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Outdoors With Mike Roux

Pheasant Knowledge

Published on Monday, January 19, 2015

I like this topic. It never fails that when I put pen to paper concerning pheasant hunting, a broad smile crosses my face. I have more fun pheasant hunting than any other type of upland game. I enjoy hunting other species more, but I do not have more fun with them. It is amazing how a target that big and that slow can be missed so often.

I have chased these beautiful, long-tailed oriental transplants in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. But I have a special passion for N.E. Missouri pheasants. My first trip was exciting. My good friend, Steve Shoop, was kind enough to invite me on an opening day "bird hunt". To me that automatically meant quail. Nobody bothered mentioning pheasant to me...until the first one flushed in my face. I hit that shot, but I have missed my share since then.

                    The ringneck pheasant is one of the most beautiful game birds. (Photo by Mike Roux)

One of the reasons pheasants are so often missed is the desire that most bird hunters have to harvest at least one bird like this each season. It is like the "bird hunters' bonus". Pheasants tend to bring out the once-a-year bird hunters. No other upland game has a hold on wing shooters like the pheasant.

Add that to the superb flavor and the amount of meat that comes off this almost chicken-sized game bird and you can easily see why it is so popular. A couple of pheasant breasts on the grill are enough to make any hunter "bird happy."

The best thing about this big, tasty bird is its ever-increasing availability. Pheasants are beginning once again to thrive in the croplands of Missouri and Illinois. We may not yet have pheasant numbers like Nebraska or South Dakota, but we are opening-up new counties almost every year. Our limits are not as liberal as those states with more dense pheasant populations; however, I am relatively sure that will come, probably on a county-by-county basis.

One thing that is helping pheasant re-growth is their ability to be reintroduced into "shot-out" areas or place where predation decimated them. This lets conservation departments utilize these birds to furnish supplemental hunting for its hunting license buyers and permits private landowners to stock their places with pheasants for fee shooting. Pheasants have the capability of becoming virtually as wild as their naturally reared counterparts within about 24-hours of their release. Few other "liberated" birds share that trait.

On a different note, pheasants can be frustrating to hunt. They will sneak through the brush and refuse to fly, preferring to run and often will not sit tight for pointing dogs. You must make the effort to condition your dog to these pheasant characteristics. It could save both you and your dog some embarrassing moments.

A king-sized rooster pheasant may weigh as much as 5lbs., live weight, but the average is probably closer to 3lbs. They have relatively short wings for this weight, which accounts for their slow take-off. Do not let them get lined-out though. Once a pheasant levels-off, they can fly at speeds of up to 40 miles an hour. And when they reach top speed, they like to glide. This glide shot is tough for most shooters because the bird is descending as it moves, which isn’t always noticeable as you swing for and lead your shot.

The important rule for wild pheasant hunting is "NO HENS". You must shoot cocks only. The only exception is on preservations, where you may harvest any bird. Even though it does not take a pheasant hen long to become wild after she's been liberated, you may still harvest pen-raised hens on preserves. There is no mistaking the rooster though. His bright coloration, iridescent green head and long, streaming tail feathers make him unmistakable as he becomes airborne.

The hen is a bird of a different color. Brownish and mottled, she is drab in comparison to the multi-colored cock and usually smaller. Young roosters who have not yet reached their full adult color phase may look a lot like hens. Early in the season, be sure of your target. Do not be fooled by a cackling bird that has been flushed, because sometimes hens cackle, too.

The two biggest problems that we pheasant hunters face are finding a place to hunt and getting the birds in the air to shoot at. Most pheasant hunting is done on CRP that lies close or next to grain fields. Because this bird likes this kind of cover, it can present more problems. Landowners, especially those who are raising crops, have become increasingly reluctant to give permission for hunters and dogs to traipse around their farms. And if there is no grain crop, there most likely are no birds either. Also, many farmers develop not only proprietary interest in the birds they see every day, but they actually become fond of them as well. They do not want to see them shot.

So, unless you do your pheasant hunting on well-planned trips with guides, lodging and a place to hunt, your first step is to get to know a landowner. How each hunter gets permission to hunt private land must remain their own secret. I have very little advice to give because I do not want to meet-up with you someday in a CRP patch I thought was mine. But here is the key; if you treat a landowner as a friend or a business associate, and do not treat him like a "dumb hick", you may find that occasionally a door will open to you.

                  Pheasant hunting is a great way to get youngsters involved in the sport as proven
                 by Cullen Tyson, son of
Beck’s Seed Advisor Shaun Tyson.(Photo by Shaun Tyson)

Once you have gotten permission to hunt, you now face the problem of finding the birds and getting them out of the cover they love. Those attention-attracting roosters that everyone saw along the road scratching for gravel or feeding in a stubble field have suddenly disappeared. No other bird can be so visible one minute and so reclusive the next.

There is one sure-fire way to find pheasant, if they are there, and that is with a dog. I have never hunted pheasant without dogs and never intend to. Another good reason for dogs is the pheasant's toughness. Besides turkeys, they are the hardest thing to kill I have ever hunted. Recovering these birds once they are down is almost impossible without dogs.

Pheasants are famous for their unwillingness to fly until all other methods of escaping the hunter and the dog have failed. In comparison with most of the other upland birds, they have pretty short wings for their long length. But those legs are made for sprinting and they use them.

                                   There are not many things in hunting more exciting than moving in
                          behind a
dog pointing a pheasant.(Photo by Beck’s customer John Caldwell)

When you find grain fields next to rough cover like marshes, creek bottoms, ditches or unmowed or unharvested strips of hay or grain, you have found the prime habitat. Pheasants stick to this heavy cover during the day and start moving from their nighttime roosting places at dawn. They come out to dry-off and to pick gravel for their crops which is why they are so often seen along the road in the early morning.

From here the birds spread out to feed with cornfields being their prime target. Standing corn is their favorite. This not only offers food, but also the very best cover. Pheasants may also spend their entire day in uncut corn. This makes them tough to find without dogs.

I prefer to hunt this beautiful bird with dogs. Both flushing Labs and Springer Spaniels do a great job with pheasant. There are also pointers and setters that have been trained to handle pheasant well. My personal favorite is the Brittany spaniel. My pick-up truck could not hold all of the pheasant that I have taken from the mouths of "Brits".

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Mike Roux

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