Late-season pheasant tails
By Bernie Kuntz
It is the time of year when only crazy pheasant hunters get out there. It is cold and snow covers the landscape. But as my friend Ed says, “Nobody else is out there and I love it!”
Winter hunting for pheasants is a tough affair, but if you know what you are doing it can be very rewarding. Snow alone has pushed the birds into smaller areas.
In October pheasants can be found almost anywhere in reasonable cover, but in December much of their habitat is choked with snow. In Montana pheasants gravitate toward creek bottoms adjacent to grain fields. In winter they can usually be found in cattail swamps, or as we call them in North Dakota — “sloughs.”
I have hunted pheasants in many habitat types from CRP fields to cornfields and milo, creek bottoms and shelterbelts, but nothing beats cattails in winter. Pheasants will be forced out of their regular habitats and into impenetrable cattails … impenetrable, of course, unless you have a Labrador or two. Roosters are long-tailed and feathered out. It is time for 12 or 16 gauge guns and heavy loads of No. 4 lead shot in the best shells money can buy — no cheap promotional shells for late season roosters.
Some of my fondest memories of pheasant hunting are of excited Labradors charging through cattails in December when the marshes are frozen and more accessible than in October. I remember my Otis-dog boosting roosters out of a cattail swamp in northeastern Montana one time and me clobbering three roosters in as much time as it takes to talk about it.
I have fond memories of other years when Bruno and Josie, long deceased Labradors, crashed into cattails in North Dakota and Montana and booted out long-tailed roosters that protested loudly as they thrashed away. Some of them we killed dead in a gentle puff of feathers; others we missed; some flushed out of range, but it was all memorable and one of the wonderful facets of late season pheasant hunting.
Fine game bird that the pheasant is, many people are unaware of the ring-necked pheasant’s origin, as they are not native to North America. The story is that in 1881 the judge Owen Denny, American consul general in Shanghai, obtained 28 pheasants and released them in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Two years later Denny released another batch of birds, establishing a pheasant population that would result in 50,000 roosters taken by hunters within the decade.
Pheasants have been planted in every state in the Union but they do not do well in most places. Fortunately, they thrive in the upper Midwestern prairie states. The Dakotas are as good a pheasant country as anywhere. South Dakota reportedly had a pheasant population of between 15 and 30 million birds in the 1940s! How anyone could estimate a pheasant population is beyond my comprehension, but that country did indeed have one hell of a lot of birds!
My father told me many times of days in the late 1940s when he could fill the trunk of a car with pheasants while driving between Solen and Mandan. “They were everywhere,” he said.
North Dakota had a heyday of pheasant numbers a half dozen years ago that was reminiscent of those old days. I hunted near Richardton and Scranton less than a decade ago and saw pheasant numbers that were unbelievable! The reduction in CRP acreage has taken a toll on birds these days, but North Dakota still is one of the top pheasant states in the U.S.
Dress up, get the dog out there and concentrate on those cattail sloughs. Watch the dogs get excited and follow them through the snow. Few hunters will be out there except you and your dogs, and it is a wonderful time to see and hear the raucous flush of pheasant roosters.
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974