By Andrew Johnson
It’s a simple fact that as the mercury drops fewer pheasant hunters head afield. In reality, chasing pheasants is a fair-weather affair for a majority of hunters. But for those willing to go one-on-one with Old Man Winter, the chance to get late-season longtails is more than worth the effort.
Here are three steps toward ensuring success if you head out this December.
1. Hunt in stealth mode
Pheasants have incredibly keen eyesight and hearing. Plus, any that have made it this far have likely been hunted before. Top those factors off with a sprinter’s lower body and it’s no wonder why they don’t sit around and wait for a hunter to simply show up and shoot. As a result, pheasant hunters can help themselves by committing to a stealthy approach.
First, park a significant distance from where you plan on hunting and take extra precautions never to slam car doors or tailgates. I feel parking a quarter-mile away is sometimes too close. Yes, you read that correctly. When it’s late season, I want to give myself every chance at scoring, so hoofing it the extra mile to get to a field is a good place to start.
Second, take care not to yell at your dog or at your hunting partners. Game plans should be set prior to the hunt and not made up along the way.
If you have a demon dog that only wants to tear through cover, then the best spot for that dog on a late-season hunt is at home in its kennel. Dogs that go rogue and can’t stay close without strong verbal attention will — not can or maybe — ruin your hunt.
Third, be prepared to hunt as soon as you hit the field. Any additional time spent loading guns, bundling up in additional jackets or anything else gives any bird in that field a chance to edge a few extra steps away from you toward safety.
2. Find thermal cover
Ideal pheasant cover is diverse, containing a combination of grassland, crop fields, sloughs, draws and shelterbelts. Snow can be your best friend during late season, simply because it reduces the vast amounts of cover pheasants use. Ditches, some pasture area and CRP or other grassland areas are no longer an option for pheasants because they don’t offer enough protection from the elements.
During late season, thermal cover such as cattail sloughs are pheasant magnets, especially if they are near a food source. Also, shelterbelts and groves that have thick underbrush offer a perfect haven for weather-weary birds. Willows, thickets and cane strong enough to withstand a blanket of snow are also ideal hotspots to target.
If possible, start the day near food sources. Any standing corn is a good bet, but draws and sloughs with enough pockets of thermal cover that wander through a combined field are still areas pheasants gravitate toward as they continue with their daily feeding and loafing routines.
As the day progresses, shift your attention to heavier cover such as cattails or other areas that present enough habitat that can pass as roosting cover.
3. Don’t skimp on shotshells
Many hunters jump at opening-weekend sales on shotshells, grab a couple boxes of the same load and call it good for the year. But the shells you use in early season shouldn’t be the same shells you use during the tail end of season.
Late-season roosters are dedicated to putting on fat for winter, which gives the resilient birds an additional layer of padding to protect against even spot-on shooting. Combine that with the fact long-range shots are more the norm than the exception come this time of year and you’ve got one tough bird.
In my experience, I’ve had the best luck with 1 3/8 -ounce copper-plated 5s where lead is permitted on private and select public lands. But when it comes to late season, I make sure the first shell in my magazine and, consequently the last shell to get fired if I fire three rounds, is a load of 4-shot. I keep 4s in the left shell pouch of my vest and 5s in the right pouch so I can load on the go when the action heats up.
Copper plating adds a cutting edge to lead shot, which is soft and malleable. I’m careful to examine each bird I clean, and, in my opinion, it’s clear that copper-plated pellets cut deeper and carry more knockdown power than regular lead loads. They may cost a couple dollars more per box, but it’s a small price to pay if it means I don’t have to spend half of the day chasing wounded roosters through thick winter cover.
Before you head out this late season, carefully examine what shells you’re carrying into the field and make sure you’re packing enough punch to drop a bird that gets up just on the edge of shotgun range.
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