“These roosters are wilder than a herd of truck-chased pronghorns!” I told my hunting partner Brian Steinwand, as rooster after rooster flushed at varmint-rifle range. Steinwand had traveled from southern California to central Montana to join me for a late-season pheasant hunt over pointers. Our hunt wasn’t exactly an autumn stroll, as we steadily increased our pace to keep up with the running roosters and the equally fast-paced pointers supplied by our Montana hosts.
Unless you hunt pheasants in a target-rich environment like those found in South Dakota or other rooster hotspots, you need to take advantage of every flush and point. Scattered pheasant densities, clean farming practices and encroaching development have left pheasant populations lagging in many locations. The remaining roosters know how to escape and do it with the speed of a roadrunner, real or cartoon version.
Without a strategy, the odds are stacked against getting close to running pheasants. It doesn’t have to be that way though. You can employ hunting techniques that will provide an edge when roosters lace up their running shoes and leave dust trails for the other side of the field.
Know The Neighborhood
Back in the day, when my teenage buddies and I would climb into my rusted out International Harvester Scout to go pheasant hunting, we didn’t worry about anything more than having a few shotgun shells and a soda pop in our pockets. Teenage exuberance usually outshined teenage ignorance, and instead of analyzing the habitat and working up a plan, we simply let our feet do the walking.
Don’t follow that lead. Instead, use your intellectual superiority to save yourself from blisters. In fact, you don’t even need to stop a rooster from escaping. The more times roosters flush, the quicker they tire and hold. Look closely at the anatomy of a pheasant—its round body is propelled airborne by short, blunt wings and steered with a giant, dragging tail. No long-range bird is built that way, meaning the ringneck is designed for short flights.
That’s why you need to know the neighborhood—pheasants occupy a relatively small universe. If you formulate a plan to push ringnecks into multiple short flights, you stand the chance of tiring them out. I had unintentionally used the concept, but hadn’t thought of it in that matter until I was hunting with Steve Halverson of Halverson Hunts near Pierre, South Dakota. On a wintry afternoon, Steve, a handful of other hunters and I pushed pheasants from grass to corn to a cattail-choked wetland. By the time the birds ducked into the cattails, we had chased them more than a mile. I was tired, so I fully expected the pheasants to be played out as well. They were. Hustling over to the cattails, we surrounded the small parcel of cover and flushed the birds. We all had our limits when we left the cattails.
You also need to analyze the area you intend to hunt. First, is it large enough to get pushy with pheasants? Look at the cover where you normally find pheasants and then look beyond to their preferred escape routes. Can you jump them two or three times while keeping them on your hunting property? Will you have to adjust your traditional hunting patterns to keep the pheasants from fleeing over the neighbor’s fence, or can you count on the neighbors to push pheasants back in your direction?
My good friend Cody Warne guides 100 or more upland enthusiasts each hunting season. He also incorporates a “fly till they drop” mentality for pheasants. He operates on his family’s fifth-generation ranch, and it provides numerous hideouts for pheasants to hold after each attempt to roust them.
“The trick is to flush them about four times so they’re pretty well spent and they need to sit tight to restore their energy,” Warne said. “The more you can chase them, the more tired they become. You’ll probably have to chase them a half-mile and get them to flush three or four times before they wear down enough to hold for a close shot. Whatever you do, don’t ever slow down. It just gives them a break to rest. Keep moving. If you give them time to rest, they have time to look for escape routes.”
Understanding the lung capacity of a pheasant is critical, but just as important is understanding what stops a running rooster. This is particularly important if you don’t have unlimited land to bump pheasants from cover to cover. Certain types of cover and lack thereof will stop a rooster and either give it the confidence to hold, or terrorize it into flushing. What you hope to find are bare areas where a rooster might not want to cross in fear of exposing itself, or super-thick cover providing concealed confidence.
Bare areas include tilled fields, gravel roads, lakes, mowed strips of grass and grazed pastures, to name a few. If you can push pheasants with several flushes and end up in cover that stops cold due to a bare parcel of terrain, you might get a rooster to flush in your face. The same can be said of thick cover. Pheasants gain confidence anytime they are able to crawl into thick cover, even though it limits their ability to run. Thick cattails, native grasses, milo, etc. all impede a rooster’s ability to run. Push a rooster into thick cover, hopefully with a bare field at the exit, and you’ll increase your chances for a flush.
“If you can direct them to taller grass, they’ll feel safer there since they naturally roost in it,” Warne said. “They’ll hold tighter, possibly even letting you walk by. Plus, they can’t run as well in thicker cover like cattails. Corn is a great food plot, but it doesn’t offer a good canopy for protection from aerial predators, so pheasants don’t rely on it for escape cover. If you want cover that will hold roosters, look for milo, sudan grass, cattails and any thick tangle of grass you can find.”
Preplan An Attack
To stop running roosters, you need to study your hunting area from all angles and study the neighboring property as well. You also need a plan. Don’t get caught up in the belief that just because you’re hunting poultry you don’t need a strategy. And don’t leave your strategic planning until the moment your boots hit the hunting ground.
“Have your plan figured out before you get to your hunting spot or the next cover you hope to push in an effort to tire out the pheasants,” Warne advised. “What you want to do is keep the hunt fluid, never giving the birds time to rest. This means giving everyone a responsibility ahead of time, whether it’s pushing, blocking or moving vehicles. The more you push on during a hunt, the less time pheasants have to think, leaving them confused and in a holding state of mind.”
In addition to planning, you should also realize the importance of silence. If you pull into a field, slam truck doors, yell at dogs and joke loudly with hunting buddies, you’ll inadvertently start the roosters running before you even enter a field. Warne’s advice is to hunt pheasants like whitetails, slipping into the field with as little commotion as possible.
Finally, preplanning is great, but don’t rely on the same plan over and over, particularly if you hunt the same fields repeatedly. Pheasants have a pea-sized brain, but they’re survivors and it only takes a hunt or two before they pick up on your strategy. Change up your technique. It will confuse the birds and increase your odds of putting them into a hold mode.
Or A Two-Man Show
People-power provides a definite pheasant-stopping advantage, but you can also get the drop on running roosters when hunting solo or as a two-man team. Since you won’t have extra bodies to block a rooster’s escape, you’ll need to rely more than ever on barriers, cover and ingenuity.
Two-person strategies can be particularly successful during late-season hunts. Since birds are grouped and spooky, have the blocker move quietly into position and let the solo hunter with a dog do the rest. It only takes one spooky bird to get the whole flock leapfrogging forward and hopefully into cover where a few will hold.
Pheasant hunting fanatic Wayne Frederickson of Bozeman, Montana, hunts with a passel of friends and a truckload of Boykin spaniels. Last season I watched him attack a field in a determined effort to stop the running roosters. Accompanied by four of his Boykins, Frederickson marched forward with the drive of a military commander taking a key position. At the end of his drive across the field, he and his Boykins were treated to a close-range flush: A pheasant that simply ran out of will and wind.
Finally, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. A good friend of mine turned me on to this next method and it actually works. When he and a friend would find themselves up against running roosters, one would drive the truck to the far side of the field to block, but instead of parking away from the field, they would park it near the cover, roll down the windows and leave the radio on blaring rock’n’roll (I think country music works as well).
The other hunters begin moving pheasants to the waiting hunter and the blaring music. Confused birds eventually shy away from the music to flush near the blocker waiting silently down from the concert. And when the walker arrives, it’s not uncommon to flush a few birds held in place by the uncertainty of the musical commotion.
Running pheasants will forever cause sportsmen to release a long string of expletives. In Montana, we finally won our battle by pushing the birds to bare ground where they held on the edge. By using preplanning and hunting insight, your cursing will diminish like the exploits of those running roosters.