I grew up near Redfield, SD, the pheasant capital of the world and have been pursuing Ringneck’s for the last 40 some years. I consider them to be the most elegant, yet elusive of gamebirds. Even going so far as turning this passion into a business. Spending 60 plus days in the field per season, guiding others with the same passion. Therefore, I can offer some unique insight and perspective into helping you get the most from every one of your outings.
First of all, I would like to dispel some myths and misconceptions about the best time period in which to effectively hunt pheasants. Just like fishing, whenever you can get out, is a great time to do so. Here in South Dakota, that means as tradition dictates, from the 3rd Saturday in October on through the first weekend in January.
Early season is a fine option with the opening weekend in South Dakota holding a special appeal in the hearts and minds of many. Resident and Non-Resident alike. This cherished time serves as an anticipated homecoming for many extended families with roots here. Kind of like Christmas. Presents are the most beautiful of game birds. Sporting bright plumage and a distinctive white ribbon. Not big red bows.
Expect warm weather and a picturesque setting in classic light cover areas such as grass, CRP and food plots, along with slough and field edges. Allowing for maximum viewing pleasure as dogs work the sparser cover the roosters are residing in. It’s also quite comfortable for those who are averse to cooler temps. Providing the perfect platform in which to introduce kids and novice adult hunters to the sport without any concern for perceived weather-related handicaps.
Once addicted, you can then begin planning some outings for mid to late season, which in my biased opinion, holds some distinct advantages of its own. If you are looking to up your odds for success, I would recommend contemplating mid to late-season hunting opportunities. The myths and misconceptions I will attempt to dispel and clarify as follow will give you the information to form your own conclusion as to “why” considering a later season hunt has plenty of merit.
First and foremost, the majority of the birds have not been shot. Far from it. We do not even see the bulk of our birds until the temps moderate and the row crop harvest is completed. The early season allows them to utilize every form of cover there is available. The most obvious and difficult one to contend with is standing corn.
Consider this. They have overhead cover as all but impenetrable protection from airborne predators in the form of hawks and owls. Furthermore, they can see and hear any ground-bound predators coming from a quite comfortable distance. And, there are unlimited amounts of preferred food available and is quite easy pickings. No real need to leave other than to hit the road edges for some occasional gravel in which to grind it all up for digestion.
Many hunters feel pheasants are “dumber” early in the season. Not at all true. These birds are genetically programmed to avoid any and all forms of predators…from the moment they emerge from the egg. You still need to have adequate hunting skills in which to consistently bag a limit. Admittedly, pheasants can be a bit more skittish later in the season. Largely to hunting pressure. Not so much from us, but rather from all the furry four-legged master hunters looking to make a meal out of them.
We must realize that as the temperatures diminish, so do the prey opportunities for the predominant predators. Populations of rodents are at the lowest point of the year and often in a state of semi-hibernation. Becoming more difficult to roust out as the ground is frozen and further protection provided when snow is present. Cold dictates higher caloric intake needs as much more energy is consumed just staying warm, as well the need to hunt harder, for less.
In distinct contrast, we can now hunt with less effort, for more opportunities. Once the row crops are all in the bin, the birds are forced to hit more traditional forms of cover. Thus, making their locations more predictable. And, reliable. Snow in moderation is to be welcomed. Some think it covers up all the good cover. Nope, it just eliminates the light seasonal varieties. Pushing them into increasingly heavier vegetation. Which in turn, narrows our search even more.
Start thinking along the lines of light to moderate tree cover adjacent to food sources such as cultivated fields. Small patches of cane or reeds in otherwise light grass become increasingly attractive. Slough edges where the grass meets moderate cattail growth is always good. Low spots that remain wet and resist planting efforts that have gone to weeds are now magnets, holding surprisingly high numbers of birds. Steep ditches and shallow wallows that contain the low growing variety of reeds are often overlooked. Just look for a bit thicker habitat and you will no doubt find your quarry waiting for you.
As the season progresses with Halloween behind us and the Holidays either upon or directly in front of us, we can now narrow our search even further and concentrate our efforts on the heavy stuff. Many savvy and consistently successful hunters come out for late-season roosters right after they hang up their deer rifles. With almost all other seasons closed and waterfowl headed for warmer climates, you are now provided with another shot at-pun intended-scratching your hunting itch.
Now is the time to hit heavy cattail sloughs. If you can find what I refer to as pocket sloughs-those consisting of but a few acres-all the better. Surround them, send the dogs in and be prepared for the most bountiful and boisterous flushes of the season. Heavier tree claims are equally productive. Be sure and have “wingmen” well ahead and outside of hunters and dogs in the trees and some great shooting is likely. An overlooked option is once wet and impenetrable sloughs are now in play. As are small winding creeks. Walk right down the ice like a sidewalk and let a couple of canines work the edges. An easy stroll that can quickly take its toll on…roosters!
Furthermore, it can be more comfortable to be out in the cold versus often too warm early fall days. I prefer to add a layer or two as opposed to having no more to take off…and profusely sweating. Your dogs will darn sure benefit. Particularly the larger, heavier haired breeds. Instead of seeing trudging tail down action we witness a real bounce in their step, renewed vigor, and better overall performance.
Another consideration is that if you are looking to book a hunt with an experienced guide, your chances for availability are much higher. As is relatively uninterrupted access to public land. The orange-clad crowds have long since left and your odds increase dramatically in either scenario. So, pick some dates and come on out to see for yourself. The time is always right to start your tradition of making memories.
Dennis Foster is a well-known hunting and fishing guide in South Dakota. He is also widely recognized as an outdoor communicator and promoter through numerous venues including Focus Outdoors TV. He welcomes questions and comments. To contact him and learn more, go to www.focusedoutdoorpromotions.com.