Pheasant Hunting Tips

Besides being extremely fun to hunt, the meal that a pheasant hunt produces is as good as they come. Knowing about this popular upland bird will help you in the field and will also make you and your family very happy around the table this year.
Owner of THE BREAK, John Caldwell, shows-off a Hancock County, Illinois ringneck. Photo by Mike Roux

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 and guiding pheasant hunts than any other type. I enjoy hunting other species more, but I don’t 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. I have a special passion for N.E. Missouri pheasant. My first trip was exciting. My good friends, Jill and Steve Shoop, were 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.

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

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

The best thing about this big, tasty bird is its ever increasing availability.This bird is 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 denser pheasant populations, however, I’m relatively sure that will come, probably on a county by county basis.

The ringneck pheasant is an immigrant to the U.S. that has become one of our most popular game-bird species. Photo by Mark Clemens

One thing that is helping pheasant re-growth is their ability to be reintroduced into “shot-out” areas or places 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 pheasant for fee shooting. Pheasant 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.

Pheasant can be frustrating to hunt. They will sneak through the brush and refuse to fly, preferring to run, and they often will not sit tight for pointing dogs. You must make the effort and take the time 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 five pounds, live weight, but the average is probably closer to three pounds. 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. Once they reach top speed they like to glide. This glide shot is tough for most shooters, because the bird is descending as it moves. This decent is not always noticeable as you swing for and lead your shot. If you want to get a good shot, you must learn how to pattern your shotgun.

The rule for wild pheasant hunting is “NO HENS.” You must shoot cocks only. On preserves 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.


This pile of N.E. Missouri ringnecks came from Steve Shoop’s J&S TROPHY HUNTS. Photo by Mike Roux

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. Sometimes hens cackle, too.

The two biggest problems 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 land that lies close or next to grain fields. Because pheasants like this kind of crop 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 his 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’s 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 a door will occasionally open to you.

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 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’s 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.

Caleb Roux and Spencer Dietrich prove that at THE BREAK, pheasant hunting is also a young man’s sport. Photo by Mike Roux

Pheasant 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.

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 these birds prefer. The birds stick to this heavy cover during the day. Pheasant start moving from their nighttime roosting places at dawn. They come out to dry-off and to pick gravel for their crops. That 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 the very best cover as well. Pheasant may spend their entire day in uncut corn. This makes them tough to find without dogs. You may educate yourself about the best flushing dogs in pheasant hunting.

I prefer to hunt this beautiful bird with dogs. There are flushing Labs and Springer Spaniels that 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 could not hold all of the pheasant I have taken from the mouths of “Brits.”

Remember: Read Field Dressing Upland Game Birds

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