Tactics for hunting the wily pheasant
Going into the fields after wild pheasants can be done without a dog, but it is tough. A few hunters go it alone, but that's tough. Perhaps the best is a pair of hunters with a single dog, pointer or retriever. This is usually a satisfying hunt, particularly if the hunters are longtime friends. Larger parties, say four or five gunners with two sometimes three dogs can produce a very productive afternoon, particularly when you are in fields where there abundant numbers of roosters -- say western North Dakota or most anywhere in South Dakota. In some locations in the Dakotas, pheasants are plentiful enough that a pair of hunters can be successful working carefully without a dog, but this will require slow going, and careful observations as to where the bird went down. Minnesota's pheasant numbers aren't large and we don't have the vast areas of available habitat, so a dog here is almost a necessity.
When I first started pheasant hunting, south central Minnesota was the best place to be. Hunting tactics were different years ago, with big, big parties attacking a large cornfield or sloughs. Organized hunts became the rule. At times, several groups or parties intermingled. Someone seemed to be the leader or director, assigning those who had best be stationed as blockers at the exit end of the cover, with all others ready to walk twelve to twenty yards apart, the entire group combing the field. Occasionally, a cock would take to the air and fly out over the side, and if a walker close to this rooster was quick and skillful enough, it would end up in the game coat. The procession down the cornrows went on without any pauses. When the end of the cover was, say a hundred yards ahead, action was fast and furious. The standers waiting at the end of the field had been getting some shooting as the walkers were closing in, and now they were getting a lot of shooting. The walkers too, were in on the action, with birds getting up ahead and behind them. There were crippled birds, of course, but the dogs were usually very effective in chasing these down. Such tactics required safety measures, with no shots taken at birds on the ground, or to the side, where another walker would likely be located. The take from the vacuuming of a field like this, with several dogs all under control, often yielded two dozen to thirty birds or more at good locations in western or southern Minnesota. The location of the area near Tintah, Minn., was my first experience at such a hunt. After a lunch break and some good-natured talk about hit or missed shots, and admiring of the take, reorganizing into a second foray was in order. This required experience and understanding of wild pheasants. Some birds are runners, which will hastily cover the ground, far ahead of the dogs or the hunters, making for separate blocks of hiding places. Today, the tactic of putting very large numbers of shooters walking down the length of a large field just isn't done anymore. The Minnesota pheasant hunter of today prefers parties seldom more than five or six, but usually just pairing up with a buddy or two and using a dog.
In the early days of pheasant hunting in Minnesota, men appeared in togs more often seen in the duck blind. Blaze orange was yet to be invented and a coat with a game bag was a rarity.
The shotgun was invariably a twelve gauge, occasionally a sixteen. I was the only shooter carrying a twenty gauge, and this was a break open single shot with an exposed hammer. The Model 12 Winchester duck gun with a plain barrel, thirty inches long and a fixed full choke was common.
Or, a Browning or Remington five shot autoloader, always full choked too. An American made side by side was the duck/pheasant choice of some.
Today, a pheasant hunter in Minnesota carries a light twelve, or more often now, a twenty gauge with an improved cylinder choke tube in the muzzle of a raised ventilated rib will be seen in the fields. And commonly, his choice is a lighter twelve bore, because that's what he has. It serves him well if he's husky enough to tote a heavier gun over the miles of fields that must be trod nowadays, in search of a wild rooster.
Experience in hunting the long-tailed bird results in acquiring some of this canny bird's tactics, and deployment of the party proceeds more slowly and carefully, watching the movements of a trained flushing dog or retriever. With everyone in the party trained to watch where a bird crashes after a shot, directing the dog to cover these locations, does a great deal of good in finding every bird. On parties that I've been a participant in recent seasons, I don't recall losing a single bird. The ammunition of today is often five or six shot, high base loads with 1 1/4 ounces of shot. And today, the 3" shells you can stuff into your twenty gauge over-under or semi automatic will be what a 12 gauge delivered a few decades past. Pheasant hunting is a grand sport, very satisfying and it is safe if common good sense rules are followed.
Minnesota's bird season is long this year. We have birds in huntable numbers and enough public lands with pheasants. So, I urge you to step into a pair of canvas hunting pants, ankle high boots and a vest with a few orange panels. Shoulder that favorite shotgun regardless of its age or its gauge, and become a part of a cadre of sportsmen who enjoy the autumn out of doors to the fullest.
Ruffed grouse hunting -- good, but not great
Last season was unexpectedly poor, so hunters are elated to find better things, this year. The mysterious cycle began its upturn back two years ago, and is expected to peak in 2010.
The National Grouse And Woodcock Hunt is a fundraiser for the Ruffed Grouse Society. This has been held in the popple woods in the Grand Rapids area of Minnesota.
The participants are teams of two hunters and one dog. An official accompanies each team, evaluating the work of the dog, the point, retrieve, and of course the shooting. This year, the teams brought in 232 grouse, one less than last year. The weather was windy and cold, hardly good grouse hunting weather. A hunter, this year, brought in a really big bird, about 1 3/4 pounds.
Hereabouts the grouse hunting has been so-so, but may improve after the season progresses. Archery deer hunters have reported that they're putting up a few grouse as they trek to their deer stands. We'll see how things are when the firearms deer season puts more men in the woods. But there are definitely more birds around, and the top of the cycle hasn't yet been reached.