North Dakota’s pheasant opener started cloudy and cold, a half inch of snow clung to the yellowing leaves of the crabapple tree in the front yard of the old farmstead and coated the still-green grass of mid-autumn like white frosting on a cake. The truck registered 27 degrees on the in-dash thermometer as we set out to walk familiar acreages.
Flash forward to the second day of the season, and we began to pull the dogs back on wild chases over the countryside, through the winding bottoms of cedars, caragana and buckbrush. Their panting intensified as the sun beat down, and after a pair of roosters ran on them, we called the day early as all four labs belly-flopped and sat in place, lapping up gallons of water before loading up and heading back to the farmstead. As we pulled into the drive at around 2:30, the truck thermometer read 72.
As the saying goes in the upper Midwest, “if you don’t like the weather here, wait five minutes, it’ll change…then you’ll really hate it!”
We were treated to a season’s worth of conditions in a matter of 36 hours on opening weekend and were reminded of how those elements of the weather – precipitation, temperature and wind – impact how pheasants relate to their habitat, and how best to hunt those areas. Knowing what to do when conditions shift is key to success, and using elemental cues will help hunters bag more birds.
In the chill of late autumn and early winter, pheasants will hunker down in any vegetation that provides them with thermal cover. Common options on the landscape for these birds include dense stands of cattails adjacent to lighter cover for when things do warm up, and a food source nearby. Additionally, stands of trees, particularly low brush formed by plum and chokecherry thickets or stands of junipers and cedar trees provide excellent areas for the birds to hole up in. Man made shelterbelts of pine and spruce, and tangled overgrown deciduous tree plantings are also frequently used on the landscape. Low branches and surrounding grasses provide great protective cover, and leave a number of options for a hasty exit.
As cold mornings progress into temperate afternoons, pheasants – like most game – look to take advantage of the strengthening sun. Grassy southern slopes of hills adjacent to cover, or with escape routes like draws and ravines nearby, bring birds in as they look to warm up. Pinning the birds into the rising slope, or chasing them up a rising ravine can result in explosive flushes and great shooting-gallery style opportunities in the field.
On days of above average heat, birds will often be loose and wild and can be found in some of the lightest cover. Grassy stretches and areas where light cover quickly gives way to cut fields are prime spots, particularly at the start and ending of the day. Walking these areas, covering ground and letting the dogs do their thing when they get on scent will push the birds to transition areas or to rises and trigger flushes. Be aware of warm conditions, particularly at midday and afternoon, so that dogs don’t overheat and remember that pulling out of a hunt is sometimes the best decision if temperatures begin to soar.
Whatever the changing conditions might be, whether it happens over a couple of days or several weeks, adapting and knowing where pheasants hold in the elements and finding the cover that provides a buffer for them gives hunters a head start…in our outdoors.