Late Season Pheasants – Don’t Quit!

It never fails. Each December, when I put on two layers of socks and pull on my rubber boots to go stomping through some cattails, I do it alone. Plots of public land crawling with pheasant hunters in October, haven’t seen boots on the ground since the first real cold front hit. If I can tell you anything as a hunter, its this. Don’t quit hunting too early!

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Trusty Spike bringing back in our first bird of the day. We busted him out of a small cattail slough. -photo © Nick Schneeman

My don’t quit advice applies to both time in season and time in day. As the year progresses bird patterns change. The ones that make it through the opening weeks get educated. They’ve graduated to college aged birds, and aren’t going to flush as easy. Or if they do flush, they’re up 75 yards in front of you. They’re not just hanging out on corn edges in the middle of the morning anymore. And they’re definitely not moving around when you want them to be. Normal patterns of heading to feed in the morning and cover in the evening are out the window. About the only thing you can count on is that it will take a hell of a lot more work to fill your bag in December than it did in October.

On the other hand, I like to think pheasant hunting actually gets easier in the waning weeks of the season. If you’re willing to put the work in, there are a number of things going in your favor.

First, there is snow on the ground. There isn’t a single thing that makes pheasant hunting easier than fresh snow. Sure its cold, wet and miserable to be out in, but there should be bird tracks everywhere! In mid December, I don’t even bother working a field I can’t immediately find tracks in. And I focus all my efforts on the areas that are covered in pheasant tracks. Often working back and forth across a small area of thick cover that is covered in tracks until I get a bird to flush. Pro tip – Late season birds sometimes hold so tight, you almost have to step on them to get them in the air.

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A fresh pheasant track, in crusty three day old snow. I knew I was on the right “track”! – photo © Nick Schneeman

For the total noobs out there, pheasant tracks look like the above picture. Three pronged out the front end, with a long “tail” extending from the rear. The bird is heading in the direction of the three toes. When you’re looking for a productive area harboring late season birds, there should be tracks every where. Often times the birds feet will drag through the snow, creating a trail that looks a little like a tiny cross country skier just came by.

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Pheasant tracks criss-crossing through the edge of a cornfield. -photo © Nick Schneeman

Snow is also working for you in that it forces the birds to bunch up, especially if its windy. Pheasants tend to hunker down in thick cover, and wait out the day. Another reason to get out kicking weeds on days when most hunters are snuggling up on the couch watching football. Look for areas of thick cover close to likely food sources. In Minnesota this year, corn was left in the fields later than usual and there is still a lot it lying around in cleared fields. The last three roosters that have made it into my freezer had crops packed full of corn.

The third thing I enjoy about late season pheasant hunting, is that all the crops are down. By mid-December there isn’t a stalk of corn left on private land. This pushes more birds into public land cover, where there might still be food plots left up, and there are certainly plenty of cattail swamps. If an area looks like a pain in the ass to hunt, you better believe there are birds in there. Pheasants get smart, and they learn the areas hunters aren’t willing to go. To bag a late season trophy you’re going to need to push harder than the other guys.

And finally, the best thing about late season birds … The lack of standing crops, snow cover, reduction in food sources, and heavy pressure have all combined to push groups of birds together. So, if you’re one of the lucky ones, and you put the work in, finding a small plot of public land full of birds is in the cards. On Thursday morning, blind hunting a field I’d never even scouted before, I put up 5 roosters and a dozen hens. I was home with my limit by noon. Exhausted from tromping through shoulder high cattails and falling through the ice once, but never the less, home with a late season limit — my favorite hunting accomplishment.

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