other ringneck racers in the field, regardless if you meet up with them on public or private parcels.
Planning Your Hunt
If you live near a Midwestern ringneck hotspot, planning a pheasant hunt is much simpler than if your property has an oceanfront view. Either way, initial steps can begin by studying state game and fish department Web sites and requesting the latest data on ringneck populations for particular regions. Next, get your hands on county-by-county pheasant population indexes that not only track population trends, but also show seasonal harvest numbers. Several years of data can clearly reveal trends, indicating whether the previous year’s numbers were a one-time fluke or a regular occurrence.
Each state game agency estimates its pheasant population differently, but even the best data is nothing more than an educated guess when it comes to tallying the actual population of a bird capable of disappearing in a cattle-grazed field. Some states use spring rooster crowing counts, while others use summer roadside surveys. A call to local conservation officers, state biologists and even county extension agents can reinforce paper data. These people can also give you information on the effects of winter weather, spring rains and severe summer weather, such as hail, which can annihilate regional ringneck populations in a matter of minutes.
As your information begins to guide you to key locations, look for the availability of public land or the probability of gaining access to private property. Keep in mind the best areas are oftentimes the most difficult to gain access to without an outfitter. If that’s the case, check out counties adjacent to hotspot areas. Not only will you have a better chance of gaining access there, you’ll have fewer hunters to compete against.
The Scouting Game
Virtual and telephone scouting can prepare you for a hunt without having to physically scout an area, but walking the hunting area can provide you with intricate details of the terrain, including entrance points and pheasant escape routes. For nearly 2 decades, South Dakotan Trent Nincehelser has participated in the opening day pheasant race. Today he operates Dakota Secrets ((605) 224-4650), an outfitting business focusing on birds and bucks.
Nincehelser is a huge proponent of studying your hunting area before the opening day crowd arrives. If you have access to a private parcel that receives little preseason pressure, Nincehelser advises keeping intrusions to a minimum and studying the pheasants from a distance. You can do this by driving roads in the mornings and evenings to count pheasants traveling for grit or escaping dew in the tall grass. In the evenings, waves of flying pheasants indicate roosting site locations, and you can use binoculars from a high vantage point to confirm your suspicions. If you’re studying a public area that’s already seeing regular visitation by hikers and other recreation enthusiasts, you might consider walking it with your hunting dog.
“You really need to put your time into scouting during late summer and early fall,” Nincehelser said. “If you’re looking for a place to exercise your dog and have access to nearby public hunting areas, use them to your advantage. These areas usually see activity throughout the year, so you won’t alarm the birds. If you take your dog to a different area twice a week, you’ll have the birds nailed down and your bird dog wired back into the hunting mode without firing a shell. Plus, you’ll be in better shape to tackle birds when the race begins.”
Race Day Hunting Tactics
Every hunter waits in eager anticipation for opening day regardless of the season, but to be successful you have to treat opening day as a race and that might mean getting an early start. “We had a small family farm to hunt, but saved it for later in the day as part of our opening day strategy,” Nincehelser said. “To kick off the season, we hunted nearby public land we’d scouted prior to the season and always arrived at least 2 hours before the opener, if not earlier, to ensure we were at the front of the line.”
Nincehelser says most hunters show up at public land areas 30-45 minutes before legal shooting time. If they see cars parked there, most drive to the next area. There’s always a few who pull in behind to wait their turn for the public land, and this is where proper etiquette is important. It’s generally a first-come, first-served world, but don’t be too bullish about your place in line.
First of all, it’s public land and regardless of whether you were there first, everyone has equal right to hunt there. Second, unless you’re parked there with a dozen of your friends, even a 100-acre parcel provides ample opportunities for two hunting groups. Finally, if you coordinate your efforts, two groups can actually push birds toward each other for a more effective hunt. This works well on public land as well as private land, where an over-friendly farmer might allow too many hunters on his farm.
You won’t always be able to team up with other hunters on opening day. Private landowners, competing hunters, outfitters and unsociable hunters will warrant another angle to win the opening day race and it might mean watching and learning before you take to the course. A common scenario in pheasant country is discovering the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. If you happen to find yourself pheasantless, simply look across the fence and watch. Your grass might fill with pheasants faster than a toddler’s trick-or-treat bag fills with candy on Halloween.
Other hunters on adjacent land might push birds your way over the course of opening day. Instead of crowding the fenceline hoping to take part in the immediate flurry, watch and wait. Retreat to a high point and watch as neighboring groups push birds during the opening hours of the hunt. If they don’t see you waiting with your finger on the trigger, they might inadvertently push birds across the fence in their haste. After they’ve moved on to another field, move to where the birds took refuge and make a hunting plan that’ll keep pushing them farther into your holdings. If you keep your actions hidden, the neighboring hunters might keep making the same mistake, keeping your pheasant area stocked throughout the season.
Back Door Approach
Back doors also provide effective entrances to winning the opening day pheasant race, and they don’t always have to be dry land entrances through a gate. Lakes, reservoirs and large rivers might have corridors of public land for flood and water control. Grass, shrubs and weeds often cover these lands, especially during low water periods. By researching such areas and incorporating a boat, you might find yourself all alone in a ringneck wonderland.
“Hunting out of a boat allows you to access public land the average hunter doesn’t even think about,” Nincehelser said. “Many areas are in the midst of a drought, so whenever the water recedes it creates more land to hunt—land that’s covered with brush and weeds—perfect pheasant habitat.”
The Missouri River and its flooded reservoirs are perfect examples of public land areas accessible by boat. A consistent drought has dropped water levels to more than 20 feet below normal, turning long stretches of waterfront public property into overgrown pheasant havens. Sporadic markers indicate where public land ends and private land begins, but suffice to say, if there’s no public road leading in from the surrounding hills, you’ll have the grassy bottoms to yourself.
Using county roads, farm trails and other secondary travel routes is a good way to find backdoors to traditional hunting spots on private and public ground. Like animals, most people use the path of least resistance to get to where they’re going, and more often than not, a highway provides that access. By going slightly out of your way, you might find yourself alone on the opposite side of a parcel for the opening hours of the hunt and that might be all you need. My racing years for pheasants have mellowed some, but I can see it won’t be long before I’ll be back on the fast track. My son has been increasingly insistent about going pheasant hunting with me, and he’s only a handful of years away from carrying his own shotgun. Let the race begin!
Slow Is The Way To Go
If you’ve ever hunted pheasants during the late season, you know what slamming A car door or a babbling hunter can do to a hunt. It usually creates a wave of flying pheasants on the far end of a field. That’s not the case during the opener, when pheasants haven’t been pressured into a paranoid lifestyle. Instead of a fast-paced, late-season hunt that revolves around cutting off escape routes and pushing birds in ambush situations, early season hunters can work birds at a more leisurely pace.
“I usually hunt a little slower and am a little more precise when I hunt the opener,” outfitter Trent Nincehelser said. “You need to slow your pace because the pheasants aren’t as skittish. If you don’t give your dogs more time to work, you’ll be walking by many birds. You find this a lot in overgrown pastures and sloughs where the cover creates tangles where pheasants can burrow into to escape. Slow down and cover every inch of your area for the best results.”
In the past, when I’ve been limited to small areas, I’ll often hunt the same spot twice with interesting results. Push a field into the wind first to give your dog an advantage in smelling birds. Instead of leaving when you reach the end of the field, turn around and hunt it back the other way, again taking your time. You won’t be flushing swarms of pheasants, but you stand a good chance of finishing out your limit with a tight-sitting rooster.
Flushers are the dogs of choice in the main pheasant belt, but during the opening day, pointers work great on tight-sitting, inexperienced roosters. It’s also not as frustrating for pointing dogs in the season’s opening days as it can be later in the season. Instead of chasing running roosters trying to outdistance hunters, early season roosters often wait to be found. Make sure your pointing dog stays close and hunts smart. Slow down and you’ll shoot your limit while enjoying the fine action of your hunting dog.