Story By Kyle Wintersteen,
Senior Associate Editor, American Hunter
Though the ringneck pheasant is originally from China, there's nothing more American—or downright fun—than hunting this majestic, colorful gamebird.
Picture this: You're ambling through a long field of native grasses, joined by a friend who walks along to your right. Both of you carry 20-gauge shotguns. A yellow Labrador retriever runs back and forth between you, merrily questing for game. You're enjoying the beautiful fall foliage when all of a sudden your Lab throws its nose to the ground, its tail wagging wildly with excitement. Knowing the dog's found scent, you ready your shotgun in case it finds a bird.
"Cack-cack-cack-cack!" the rooster pheasant cackles.
A flurry of colors erupt from the brush and butterflies fill your stomach as the Lab drives the rooster into the air. You mount your gun, ease off the safety and fold the bird cleanly with a single shot. Your dog proudly holds the bird high as he retrieves it for you. Sound like fun? It's even better outside your imagination! Here's how to get started pheasant hunting.
First things first: Let's talk safety. Everyone in the field should wear orange so they're easily seen. There are orange vests and jackets designed especially for pheasant hunting with pockets for shotgun shells and a pouch on the back for carrying birds.
If you're hunting with buddies, form a horizontal line across the field perpendicular to your route of travel. Basically, everyone to your left and right should be even with you, not walking ahead or lagging behind. This makes it easy to keep track of where everyone is in the field and allows room for each hunter to shoot.
In addition to adhering to the NRA's gun safety rules at all times, each hunter's gun should remain on "safe" until a bird is flushed into the air. Wait until the bird is high enough in the air that you can see sky underneath it before shooting. That way you won't endanger any other hunters up ahead or the dog (occasionally the dog may jump into the air after the bird, so never shoot at a low-flying bird in front of the dog).
Keep in mind, if you're hunting in a group, not all birds are yours to shoot at. Shooting-lane rules dictate that all hunters can shoot at birds directly to their front or rear, but only the hunter on the left end can shoot at birds to the left and only the hunter on the right end can shoot at birds to the right. It's a safety issue, and it's also good manners!
There are people who hunt pheasants without dogs, but in this writer's opinion there's nothing more fun than watching a spaniel or setter happily working a field in search of birds. The dogs will find birds you would've walked right by—and if you try to smell for birds yourself, you'll just look silly!
The dogs can be divided into two groups: dogs that flush the birds into the air and those that point the birds for you to chase out of the brush yourself (see "A Hunter's Best Friend," InSights February 2008). Both are effective—it's up to you to decide which you'd rather hunt behind.
Some hunters prefer flushing dogs like spaniels and retrievers, because pheasants often choose to run rather than fly. The flushing dog will follow the running pheasant's scent until the bird is forced to escape through the air, giving the hunter a shot. Flushers must be carefully trained to hunt closely so they don't find and flush birds out of range. Some flushing dogs, especially springer spaniels, provide a spectacular display by leaping into the air after the bird as it takes flight.
Pointing breeds, like the German shorthair, Brittany, English setter and pointer, don't have to hunt quite so close, because they point the birds and wait for you to catch up. It's your job to walk in front of the dog and flush the bird out. Sometimes, however, the pheasant will run before you get there. No matter—just command, "Hunt 'em up!" and release the dog from its point. Keep releasing the dog until the pheasant "holds" for a point and you're able to walk in and flush it.
Pheasants generally roost by night, fill their gizzards with grit at sunrise, feed in the early morning and nestle back into thick cover by 11 a.m. They'll feed again in the late afternoon. The best hunting tends to occur in the morning and late afternoon, periods when pheasants can be found in lighter grass fields as they move from heavy brush to a food source like corn or sorghum fields. Late in the season, when snow and ice have matted down all but the heaviest grass fields, pheasants are concentrated in thick hedgerows and shelter belts. They're rarely found in the woods.
Regardless of the terrain or time of year, try using "blockers" so the pheasants can't play the part of roadrunners. Position a few hunters in a line along the end of a field to block any birds running out ahead. Slowly approach the blockers from the other end of the field. The birds won't be able to run out the end of the field and escape. Instead, they'll have to flush into the air or hold for a dog to point them. The blockers will also get shots, because many birds will fly toward them or flush at their feet.
If you aren't using a dog, the direction from which you approach the blockers matters little. However, whether you use blockers or not, if you're hunting with a dog it's best to hunt a field with the wind blowing in your face. That makes it easier for the dogs to smell the pheasants, because the wind will blow the scent right to their noses!
The most popular pheasant gun is probably the 12-gauge shotgun; however, the 20-gauge is a better choice for beginning rooster raisers. It's lighter and easier to carry, recoils less and still provides plenty of power to pluck pheasants from the sky. Numbers 5 or 6 shot are generally preferable.
Now that you have a few safety considerations and tricks up your sleeve, it's time to go find some pheasants. Just remember: The male pheasant has a long, beautiful tail, so don't let it distract you. Focus your eyes on the rooster's head, mount the gun to your cheek and pull the trigger. Soon you'll discover that the ringneck is not only one of America's most popular and colorful gamebirds, it's also one of the tastiest!