Until you've matched wits with a cagey old rooster pheasant you have no idea just how tough gamebird hunting can be. Pheasants are hard to find -- especially this year, with numbers down drastically after a hard winter -- too wary to let you get close enough for a good shot and powerful enough to shed shotgun pellets like an armored tank.
I grew up in the northern Minnesota, where pheasants are a rarity. About the only time I saw a pheasant was on trips to southern Minnesota. After college my first job was to raise pheasants for the state. And not just a few, but thousands.
Pen-raised pheasants are much different than wild birds. It's like comparing a puppy to a field trial champ; they just aren't in the same league. So it wasn't until I started hunting pheasants that I realized how cunning they are.
The most obvious challenge a rooster pheasant poses is its inherently wary nature. Most run rather than allow you to get close enough for a shot. And when they do flush it always seems to be in the direction you were least expecting.
What's a hunter to do?
Veteran pheasant hunters learn to anticipate the direction in which a rooster will try to escape and then cut it off. Driving and posting for pheasants is much like driving and posting for deer. Hunters are positioned where the pheasants likely will go while others bust through the cover. Pheasants flushed from grain fields and other feeding areas usually fly to nearby cover like thick brush, cattails or tall grass.
Pheasants on foot are like ostrich clones and can run almost as fast. They will slink away, belly to the ground, then run another 70 yards before leaping into the air. So always try to push pheasants toward open fields or pastures, where eventually they must fly or risk running across open ground. Walk through strips of cover and herd the birds into points of cover surrounded by open fields. Often pheasants move to the point, stop and mill around long enough for you to get close enough for a jump shot.
Pheasants are big, strong birds and hard to bring down. A downed pheasant that isn't dead will hit the ground running -- literally -- and hide where only a sharp-nosed dog can find it. So use shotshells with enough power. The 12 gauge is still the best all-around pheasant gun, though some hunters like the handling characteristics of a 16 gauge and others a 20 gauge with 3-inch magnum shells. Don't skimp by with low-base field loads. Examine a cleaned pheasant and you'll see long, thick muscles. It takes a powerful load to cleanly kill a pheasant. So use hi-power or magnum shells with No. 6 or No. 7-1/2 shot. Later in the season, when birds flush farther out, some hunters prefer No. 4 shot. But pheasants aren't heavily feathered like waterfowl, so larger shot pellets usually aren't necessary.
Hunting is never as exciting as when a big, gaudy rooster pheasant jumps from the cattails. To get that opportunity, cover lots of ground and try the herding technique. It's well worth it.
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