The black dog is wrong. She has to be. There is no pheasant here. The clump of short, bent stalks and old clover is too small, and too impossibly thin to hide a big, gaudy rooster.
The alfalfa has been cut short, mechanically cropped barely a couple of inches high. The clover is frosted and shriveled. There’s not a piece of cover taller than the lowest laces on my boots and we’re surrounded by plowed ground. But the old lab’s nose is pushing against my boot, snorting in hay dust and field dirt, tail snapping like a metronome, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. She’s rarely wrong, but …
“Magic, Magic,” I say, “where’s the bird, where’s the … ” and it’s in the air, an explosion of bronze feathers and crazy cackles blowing up under my feet. A wing smacks my calf, the dog leaps for tail feathers, I stumble backward, catch myself spin and blow two holes in the sky well behind a big rooster that didn’t know it couldn’t hide in such impossibly thin cover.
That’s the problem with experienced ringnecks; they don’t play fair. They hide where they shouldn’t, run when they should fly, hunker tight with nerves of steel and light out for the most unlikely hideouts at the first slam of a truck door, sound of hunters hollering or blow of a dog whistle.
We’d actually stumbled onto this hidden bird or, more accurately, my black Lab Magic had, while cutting across a narrow band of cut alfalfa after hunting, without luck, in a thick patch of chest-high sagebrush bordering cultivated oats and cattails. That plot covers about three acres and offers the perfect combination of food and cover for holding wild pheasants. Early-season pheasants. Late-season pheasants are another story.
LATE IS DIFFERENT
During the first two weeks of Eastern Washington’s upland bird season Magic and I had filled my three-rooster daily limit here on three consecutive hunts. The place was a magnet for birds, attracting flyers flushed from outlying covers, and continually restocking itself with displaced ringnecks.
But not today. Apparently, my fountain of pheasants had finally dried up.
We’re hunting a month and a few days into the upland bird season, and most of the easy young roosters are wearing white gravy, mushrooms and rice. Twice we’ve worked through my honey-hole habitat, hunting from two opposing directions without flushing a shooter. Magic put up seven brown hens, flushed three Hungarian partridge out of range and I dropped the tail-end Charley on a covey burst of California quail. But not a rooster was flushed.
After the last push, the dog and I split a water bottle and a handful of raisins and cashews sitting in the sagebrush at the edge of the plowed field pondering. A hundred feet or so into the bordering furrowed ground was a narrow strip of unplowed alfalfa probably two disk-passes wide. On the far side was more plowed ground bordered by an irrigation ditch line. The ditch held water, the banks were tan and green with head-high wild grasses and there was a clump of cattails at the west end.
The ditch line screamed pheasants, and in my rush to hunt it I overlooked the marginal – at best – cover offered by the closely mowed strip of alfalfa stubble. We were quick-stepping across the lawn-like alfalfa strip when Magic wheeled into the wind and pushed under my legs. I took a couple of steps to the side and looked for the bird that she obviously thought was hiding under my feet. There was no way a bird could be hiding here. I thought – right up to the flush and double-barrel miss.
I should have known better.
NOT THE FIRST TIME
Over the years I’ve found a bunch of late-season roosters where they shouldn’t be, including one big cock-bird that, after I left to hunt, actually bedded in the swale grass under my parked truck. I didn’t miss that one, but only because I never shot. When I came back to the truck, birdless and leg weary, the rooster, considerately waited until I unloaded my over-and-under before rocketing into the air from its hide behind a front tire. A close look turned up a carpet of pheasant tracks in the mud and old snow of the parking area and I’d be willing to bet that bird had been living out the season there watching hunters load up and walk away.
NOT TO BE OVERLOOKED
One of my favorite late-season hidey holes is any patch of weeds, brush, wild rose, sage, willows or cattails that squats like an island in an open field. Time after time I’ve jumped roosters from these little hideouts enough to know these spots, even if they’re only a few yards square, are always worth the walk to check out. In fact, in heavily hunted areas the further from “typical” pheasant habitat the island is located, the better the chances are that an old bird beds down there.
Early in the season there may not be any birds in such little coverts, but add hunting pressure, bad weather and survival genes and these places get pretty popular in late season.
Brush islands are best hunted with a buddy who can approach from the opposite side (give a rooster an unguarded plow furrow and it’ll scoot out unseen every time) and approach with the dog on heel. Free running dogs, especially big, fast retrievers like Chesapeakes or long-legged pointers will race to the obvious cover and push into it long before you can get there. In fact, that’s how I first got turned on to the value of these little patches; a hunting buddy’s German shorthair bolted across 200 yards of cattle pasture, plowed into a room-size clump of rocks, sagebrush and cheat grass and flushed three big cockbirds.
During the first weeks of the season, young birds tend to freeze and sit when they hear hunters approaching. Later in the season, yell for your buddy or whistle up the dog, and the survivors will either greyhound to an obscure hidey hole or hunker down tight and pretend to be gone.
Early birds are spooky and if you wade into their hideout, stomp a brush pile or kick the fenceline, they’re likely to flush.
Late in the season you may need to actually step on a hidden bird to kick it out of good cover. In fact, I have accidentally stepped on tight-sitting pheasants before they flushed, and I’ve let my Labs work big brushpiles for as long as 15 minutes before eventually boosting the bird they knew was there. Without a dog to dig deep into the pile, I’d have never gotten a shot at those birds.
Last year, on the last day of the season, a buddy and I, hunting dog-less for assorted reasons, picked a mix of rolling grasslands, sage, creek bottoms and railroad rights-of-way near Othello in central Washington.
Early in the season my friend had shot well on this property, over his little Lab.
Today, dogless and deep into January and hunting survivor birds, the top of the gene pool, we were the underdogs. Terry nailed a pretty little California quail cockbird that forgot to flush until after the rest of the covey had left and we walked. And we walked.
We hunted super-slow, toward each other in pincher tactics, parallel to each other and independently. Lots of tracks, dustbowls, feathers – no flushes.
While I was hunting a sweat-popping zigzag on a steep hillside of high wild grass and sagebrush that was above and parallel to railroad tracks I saw first one, then two, then five roosters lift off my hill and drop into a cattail bog along the tracks. The closest flush was probably 200 yards out, far enough I could barely tell they were legal cocks.
I dropped down the hill to the edge of the cattails and while I didn’t have a chance of re-flushing the birds I had seen, I hoped that by getting low on the hill I would turn any remaining roosters away from the cattail refuge and run them uphill toward my partner who was hunting a field edge on top of my hillside.
After a quarter-mile my hillside dumped into a steep coulee and I could hear running water in the thick, head high grass at the bottom, a natural barrier for runners. I turned uphill and walked dead slow along the shoulder of the coulee, stopping, starting, stopping, turning, zigging. At the top of the coulee was the flat field that was a feral mix of sage, grass and grains. My unseen partner would be working along that edge hopefully toward my coulee and if my strategy worked and I had moved any birds uphill they would run into him.
Just below the top I stopped on a table-size level spot to catch my breath.
The loud, long, drawn out cackle came from above and to the left. The rooster was flying fast and low downhill toward the cattails behind me when the over-and-under came up.
No rooster ever folded sweeter than that one. Terry said he’d almost stepped on the pheasant before it had flushed. While he was bringing his gun up, the wild cockbird dropped out of sight over the crest of the hill but this time I was in the right spot.
We determined that the sly old bird had been sneaking uphill just ahead of me while I climbed the coulee shoulder and had stopped and hunkered when it heard Terry coming from the other direction.
A couple of hundred feet behind Terry, in the open field, was a boneyard of forgotten farm equipment overgrown with willows, wild rose, tangles of brush and wind-packed tumbleweeds. I have no doubts that my last pheasant of the season was headed for that obscure boneyard.
GETTING INSIDER INFORMATION
Often, I’ve found, that landowners and rural residents are great sources of information for pinpointing unobvious pheasant hides. They live with the birds year-round and see where they go when flushed. A lady walking her flighty Dalmatian along a lightly traveled road in farm country tipped me off to a swale that swallowed pheasants when they were flushed by her dog. She couldn’t see the swale; in fact, it was invisible from the road, but she told me that when her dog flushed pheasants from the roadside ditch they nearly always would wing across a seemingly flat, empty field and land far from the road. I followed her guiding finger and walked only a short distance across the field before spotting a large section of swale grass in a low spot well away from buildings or livestock.
The landowner gave me permission and I took two fine roosters with large, sharp spurs on my first stomp into the swale. That hidden low spot is still one of my reliable aces when I need a go-to spot.
A friend owns a 20-acre horse pasture near the Oregon-Washington border and almost every winter morning he said he would see a parade of pheasants walk from a small grove of old apple trees to surrounding wheat and corn fields. They followed an old irrigation pipe, he said, and as soon as they would see him, they’d squat down and hold tight, invisible in the short grass alongside the pipe. One of them was still there when I walked in with the shotgun the next December.
A friend who lives and hunts in central Montana finds plenty of birds in old sagebrush on public ground that borders private grain fields. He hunts especially hard when the weather is bad and the birds feed quickly or not at all and spend most of their day hold up under the sage cover.
One of my favorite hidey holes that often holds sly old birds is a tiny stock pond located in a horse pasture. The west end of the pond is packed with cattails and the south side is a repository for rocks that the landowner had cleared out of his pasture and had become overgrown with wild rose thorns. Wild rose hips are prime late winter pheasant food and when combined with the cattail cover, this little one-acre chunk of wasteland became a pheasant magnet.
HERE ENDETH THE LESSON
My late-season rule is that any pocket of cover, now matter how small, that’s off the beaten path, is capable of producing roosters. Pheasants don’t survive into the late season by staying where you – and every other upland gunner – expect to find them.
Late-season pheasants survive by hunkering in pockets where you don’t expect them, and good hunters will pick those pockets.