When Is the Best Time to Hunt Pheasants?

When Is the Best Time to Hunt Pheasants?

Every pheasant hunter wants to be out chasing roosters on opening day. True, you may stumble upon some young-of-the-year birds that hold tight, flush close, and provide a quick opening day limit, but don’t count on it. Don’t put your shotgun away yet either, because the best hunting is still to come. Once summer flocks fully disperse and roosters spread out, pheasant encounters become more likely. Persistence will put more birds in the bag than opening day luck. Here are a few reasons to embrace the midseason, and a few ways to increase your midseason success.

The Corn Is Picked

The number-one reason to get back in the field a few weeks after the opener is that more crops will be harvested, forcing birds to relocate into more huntable cover. I face this dilemma nearly every year: I’m raring to go on opening day, but nearby cornfields aren’t picked yet. The dog and I end up spending the entire day walking back and forth across empty CRP fields searching for birds that aren’t there yet. It’s frustrating, but things will quickly improve once the corn is gone and pheasants have moved into their winter cover.

The Birds Settle Down

Another benefit of midseason hunting is that the birds will have settled down. After the initial opening-weekend onslaught has subsided, most birds return to their normal daily routines of feeding and loafing. Even the cagiest old rooster relaxes a bit by midseason. Now is the time to go after those early-season survivors. While a midseason hunt may mean less available roosters, it can also be more rewarding if those remaining roosters play nice.

Most crops are harvested by mid-season, and birds will be living in more huntable cover.
Field & Stream

It’s Less Crowded

The crowds will have significantly thinned a week or two after the opener, leaving the birds to the persistent few. While there may be a slight uptick in hunting pressure over the extended Thanksgiving weekend, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be especially productive. Those who hunt in mid-December between the holidays will often have the pheasant fields all to themselves. That’s the time to go.

The Weather Is Still Nice

While there may be some snow on the ground in late November and early December, by hunting the midseason you’ll avoid that really nasty late-season weather. January blizzards with lots of snow often move across prime pheasant states, frequently followed by bitter-cold temperatures. The issue isn’t just comfort, but also access. Too much snow can keep you out of the field. This happened to me a couple seasons ago just as the dog and I were hitting our late-season stride. Over a foot of snow fell and deep drifts prevented us from reaching several of our key spots, some of which we never returned to that season. Get your hunting in now during the midseason before deep snow shuts the party down.

Winchester Rooster XR 12-gauge shells.
Field & Stream

7 Midseason Pheasant Tactics

1. Call in Sick

If possible, hit public land mid-week. Even in the midseason, public areas will see more traffic on the weekends than during the week. This is also true of private land. Even though you have permission to hunt a property, there will be less competition on weekdays from other relatives or friends who may hunt there as well. Take a day, a morning, or an afternoon off work to squeeze in a mid-week hunt. Whether on public or private land, you’ll almost always have the field to yourself.

The author’s Munsterlander pointer and a mid-season rooster.
Field & Stream

2. Hit the Snooze Button

I hate getting up early, and when chasing midseason roosters there’s no reason to. Go mid-morning, after the birds have had time to feed and return to their loafing cover. I’ve had great success walking the surrounding uplands after an early morning duck hunt. Swap waders for boots and do some rooster chasing before you go home for lunch.

Afternoons are good, too. By afternoon, the air temperature will have warmed up, and the birds will have had time to feed and move around more, leaving more scent for your dog to follow. Sleep in, get some work or chores done, have lunch, and then go after those relaxed afternoon roosters as they loaf around in the grassy edges near feeding areas, such as picked corn or sorghum. Don’t be surprised if your dog goes on a long track, but pay close attention when her tail starts wagging faster than usual or it suddenly stops and she slams on point. Get ready, because the flush is imminent.

3. Tighten Chokes and Increase Payloads

To make midseason shots, tighten up your chokes, but only slightly. Where you might have used a skeet or IC choke on opening day, tighten up to a light modified or modified to gain a little distance. Birds will likely flush a little bit farther than they did on opening day, so a tighter pattern is helpful. There’s no need to get radical yet, though. Save the IM and full chokes for the late-season.

Likewise, increase your shotshell’s payload as the season progresses. If you were using a 1-⅛-ounce 12-gauge load initially, switch to a high-brass 1-¼-ounce load. If you were using a 1-¼- ounce load, move up to a 1-⅜ or a 1-½-ounce “baby magnum” load. Use a full ounce in a 20-gauge, or step up to a 3-inch shell. By increasing payload, you can continue using that more open choke if you want, since the increased pellet count of the heavier load will fill in patterns at medium, midseason yardages. That way you’re covered for shots at both close and moderate distances.

If you do hunt with a 28-gauge, use the heaviest load available.
Field & Stream

4. Lighten Your Load

Pack light to maximize mobility. Pheasant hunting isn’t usually a high-volume shooting affair, so you shouldn’t need more than, say, a dozen shells (unless you run into quail, but that’s another story). Wear a lightweight strap vest rather than a bulky full vest. It’ll be both cooler and provide more freedom of movement. Boots should also be light yet tough, like my current pair of Danner Sharptails, and uninsulated so your feet don’t overheat on those warm, midseason hikes.

A lightweight shotgun is especially important because you’ll be carrying that gun a lot more than you’ll be shooting it. The ideal weight for a gun is around 6-½ pounds for a 12-gauge, 5-½ pounds for a 20-gauge. You may want to downsize even further to a 28-gauge, since both gun and ammo will be lighter. That means you can pack more shells, but be sure to use the heaviest 28-gauge load you can find.

Whatever you do, don’t scrimp on the water, because your dog will still need frequent water breaks at this time of year, unless there’s a skiff of snow on the ground or a convenient pond or stream nearby. Pack enough water for both you and the dog, but remember, the dog drinks first. A dog trained to drink out of a squeeze bottle negates the need for a collapsible bowl, further lightening your load.

5. Get Away from the Road

Packing light will allow you to walk further, hunt longer, and explore the back-end of properties where mature roosters often like to hide out. Everyone, myself included, prefers to hunt near the truck or close to the parking lot, but more often than not, you’ll need to do some serious walking to find pheasants, especially on public land. If a patch of cover is difficult for you to reach, it was probably too difficult for other hunters to reach as well. That’s where you need to go. You’ll kill more roosters on the far side of almost any given property than you will within sight of the truck. As an added bonus, you’ll get in some cardio work to help wear off all that holiday feasting.

Hunt solo and practice quiet commands with your dog so you can sneak up on birds.
Field & Stream

6. Quiet Down

Most importantly, be quiet. Of course, don’t slam truck doors or shotgun actions shut, but especially, don’t talk. The number one thing that alerts pheasants to your presence is your mouth. Don’t converse with your hunting partner, or better yet, go alone. Don’t yell at your dog, unless it’s in imminent danger. Instead, use hand signals or the tone button on his e-collar to give him directions or corrections. Instead of blowing a loud coach’s whistle, softly whistle with your mouth. Even your brush pants or chaps can make noise as you bust through tall grass or cattails, so be mindful of what you wear. A slight breeze can help mask some noises, but as a rule, don’t talk, yell, or make any other unnecessary sounds. If you do, you’ll likely be following running roosters that flush wild most of the day.

7. Don’t Waste Time

Like any type of hunting, midseason pheasant hunting success can’t be achieved unless you just get out there and do it. You’ll never get anything sitting at home. Less dedicated hunters will be tempted to quit after their initial opening weekend attempt, especially if they’re unsuccessful. However, the birds are still out there for those willing to put in the time and effort it takes to find them. But don’t dawdle. The midseason quickly turns into the late-season with its short days, wary birds, and nasty weather. midseason success hinges not only on persistence, but also promptness.

Written by Jarrod Spilger for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

Madness, Obsession, and the Hunt for the World-Record Tarpon

Madness, Obsession, and the Hunt for the World-Record Tarpon

In Lords of the Fly, Burke takes a deep-dive look into the world of tarpon fishing and the town famous for it. In the 40-plus years since Tom Evans, a New York City stockbroker, first caught a world-record fish in Homosassa, Fla., in 1977, he has returned to the area and landed six more record tarpons in the surrounding waters. His success made this small town the hub of saltwater flyfishing in the 1970s and ’80s, and attracted professional anglers, such as Stu Apte, Lefty Kreh, and Billy Pate, as well as fishing enthusiasts including writers Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane and landscape painter Russell Chatham. Burke wonderfully captures their stories as well as those of their unsung guides, detailing the alliances and rivalries. Lords of the Fly comes out on Sept. 1, 2020, but is available for preorder now . Till then, enjoy this sneak peek. —The Editors

Tom Evans was one of the few regulars at Homosassa who was not from South Florida, and he was the sole Yankee (at the time, he lived in New York City). He was not a famous angler, as Apte, Williams, Pflueger, Lopez, and Pate were. He was also one of the few who had an actual nine-to-five job. He felt he was viewed as a latter-day carpetbagger, a bit like an outcast, even though he was allied with the Keys-based guide, Steve Huff. And yet, early on, he and Huff—the former collegiate nose tackle paired with the wiry guide—were the team to beat in Homosassa.

They were on the water, idling out of the Homosassa River, every morning at 5:30. Even when other guides and anglers were up earlier, they’d often wait for Huff to leave and follow him out, because he knew how to navigate the tricky river and its mouth. Evans and Huff were nearly always the last boat in, as well, tying up close to eight at night. “It seemed like we never saw the dock in the light of day,” says Evans.

Every day was an endurance test for both angler and guide. “It was an athletic event. We’d kill ourselves, torture ourselves,” says Evans. “Steve never wanted to go back in until we were dead. That made him happy.” They were both on their feet for around eleven hours a day. Huff learned the flat slowly and painstakingly, one plunk of the push pole at a time, pushing into the fifteen- to twenty-mile-per-hour winds that always seemed to arise in the afternoon off the Gulf. He would never start the engine if fish were around, even if he and Evans were leaving for the day. Instead, he’d pole out of the area, which sometimes added another forty-five minutes to the trip home. “The tarpon were lying around, doing their thing. This was their house. It was disrespectful to blow them out,” Huff says.

They stayed out on the water even in the worst of thunderstorms—”some horrible shit,” says Huff—dropping a few anchors, hitting the bilge pumps, and lying down in the bottom of the boat like Egyptian mummies as waves crashed over the bow. The lightning and the thunder would “scare the hell out of us,” says Evans. But then it would inevitably pass, and the sun would come out and the water would go slick, and the tarpon would start pouring in. Evans always waited for his graphite rod to stop humming from the leftover electricity in the air before he picked it up and started fishing again.

Tom Evans fights a tarpon in 2019. CREDIT: Monte Burke

Evans concentrated only on the biggest fish he saw on the flat, the Rocquettas, as he called them. In a string of tarpon, the largest fish were usually found two to three places behind the lead fish, or maybe two or three spots from the back of the line. If the fish were in a daisy chain, he and Huff observed it for a bit and would “look for the fattest face,” says Evans. When that one was identified, Evans cast the fly toward the tail of the fish directly in front of it.

When he hooked a tarpon, Evans immediately fell into a trance of concentration, getting into the flow of the fish, reading its body language. If the fish was leaping or on a blistering run, he did nothing but hold on to the rod. But as soon as the tarpon began to slow down, Evans pounced, trying to “own the head,” as he called it. He never pulled without purpose. Everything was done to keep the fish off balance. “Every fish is different. But they all tell you what to do if you pay attention. If you don’t pay attention, they can easily ruin your day,” says Evans.

That’s because of the second, third, or fourth wind that a big tarpon can get during a fight if an angler relaxes. “If you’re resting, you’re losing,” Evans says. “If you had a fish on for two to three hours, you were wasting the day.” He once had a tarpon landed, exhausted by the side of the boat after a thirty-minute fight, when a fellow Homosassa angler motored up and asked if he could use the tarpon for a film he was making. Evans said sure and handed him his rod with the fish still attached. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. At nine that night, the fellow angler showed up at a local restaurant and ran into Evans. The fish had revived and the man had fought it for another three hours and failed to land it.

In the evenings, during the first weeks of their trips, when they were still fresh, Evans and Huff would go for a four-mile jog after fishing, and then out to dinner. Back at the house, they would make new leaders, using a micrometer to ensure they were legal. One year, they went through six hundred yards of leader material. They tied and re-tied flies, reusing hooks from chewed-up flies.

But as the trips wore on, nerves began to fray, legs and eyelids grew heavy, and things started to go a bit sideways. They skipped the jog. Huff’s hands got stuck in a clench and went totally numb from poling all day. He slept with them over the side of the bed to try to get the blood back in them, and it still took forty-five minutes in the morning to get full feeling back. His fingernails grew at an angle toward the pole, and still do to this day. (Dale Perez, a fellow guide, had to get operations on both of his hands after years of gripping the push pole.) One evening, Evans went out to get a pizza. He came back, put the pizza on a table, and began to tie leaders as Huff tied flies on the couch. Suddenly, Evans got a cramp in his leg and pitched forward, falling onto the pizza and breaking the table in two. “Huff just sat there and didn’t say a word and kept tying flies,” says Evans. “There is no way humans can be civil with each other with no sleep.”

Huff was demanding, on himself and on Evans. He’s often said that if he ever writes an autobiography, it will be called Just Shove It, which works for both the poling he’s done for a livelihood and his lack of patience for bullshit. He has never been a yeller, like Apte was when he was a guide. But this was a team sport. He’d pole for forty-five minutes to get Evans in a position to cast. If Evans missed, Huff would remain quiet for half an hour, and then utter, out of nowhere, “Well, you f—ed that one up.” Sometimes when Evans missed badly on a cast, Huff would say, “That fly was closer to the fish before you cast.” He poled so hard sometimes that Evans fell out of the boat and into the water. They began to call the little casting platform on Huff’s boat “the launching pad.”

And yet, Evans loved it, even craved it. He had found a guide who was very much like a demanding football coach who brought out the best in him. “We were taking it all to the absolute extreme,” says Evans. “I used to get so excited out on the water that I couldn’t breathe.”

By the late 1970s, “the sky was the limit,” says Evans. “We were doing incredible things, hitting our stride, and I was excited because I thought we could do even more incredible things as a team.”

That, as it turned out, would not be the case.

Written by Monte Burke for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.