Five Rules of Ringneck Hunting

In three decades of hunting and guiding other hunters for pheasants, I have developed some principles for hunting this principal of American gamebirds. Here are my five rules of ringneck hunting.

Rule Number 1: Button It Up!
I select this as the prime rule for four reasons. Quietness is most important; it is most neglected, it’s a rule that must be minded constantly (even before hunting begins), and mostly, because every year I get stuck hunting with some loudmouth whose chattering or dog hacking ruins it all.

I once traveled several hundred miles in an ice storm, walked several miles through knee-deep snow, suffered swollen feet and shrunken wallet, only to see all the pheasants, dozens of them, bust out of range when my companion was compelled to call out, “Geez, it’s nippy out here!”

I was truly enlightened to this rule while bowhunting once on Montana’s Milk River. From my tree stand I watched a group of pheasant hunters working CRP across the river, shouting at dogs and each other. Pheasants emerged from the cover ahead of them and galloped across the pasture surrounding me. Hundreds of them! The hunters never saw a single bird. From the distance I caught bits of conversation:

“I thought you said there were pheasants here… .”

When I’m guiding pheasant hunters, I make it clear there are only two mortal sins: pointing a gun at me or my dog, and speaking aloud in the pheasant fields. Button it up.

Rule Number 2: Don’t Compete With Corn
Everyone with a pheasant season or two under his belt knows that lots of standing corn means trouble. Birds will spend the bulk of the day there, and unless you’re willing and able to orchestrate large, disciplined drives, you just can’t get them out. You can work the edges of cornfields, but that’s too often fruitless.

So what’s a hunter to do?

Minding the important rules of rooster hunting is sure to increase your success.

After years of working around crop rotations on my farm and others I hunt, the answer finally came to me. Weedy and grassy cover near standing corn holds few birds, but around soybeans and other short crops it holds plenty. That’s because while corn provides both food and safety cover from human, animal, and avian predators, dried beans are dangerous loitering ground for pheasants. In areas where beans are the major food source, pheasants get in, get their fill of crops quickly, and get back to better cover.

It’s a matter of not competing with standing corn. Scout out areas where beans or other short crops predominate, and hunt the adjacent cover there.

Rule Number 3: Hunt Smarter, Not Harder
This is a broad category that involves logistics, mainly. It starts with “macro-logistics” — selecting the right areas to hunt, checking sources, and even preseason scouting, something common for big game, but rare — yet just as useful — in upland bird hunting. Make a reconnaissance mission to some spots a week or two before season. Look for pockets of cover, consider approaches, walk up some birds, take notes and mark maps. Both you and your dog will have fun and benefit from the exercise.

Select hunting spots with a good food-to-cover ratio. I have a spot that’s great for early-to-mid-season pheasant hunting, because there is plenty of corn stubble surrounded by thinner swaths of grass and wet swamps that birds avoid. But after freeze up, it’s useless, because its vast areas of cattails make for too much cover and too much effort between the scattered birds. I look elsewhere then.

Hunt with a plan — according to time of day and time of season. Start the day hunting transition areas between roosting and feeding cover; spend the bulk of the day on the fringes of feed, and end the day in the thickest cover around — where pheasants will most likely head to roost. On clear, cold days in the late season, start on the warmer, protected, sunlit spots and avoid areas laced by a chilling wind — you will almost never find a pheasant there.

Hunt efficiently — avoid linear cover, such as ditches and creek bottoms, where you must turn around and return through cover you’ve just hunted. Hunt in circular routes so you are always working fresh cover. Or, arrange a leapfrog operation to work linear cover efficiently. It works like this: You and a partner are hunting a long creek bottom, powerline, or railroad tracks crossed by a road every mile or two. You drop him off and drive to a crossing a mile or two away, where you leave the truck and begin hunting. He shows up at the truck (with his own key) and drives beyond you, where you may rendezvous or keep leapfrogging.

Then there are the “micro-logistics” — the details of your approach.

Most important of these is to play the wind to give the dog the advantage. Always try to pinch pheasants in cover between other hunters or dogs to keep them from pulling an escape. Position yourself for the sun to help you identify roosters quickly and provide best shooting conditions. Play angles in the thick stuff for getting close, unobstructed shots.

Rule Number 4: What the Heck, Hunt Harder!
Actually, it’s not harder if you’re in shape. It’s amazing what a little gym time can do for your endurance and the pleasure you get from hunting. The bike or Stairmaster puts a new spring in your step; a little upper body work makes it a breeze to bear your shotgun all day. You can hunt longer if you’re in shape and nothing boosts hunting success more than good, old-fashioned time in the field.

Rule Number 5: Be Ready
Like a pitcher warming up before facing a batter, a hunter should warm up before engaging a bird. As you walk, focus on objects and toss your gun to your shoulder. Do it a few times — you will notice it comes up quicker, smoother, and more precisely each time. It will also tell you if your clothing is restricting you and wrecking your form, or if you have a twig stuck in the rib or ball of snow stuck to your bead that would ruin your sight picture.

This may seem too obvious to mention, but it amazes me how many hunters I guide walk with their gun rested across their shoulder, even when the dogs are birdy! Keep the gun at port arms, and you’ll be quicker and get more in-range shots.

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