Yet veteran hunters have learned to use weather, heavy hunting pressure and wary birds to their advantage and shoot bag limits of roosters each fall. Here are 10 tips from some of the best pheasant hunters around --hunting guides, state wildlife area managers and hunting club owners --on how to find more birds on public and private lands through the West.
1. USE A GOOD BIRD DOG
Each fall, many hunters are successful by walking through cover and flushing birds without a dog. But the most successful hunters are those with a good bird dog, be it a Lab or a pointer. Not only will a dog help you find more pheasants and other upland birds, but can also track down pheasants after they are shot. "I've noticed that really good bird dogs are a huge advantage," says Vince Oredson, a state wildlife area manager in Oregon. "I've seen fields get hunted over and over throughout the day. And then someone with a dog with a good nose will go in and find birds right away." Some hunters prefer Labs, which are excellent at flushing pheasants from heavy cover and also unmatched when it comes to tracking down birds after they are shot. Others like a pointer, which will locate pheasants hiding in grass and brush and let their owner know exactly where they are. "A flushing dog that can get into the heavy cattails and other cover can be an advantage in the middle of the day," Oredson says. "The pointer dogs work better in the shorter grass where the birds will be early in the morning." Burt Holzhauser owns the Rising Sun Hunting Preserve in California, one of the West's best private-land pheasant hunting areas. He utilizes both Labs and English setters at his ranch. "You have to have a dog," Holzhauser says. "You lose too many birds because you knock them down and won't be able to find them without a dog." Some private hunting clubs provide dogs and handlers for an additional charge.
2. LEARN TO DRIVE BIRDS
Jeremy Eubank is a very successful hunting and fishing guide from eastern Washington. He likes to drive pheasants early in the season when hot, dry weather limits success for many hunters. Eubank's technique works with or without dogs, although his Lab helps him bag even more birds. He will have one or more hunters take position at the top of a hill or ridge and wait. Then he pushes the birds to them by walking a slow zigzag pattern through brush and other cover. Pheasants will often retreat uphill, running through the cover and then fly once the cover ends. That's where the other hunter should be stationed. Eubank cautions hunters to avoid pushing pheasants downhill. They will often take off flying before they near the hunters waiting to ambush them.
3. HUNT NEAR WATER
Oredson, the manager of Denman Wildlife Area in southern Oregon, and Holzhauser -- whose Siskiyou County, Calif., ranch is rated as one of the best pheasant hunting destinations anywhere -- get chances to see pheasants under all types of weather conditions. Early in the season and during dry weather patterns, pheasants will often hang out in areas with lots of water. "They are going to be closer to the water holes," Holzhauser says of birds in dry weather. "They are going to be in the good cover." Oredson agrees: "The birds will gravitate to streams and water holes during hot weather." Also look for birds near other water sources, aside from with streams and ponds -- such as faucets, irrigation canals, livestock watering containers, pump houses and irrigation equipment.
4. PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Private hunting clubs are gaining popularity with hunters as places to train their dogs before hunting pheasants on public-land areas. Hunting clubs and preserves often open before the general pheasant season and are great places to give bird dogs exposure to pheasant hunting. Break out your rain gear and waterproof boots after the first big storm of fall for some of the best opportunities of bagging a pheasant. "I have quite a few people who start young dogs here," Holzhauser says. "I can flag the birds or tell the hunter exactly where they are. You know your dog is on a bird and not a rabbit or something else." Hunting clubs also often have a variety of types of cover to expose flushing and pointing dogs to differing terrains, vegetation types and hunting situations. "I like to mix it up," Holzhauser says of training new dogs. "I put them through everything from grain fields to tall wheat grass to sagebrush." It's also a good idea to get reacquainted with your shotgun before the season starts -- instead of when your dog points to or flushes the first rooster of the season. "Practice shooting some clay pigeons before the season," Oredson suggests. "Go out to the gun range and make sure your gun is functioning right. Pattern your shotgun. Make sure you are shooting a good pattern." Just as deer hunters scout before rifle season opens, good pheasant hunters will make a trip to their favorite hunting area before upland bird season begin. Watching where the birds are without hunters around will reveal locations to keep an eye on early in the mornings and late in the afternoons. Scouting for pheasants will also reveal cover types to be aware of once hunting opens.
5. SELECT THE RIGHT SHOT
While many hunters prefer 20-gauge shotguns for pheasant hunting, some like a 16-gauge. And the ever-popular 12-gauge, also used for duck and goose hunting, will suffice. At Holzhauser's ranch, lead shot is allowed. "I like No. 5 lead shot," Holzhauser says. "Something comparable to 4 and 6s. A heavy load, because the birds are tough enough that 7 1/2 isn't going to knock them down." Holzhauser has seen hunters shoot birds with 7 1/2 shot. Despite being hit, the birds will often survive the blast and live. If using steel shot, go with a bigger size than if you were using lead. On public lands, lead shot often cannot be used. Instead, size-4 steel shot is a good choice. "Four seems to be the most popular size shot," Oredson says. "You have a little less range with steel. If you keep them under 50 yards, you should do fine," he says of shot range.
6. TIME YOUR HUNTS
Just like most hunting and fishing, pheasant hunting tends to be at its best early in the morning and again in the evening. Mornings are best because the birds are often found in grasses or other light cover, searching for food. Once hunters and dogs arrive, the birds will retreat to heavier cover until pressure eases. They will then begin searching for food again. At private hunting clubs, however, hunting is good throughout the day, as birds are often released several minutes to a few hours before hunters begin their hunt. Hunters can tell hunting club managers what type of hunt they want, from beginner to more challenging and if they want the birds disoriented or not. On public grounds later in the day, the birds will come out again when hunting pressure drops off.
7. FIND PHEASANT SIGNS
When hunting new areas, Holzhauser says there are several giveaways -- including tracks and crowing -- to indicate if there are birds in the area. "You will see them crossing the road," said Holzhauser. "You'll hear the roosters crowing." Late in the evening, pheasants will come out and feed before bedding down. You can often see them at dusk, which is a good time to scout for pheasants. When scouting a new pheasant hunting area, Oredson suggests you look for birds where corn is growing. "Corn seems to be a magnet for pheasants," Oredson says. "They like the shade, they like the green cover and they like the corn itself. Pheasants also like thick cattails. Marshy areas hold a lot of birds, but they are a little harder to hunt."
8. BE PATIENT
Many hunters become frustrated when they don't bag a rooster within the first half hour of hunting. Be patient, says Oredson. "If things aren't working, take a break, sit down, eat a sandwich." he says. "Things change all the time. Another hunter can push birds into our area. Don't get too frustrated. Sometimes you have to let the birds come to you." If you know birds are in an area but have hunkered down, slowly work the area with your dog. Break down the entire area and methodically going through all the cover with your dog.
9. HUNT THE COLD
The first really cold spell of the year can produce some of the best pheasant hunting of the season. "The advantage of cold, wet weather is it's easier on the dogs, and it makes the scenting conditions better for the dogs," Oredson says. Break out your rain gear and waterproof boots after the first big storm of fall for some of the best opportunities of bagging a pheasant. Pheasants can also be easy to track on muddy or snow-covered ground.
10. KNOW THE REGS
Study the hunting regulations in your state before hunting. Regulation books will often include public-land release sites for pheasants. Some Western states hold paid pheasant hunts, where hunters can harvest roosters on public land for a fee of about $10 a bird. There also are junior or youth pheasant hunts in many states. California, Oregon and Washington all have information about the youth and adult state wildlife area pheasant hunts on their Web sites and in their regulation books. Hunters must also be aware of tag and recording requirements. In Oregon, for example, you can be fined for bagging a pheasant and not recording it on your tag, just like keeping a salmon without recording it on your fishing license. Also be aware of any hunter orange requirements, load or firearm restrictions or hunter education requirements for your state.
IT ALL STARTED HERE
Although the Plains States have a reputation for top-quality pheasant hunting, pheasants were first introduced to the U.S. in the Pacific Northwest. After ring-necked pheasants were brought in from China in 1882, Oregon's Willamette Valley was the first place in the U.S. to sustain wild populations of the birds. Pheasants were also introduced to the Longview, Wash., area at the same time. The newly introduced birds thrived, and their populations quickly grew into the tens of thousands. Eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and northeastern California still have good numbers of wild pheasants, although the birds are not as plentiful as they once were because of changes in the agricultural industries. Pheasants thrive in farming areas of each state, but also are found in state wildlife areas where they are raised and released for hunters. There also are private hunting clubs in each state where hunters can pay for each bird they want released.