For some, public lands provide the only opportunity in hopes of harvesting the elusive and witty Cock Pheasant. For others, public land provides a nice change of pace from the privately owned honey-hole or game preserve hunt. Assuming the proper preemptive steps have been taken, (check the forecast, research and confirm bird population in the area, etc...) and adding these three methods into an already impressive bag of tricks, will undoubtedly help produce more points and more shots on public land roosters.
To start out on the right foot, qualifying the proper fields to hunt is of upmost importance and the first tactic to address. Pheasants, like most animals and birds are creatures of habitat; cover from predators, food to eat and water to drink, it’s really that simple. Search and focus on areas with heavy grass cover like the Panicum virgatum (switch grass) or the more commonly known and heavily hunted CRP (Conservation Reserve Program). A little known fact about these mixes of native grass, they actually assist in enhancing water quality as well as help recharge ground water and ground water tables. Not only do these areas provide safe cover and an evening roost, they hold plenty of bugs, seed, vegetation and water it requires to maintain a healthy wild cock population. While healthy grass cover alone does not deem a field hunt worthy, it is the foundation in which produces wild cackles on the flush and the sweet smell of gun powder in the morning. Pheasant aren’t known for traveling long distances and many miles, due largely because their travel is primarily done on foot. Locating a food source, (corn, milo, sorghum...) adjacent to your grass cover is ideal, but within a ¼ mile or so will do just as well. Lastly, a little something to wet the beak is always key in helping bag a limit. A favorite for both roosters and hunting dogs are ponds and cattails. Ponds provide the nectar of life and cattails provide cover from predators, plus, who doesn’t love watching ring necks come pouring out of tall cattails?
Now that the best looking public grounds have been scouted and circled on that crinkled up, ketchup stained public hunting map, it’s time to get down to business. The second, and equally as important tactic is choosing what cover to walk and what time of day to hunt it. Granted, there are many weather variables that can skew this method, overall it’s a great rule of thumb in patterning and locating birds. Again, pheasants are creatures of habitat as well as habit. Knowing that ring necks roost (sleep) in tall cover, it’s a no brainer what grounds to hunt at daybreak. Get in those big full mile sections of CRP with some good corn or milo adjacent and hunt hard! Adversely, knowing this is where they roost in the evening, hunt these same sections at dusk leading into shooting light as they are coming out of their evening feed. So, where do pheasant go after they wake up and stretch their wings? Early mornings after the sun crests the horizon, often times they sun bathe in winter wheat fields and jockey for the next hens love. As many have experienced, chasing woman can be exhausting and a man can build up quite the hunger. Around eight o’clock in the morning, give or take, it’s time to switch gears to those heavy grain and feed areas, focusing on working all types of feed until the desired grain of the day is located. Focusing on feed fields mid-morning and late afternoons will guarantee a man and his dog a few more opportunities to create moments that we share as camp fire stories.
Lastly, and a personal favorite is field management. Public lands often called “WIHA” (Walk-In Hunting Access) in the Midwest, have designated parking or an opening in the fence for one to walk through. DON’T start your hunt at that gate, DO NOT DO IT! These birds are wild for a reason and are resilient as they come, the 56 previous trucks and 113 dogs entered that field at the same place. Instead, cut the field in half and make and entry over the fence. These birds have been as educated as an Oxford scholar and run to the middle fields when they hear the truck door shut and the dog box doors open. Cutting the field in half allows for a couple of single rooster freebies as they don’t expect your presence for much longer coming from the entry gate. As the first pass is completed those birds will flush either right or left of you at which point its an easy decision on what direction to turn after the first pass.
There is a second rule of Field Management that also helps determine how to go about tackling a field, and that’s numbers. If it’s a solo hunt there is really one rule of thumb, keep the wind in the dogs face and follow the dog. If there is 5-7 hunters try walking in a “U” or horseshoe pattern opposed to a straight firing line. Rooster are notorious for running like hell and sending the dogs on a mad chase, the horseshoe approach cuts down on the number of escapees. Many times, the ring neck will run 60-70 yards straight ahead and then make a hard 90 degree turn. How many times has an uplander and his hound been on a hot trail of some running rooster, to make their way to the edge of the field and nothing flushes? Creating a “U” formation for 5 or 7 guys and no blockers allows a group to set the edge. Yes, it closes some shooting lanes for the interior hunters, its more about the success of the group than it is the individual. Finally, for those groups of 8+ its all about covering as much ground with minimal effort. Often times gents want to walk to close together which makes for great conversation, but truly it leads to tired dogs and less birds. Spread out 50-60 yards apart and let the dogs run the line, they will fill in the gaps and allow for some great firing squad opportunities. To top it off, save a few good ol boys as blockers and no bird will stand a chance.
There are 100 ways to skin a cat, train a dog and shoot a public land rooster, in the humble opinion of a simple man that loves the lord and puts his trust in his bird dogs, none of them are wrong. Focusing on proper field qualification, time of day reciprocated with bird activity, coupled with field management… will ensure for tired dogs, happy hunters and game vest full of feather.