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January Pheasant Hunting

Three of us bagged our 4-bird Kansas daily limit of roosters in early December. Notice the snow on the ground behind us.

As the pheasant season begins to wind down in the northern reaches of the rooster range, I begin to receive calls from Pheasants Forever members in places like Traverse City, Michigan; Baraboo, Wisconsin and St. Cloud, Minnesota.  These callers all draw out their “O’s” and are known to drop an occasional “eh” to the end of their sentences.  They also share a common question this time of year, “Where should I travel this January to extend my pheasant hunting season?


My short answer to that question is to follow the Nebraska/Kansas border from Norton, Kansas and McCook, Nebraska all the way to the Colorado border.  The further west you go along that line, the better the bird numbers with decreasing hunter pressure.  In Colorado, draw a triangle from Sterling to Holyoke to Burlington.  Any of the regions in that three state corridor should produce roosters if you’re riding with good dog power.


My longer answer to the question involves a story you’ve probably heard before centered on habitat loss and harsh weather.  Like most states in the last year, this trio of January “hotspots” have suffered through significant habitat loss due to CRP conversion coupled with poor spring reproduction conditions.  Additionally, the early winter weather has been brutal.  Kansas, for instance, has been hammered with two winter storms already this month leaving more snow on the ground there than we have in Saint Paul, Minnesota outside the PF offices.  That’s right; there is more snow on the ground in Kansas than in Minnesota to start 2012.    


Nebraska’s Pheasant Hunting Forecast

Season Ends: January 31, 2012


Kansas’ Pheasant Hunting Forecast

Season Ends: January 31, 2012


Colorado’s Pheasant Hunting Forecast

Season Ends: January 31, 2012


The other nugget I’d suggest is to get your hand-shaking smile warmed up.  There is a lot of public hunting ground in all three of these states, but those acres have been pounded with Danner boots the last few months.  During an early December trip to Kansas, a pair of my pheasant hunting partners purchased a county plat book and began knocking on doors to gain permission.  Three front steps later, we had access to half a township’s worth of private ground filled with ring-necks. 


One final note on gaining permission to hunt private land; all three of those landowners have received notes of our sincerest thanks and a pound of fresh pecans shipped direct to their doorstep at Christmas.  Remember, it only takes one idiot to ruin a landowner’s impression of hunters, so do your part to thank them for the habitat they’ve left alongside their crops and show them your appreciation for the access they’ve granted after the hunt.  It’s a lot easier to slam the door in your face the next time around after a bad experience. 


And after all the seasons are closed, remember to mark your calendars and join the fun for Pheasants Forever’s National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic 2012 in Kansas City on February 17, 18 & 19.


The Pointer is written by Bob St.Pierre, Pheasants Forever’s Vice President of Marketing.  Follow Bob on Twitter @BobStPierre.

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8 Responses to “January Pheasant Hunting”

  1. Bill Wagner says:

    Three of us bagged 18 birds in two days Dec. 28 and 29 here in Western North Dakota. No snow on the ground and a little sprinkle of rain both days – 40 degrees!

  2. I love December pheasant hunting. The temperature’s cool, the ground’s hard and the water’s frozen for easy walking and there’s little competition for the public hunting areas. I dropped a nice rooster this morning with less than an hour of hunting. Tracking in the white snow is also fun, but all we have is black dirt in South Dakota so far this winter.

  3. We could really use some weather to concentrate the birds. Many birds will move back into Walk-In cover in January because it’s the best cover around. Look for tall switchgrass stands next to corn.

    From Rocky Mountain Game & Fish 12/11:

    Outsmarting Pheasants And The Competition


    Mike Gnatkowski

    Ever look at a pheasant’s ears? Not the feathery ears on the top of their heads, but the ears they hear with. They’re big, relative to the overall size of a pheasant’s head. That’s the reason they hear so well. And they put that attribute to good use. A slamming truck door quickly gets their attention. A gun receiver clanging shut puts them on high alert. The sound of a dog beeper collar means, “I’m out of here!” Don’t underestimate a pheasant’s ability to hear. Use the wind to your advantage whenever possible, don’t talk while you’re hunting, use hand signals and soft whistles and keep noise to a minimum.

    A pheasant’s keen eyesight might be even more astute. They can spot the shadow of a hawk circling hundreds of yards above or the glint of a gun barrel from a ¼ mile away. The sight of a distant orange-clad parade tramping across a field puts them into panic mode.

    Why is it then that pheasant hunters think they can drive up to their favorite field, slam the doors, talk loudly about last night’s Broncos comeback, rack a few shells into the old pump gun and expect the pheasants to remain unaware of their presence while basically saying, “Go ahead, kill me!” That might work on opening day when you still have young-of-the-year birds that haven’t experienced the onslaught before, but those that survive to the second day make it a point to not make that mistake again, but most hunters don’t seem to learn.

    Wild pheasants are like Pavlov’s dog. It’s not enough that Mother Nature ensures the survival of the fittest, but hunters too train them to be elusive or die. They quickly learn that trouble generally comes from the same direction and they formulate an escape plan that is tried and true.

    In a big chunk of public ground there might be a couple designated parking spots where hunters typically enter a field. Pheasants know that. As soon as the truck stops the pheasants are implementing their escape plan. They’re either booking like a roadrunner for safe cover or they lift up just a couple feet off the ground so as not to be seen and quietly glide into a safe refuge or sanctuary. Most

    hunters never see them. They line up and go down and back and down and back in the field, never flushing a bird and assume that there aren’t any pheasants in that particular field. Truth is, there was.

    Public access sites, road ends, private property land boundaries, ditches, rivers and creeks and other physical barriers represent natural starting points for hunters. Avoid them, or it you have to use them, head off in the opposite direction you think most hunters might head. Or park a ¼ mile down the road and sneak into the covert being as quiet as possible. If there’s an obvious piece of heavier cover in the center of the field or a ditch bank that looks particularly birdy, don’t head right for it. That’s what the majority of hunters are going to do. Instead, slink down the property line, even if you have to hunt some inferior cover first, to put yourself in position to hunt the better-looking cover from a different direction or walk in single file with the dogs at heal and block the anticipated escape route of the birds.

    Knowing the topography of the land and its nuances can help predict pheasant escape routes. You can also use the topography to plan hunting strategies and drives. Use barren ground or inferior cover as edges to help funnel pheasants a certain direction-sometimes. Hills, ravines and draws can act as barriers to hide your advance to better cover and surprise birds before it too late. Get a good map of the property and study it carefully before you enter the field. I like to make notes on the map of how many birds we flushed in the field the last time we hunted it, which direction we went, what time of day it was and then use that information to plan a successful sneak.

    On a hunt a few years ago we were huddled up whispering our plans for an assault on a field I’d hunted a dozen times before. The best cover was obviously in the center of the field, but rather than head directly for the cover I planned on hunting in the opposite direction first to the edge of the property and then work the thick cover towards the center. The Labs worked feverishly through the cover, and several hens busted out but no roosters. Quietly as possible, we continued to work the field towards the honey hole in the center. We came up to a big drainage ditch that I’m sure the others never knew about. It was wide enough that pheasants would have to fly and expose themselves to get across it and normally they didn’t. We used the ditch as a physical blocker on our left and pushed along the ditch. Right where the cover got really thick the ditch made a hard turn to the right. I waved to everyone to converge towards the corner. The Labs dove into the thick cattails. A nice 8-point white-tailed buck came blasting out of the cover first, cattails streaming from his antlers. Birds use to hearing approaching hunters from the other direction never knew what happened until it was too late. Guns erupted, birds splashed in the ditch, birds escaping back over us got toasted and tumbled into the field. Thirty seconds of chaos produced eight roosters in the game bags all because of a well-planned assault that took the topography into account.

    I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been sitting in a duck boat and listened to roosters cackling all morning. Pheasants are not above getting their feet

    wet. Thick cattails make for perfect loafing and escape cover, especially later in the season when the marsh is frozen.

    I learned a lesson many years ago. I was trudging down a dike with a bag of decoys over my shoulder when the biggest rooster I’ve ever seen exploded out of the weeds on the side of the dike and sacred the heck out of me. I watched the cock as he headed towards the open marsh wondering, “Where in the heck is he going?” The gaudy rooster knew exactly what he was doing and went into a long, graceful glide and landed on a solitary muskrat house in the middle of the marsh. No two- or four-legged predator without wings was going to bother him there.

    There isn’t much in the way of food in a marsh, but pheasants only have to spend a short time in an adjacent crop field to fill their crops before retreating to the safety of a marsh. It doesn’t take much; just a little high ground or a small island can be a pheasant haven. Once the marsh freezes, the whole thing becomes a pheasant oasis.

    I had been listening to roosters crowing every morning for the first three weekends of the duck season and had a pretty good plan of attack formulated for opening day. I knew the pheasants had to be roosting in a grassy field that adjoined the marsh so I made plans to be there bright and early.

    It was just getting light when my Lab, Keifer, and I started skirting the edge of the marsh towards the grass. We hadn’t moved a bird the first few hundred yards, but I could hear roosters cackling ahead of us. Sneaking along I finally got a fix on the pheasants. Three roosters were sitting in big cottonwood crowing their heads off. Pheasants don’t roost in trees right? An old fence was between us and them that I had to cross. I was in mid-straddle when the birds perched in the trees saw me and flew off, in the opposite direction of course. Once on the other side of the fence another rooster flushed out of the grass, headed for the marsh. The second barrel sent the cock angling into the cattails. Two roosters then exploded at my feet as I stood there with my jaw and double barrel wide open. And so it went. I’d take a poke at a bird at the edge of good shooting and a dozen would get up next to me in the marsh. Obviously, I had a good plan. It was the execution that was lacking! But I find myself pheasant hunting more and more with my knee-high mudders on or even waders on, especially later in the season when pheasants get wise. It’s a tactic that few other hunters employ. Hunters might be afraid of getting their feet wet, but pheasants aren’t.

    Successful pheasant hunting might not be as much about how you hunt, but when you hunt. Pheasants use certain types of cover for roosting, others for loafing and still others for feeding. Pheasants typically feed early and late, so hunting food plots at midday usually doesn’t make much sense. You want to hit those kinds of locations right at first light and then again in late afternoon. Thick cattails, plumb thickets or abandon farms are great midday loafing spots. Pheasants like the security of expansive fields of thick grass for roosting. Plan your hunting to hit these

    spots during prime time when the competition is still having breakfast or given up for the day.

    Hoodwinking a sly ringed-necked pheasant into making a fatal mistake takes scheming and execution. Give him a few weeks of on-the-job training and the task becomes increasingly difficult, but you can still bag your fair share of roosters if you learn to think like a pheasant and not think like everyone else.

    The end

  4. Mike,
    You may have just set the record for the most informative blog comment in history! Thanks

  5. Jason Ringdahl says:

    Just a heads up so you don’t get too discouraged when you make the suggested trip above… The NE/KS border from Norton to McCook took on some big hail storm(s) last spring (2011). Plus, the northwest corner of KS suffered drought the past couple of years. & this area doesn’t have the cover it did a few years ago. So the bird #s are way down and the hunting pressure in this area has been up. Don’t get me wrong, you may find some birds.

  6. Bruce Bonnema says:


    Although pheasants that have been pressured through hunting are more “intelligent” than the un-hunted bird, I do think you give them too much credit in your blog.

    I hunt with my son in western Kansas and the most difficult situation when hunting late in the season, is if the birds are bunched up because it only takes one to flush out of range and the others follow suite. I have flushed singles like opening day, even if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. In fact, I got my four-bird limit yesterday and in all situations but one it was a single bird flush and in two of the situations, a 15 to 20 mph wind was at my back. Birds will hold tight as long as they think there is adequate cover.

    I also believe that one or two hunters and a close working dog will work wonders in the late season. Large hunting parties give the birds too many chances (noise) to escape for reasons stated in your article.

  7. Les Froehlich says:

    I’d rather hunt Pheasant late season (after Thanksgiving) in North Dakota than at any time, usually hunting pressure drops, with the exception of years like this when we hunted in shirtsleaves the last weekend (January 7 & 8), last year it was insulated coveralls and pack boots.
    Great comments, I agree with Mr. Gnatkowski, there is no substitute for a well planned approach. There is no doubt our beloved Pheasants hear and see as well as any critter out there, and after three months of pressure they get very smart when it comes to hunters. Mixing up your tactics and adding stealth to your repertoire is the best way to put birds in the bag late in the season.
    I also agree with Mr. Bonnema, when they bunch up they are hard to get close too but bust that big bunch up and observe where they lite, if there is ample cover they usually won’t go far, then proceed to hunt the individuals. On windy or calm days there are still a lot of cagey birds out there, that will hold tight, to thick cover, only to explode from under your feet, when you least expect it.
    Most improtantly you have to be flexible and observant during late season. Implementing these tricks has helped my son, brother-in-law and I put over a hundred birds in our bags, the last five years in a row, hunting on public and private land.

  8. John Rader says:

    Hate to disagree much with the creator of this blog, he makes a lot of great points, but he’s a little off in his assessment of where the birds are at. Western Nebraska and some parts of eastern Colorado got pummeled with hail last summer, reducing the bird population in many parts of the region by more than half of what they were in the 2010-2011 season. We’ll need an incredible hatch this year to get numbers back to where they were…bird numbers were higher this year near and east of McCook than they were further west.


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