Early birds: Where to hunt pheasants when the crops and cover are still standing

Andrew Johnson
Farm Forum

Excitement for this year’s hunting season started building around Labor Day when the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department released its annual brood report indicating the 2018 statewide pheasants-per-mile index was up 47 percent from 2017. While that’s good news, it’s important to remember that the overall population trend is still well below the 10-year average. Like many other hunters, though, that fact alone won’t stop me from chasing my favorite upland game bird when the state’s 100th pheasant season opens the third weekend October.

And I know I won’t be alone, as there is little doubt that more people hunt pheasants during the first couple weeks of the season than at any other point. However, hunting in the early season isn’t without its challenges, and heading out early in the season doesn’t guarantee you’ll shoot your limit of “dumb” or uneducated birds.

In fact, there have been plenty of hunters, present company included, who have been humbled by the colorful birds early on when a majority of the crops are still standing and the countryside is blanketed with plenty of good pheasant cover.

If you head out during the early season, keep these things in mind to have a more successful hunt.

Food sources

In a typical year in the Dakotas, pheasant seasons open when there are still plenty of cornfields standing, and looking at field after field of standing corn and all the cover and food they provide for pheasants can be somewhat overwhelming for a hunter.

Corn and pheasants seem to go hand in hand, and hunting in and around standing corn is never a bad idea. Keep in mind, though, that corn isn’t the only food available to pheasants, especially to the young-of-the-year birds that make up a majority of the population.

A mature rooster or hen seeing its second October will turn to small grains and corn as preferred food sources because they are looking to build up fat reserves for the winter months. Building a layer of fat takes more energy, so mature pheasants turn to the small, calorie-packed grains found in the Dakota fields during the fall.

Young birds that hatched earlier in the summer, however, are still trying to feast on foods higher in protein as their bodies strive to reach maturity and as they continue molting into their adult plumage. They eat the same amount of food as an adult bird and will indeed gobble up a crop-full of corn, but foods higher in protein such as insects and seeds from thistle, grasses and sunflowers are still an important part of their diet.

A Pheasants Forever study written by Ken Solomon said that young-of-the-year birds consume only two-thirds the amount of crop grains as adult birds during September and October. What’s more, the study concluded young, adolescent birds consume nearly twice the amount of weed seeds and over two-and-a-half times the amount of insects that adults consume.

In other words, don’t be afraid to search for edge habitat that’s rife with weeds and bugs. Chances are that some young roosters that left mom and the nest behind only a month or so ago to go out on their own are likely to feed and loaf in these weed-choked areas rather than venture deep into the corn.

Fence lines running adjacent to green alfalfa fields aren’t a bad idea either. If you’ve ever hunted geese from layout blinds in an alfalfa field in September and October, you can attest to the fact there are plenty of bugs around as long as a heavy frost or freezing temps haven’t hit yet. Pheasants know this, too, and it’s not uncommon to find tight-holding early birds in fence lines that serve as a go-between open alfalfa fields and loafing or roosting cover.

Don’t hunt memories

A heavy part of pheasant hunting during the early season rests in tradition, where families and friends head to the same honey holes year after year, chasing down old memories while attempting to make new ones.

Personally, my all-time favorite pheasant spot is a small, circular slough surrounded by trees in central South Dakota. Problem is, I’ve seen one rooster there the past two times I’ve walked it.

In the old days, meaning more than a decade or so ago, it was nothing for a group of 10 hunters to walk the belt and end up with a 30-bird limit, but those days are long gone. I hope someday the tree strip returns to glory, but in looking at the big picture — the land surrounding the tree belt — I know that it won’t be this year.

Pheasant populations shift for any number of reasons. Weather, habitat, changing food sources, predators, land development and more can cause birds to find a new home or die off. Failing to recognize environmental and landscape changes can lead to some disappointing hunts.

This is where scouting comes in, and, yes, you can scout for pheasants. Understanding the general routine a pheasant follows throughout the day during certain times of the year can boost your pheasant hunting success dramatically, and finding new fields to hunt is a never-ending process.

A pheasant basically needs three things to survive: food, cover and water. If an area is devoid of any of them, pheasants are unlikely to be found there. Exceptions to the rule do exist, but more often than not, you need all three to find consistent numbers of pheasants.

Pheasants annually cycle through four stages: mating/nesting in early spring, brood rearing in late spring and summer, foraging in late summer into fall and winter survival from late fall to spring. Of course, hunters need to pay special attention to the last two stages.

The foraging phase coincides with the early part of pheasant season. It can be tough to hunt efficiently because of the abundance of food sources and cover, so do your homework so you know where to start.

For example, take an evening drive and jot down where you see birds moving to roost. On the other side of the coin, especially in South Dakota where you can’t start hunting until noon in the first part of the season, wake up early, catch the sunrise and see where birds are moving from cover to feed in the early hours of the day before you can hunt. Chances are high the birds you see at dawn won’t be too far from the same spot when the clock strikes noon.

If you put forth the effort, scouting for pheasants can reveal some surprising results, as bird movement might not match the preconceived notions you’ve been using to game plan your hunt for days or even years.

Late-season approach

Perhaps the biggest mistake too many hunters make is not respecting the always-alert senses of a pheasant. While it’s true that some early birds aren’t educated yet and don’t associate a vehicle door slamming with imminent danger, they’re still on high alert for anything foreign when it comes to sights or sounds.

Whether it’s opening day or the last day of the season, the first thing you need to remember is that you’re stepping into a world in which a pheasant lives year-round. We’d never dream of hunting deer, turkeys or waterfowl in the same loud and carefree manner in which we sometimes hunt pheasants. However, a cagey rooster is every bit as slippery as a mature buck.

Pheasant hunters can and should help themselves right off the bat by committing to a stealthy approach. In other words, hunt the early season with the same stealth and care as you would during the late season when birds are pressured, jumpy and flat-out hard to kill.

First, park a significant distance from where you plan on hunting and take extra precautions never to slam doors or tailgates. A quarter-mile or so is sometimes too close. Yes, you read that correctly, as literally hoofing it the extra mile to get to a field is a good place to start.

Second, don’t yell at your dog or at your hunting partners. Dogs should be held in check or at heel, and a solid game plan should be set prior to the hunt and not made up at the field’s edge or while you’re walking through the cover.

If you have a demon dog that only wants to tear through cover, then maybe the best spot for him is at home in his kennel. Dogs that go rogue and can’t stay close without strong verbal attention will — not can or maybe — ruin your hunt.

Third, be prepared to hunt as soon as you hit the field. Any additional time spent loading guns, adding or subtracting a layer of clothing, or anything else that wastes time gives any bird in that field a chance to take extra steps away from you toward safety.

One of my biggest pet peeves is hunting with people who aren’t ready all the time when we are out and about chasing pheasants. Not being ready not only shows a shallow disrespect for pheasants, but also for hunting partners who have to wait for slowpokes to go through an entire pregame workout between each field.


Pheasants are known edge dwellers, and a common pheasant hunting practice is to typically work from one end of cover to the other, from the outside toward the middle.

However, one early season strategy I’ve used with success is to hunt the middle portions first — think of working a field inside-out — especially if I’m on my own or hunting with a small group.

Because many pheasants hang out along and in edge habitat, they often dive a short distance into deeper cover at the first sign of danger. However, if they’re pushed back toward the edges first, they’ll rarely retreat back to the heavy stuff after you’ve already walked through it.

It takes some extra work, as busting through the thick cover on warm October days can really make you sweat, but it’s worth the extra time and effort to push more birds into the edge areas where shots and retrieves can be made in the open.

In fact, when using this method, the first pass or two through the thick stuff doesn’t yield many birds, and any bird I do shoot in the middle I consider a bonus.

A key to remember with this strategy is to keep your dog at heel or close by on your first pass. It’s not even a bad idea to leave any dogs along for the hunt kenneled up during the first pass or two and only allowing them to hunt the edges on the final pass or two.

This accomplishes two things. First, you won’t burn up your dog hunting thick cover. Second, it reduces the risk a dog will break from the middle and chase a bird too far toward the edge, causing it to flush out of range.

Early season birds typically sit tighter than late-season birds. Use this fact to your advantage and hunt the middle of a field first. You might be surprised at the number of extra flushes and shot opportunities you get as you clean up around the edges.

early season pheasant hunting
There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, but hunting memories often leads to disappointment. With fewer birds on the landscape, it’s more important to scout for new locations where new memories can be made.
Early season birds typically sit tighter than late-season birds. Use this fact to your advantage and hunt the middle of a field first. You might be surprised at the number of extra flushes and shot opportunities you get as you clean up around the edges.