If you had to choose one week, and one week only, to hunt pheasants during the season, which week would you choose? Are you the type of hunter for whom the season cannot arrive soon enough, and therefore the night before the opener, like a kid waiting for Santa, you don’t sleep a wink? Or, do you prefer to allow the opening day crowds to have the first crack at roosters, while you bide your time, review reports, and determine your best area of operation?
For some hunters, whether as a result of family, job or other obligations, the one week, maybe even one weekend, hunt is a reality. When it comes to picking that perfect week—those select days ripe with possibilities—veteran rooster chasers offer some key advice, and the times and places, as well as the reasons, may surprise you.
Most seasoned hunters agree: the hectic nature of opening week can result in heading home with nothing other than a headache. While hunters with private land access attest there is nothing sweeter than having opening weekend to one’s self, public land gurus argue contending with crowds is simply no way to hunt. For those of you rooster zealots willing to wait it out, you may be rewarded in the end.
“I agree many hunters prefer to hunt when the crowds have subsided,” said Travis Runia, South Dakota’s senior upland game bird biologist. “Crop harvest has progressed, and the risk of warm weather slowing the dog down has passed.”
Beyond the obvious in South Dakota, late season rooster hunting has other advantages, claims Runia. “Gaining permission to private land is substantially easier later in the season after family and friends have completed their trips. Roosters are also in a predictable pattern, typically using heavy cover adjacent to a reliable food source.”
South Dakota verdict:
November 30 through December 7
A week somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas can offer very rewarding pheasant hunting with far less competition than the opening weeks in October, according to Runia.
“I would rather deal with bad weather than a lot of hunters,” explained North Dakota upland game biologist Aaron Robinson. Nearly five weeks after the opener in North Dakota, crops have been harvested, thus concentrating birds to grasslands. The luster of another pheasant season has waned in the minds of many hunters, in turn freeing up space on public land, though hunters do run the risk of encountering bad weather. Modern firearm deer season also opens November 6 and runs through November 22, meaning there will be less competition for pheasants during that time.
North Dakota verdict:
November 13 through November 20
Hunters may have to contend with erratic weather, but the combines have rolled out along with the crowds.
“Avoid opening weekend,” advised Minnesota upland game project leader Nicole Davros, “but don’t wait too long because cold and snow could make it tougher.” Davros recommends anytime in November—after the crowds have cleared out, crops have been harvested, but before cold and snow have forced birds into thick winter cover. Once pheasants head for cattails and willow stands, hunters may have trouble reaching them, she says. The magic date for many hunters in Minnesota is November 10th
. Veterans argue five days either side of that date can produce success. The birds are educated by that time and are able to utilize various types of cover.
November 10 through November 17
Hunters may avoid Minnesota harsh snows while still having the opportunity to read cover, work out tracking patterns and put their dogs to the test.
“Personally I would pick the last week of the season, after Christmas,” said Montana Region 6 upland game bird biologist Ryan Williamson, “but it has its pros and cons.” There are few hunters, if any, out and about at the end of the season. Birds are more concentrated into heavier cover and easier to find. They also hold tighter in heavier cover but that also means they can be really grouped up and harder to hunt. After months of being chased, pheasants can be very flighty, according to Williamson. “A lot of times they flush out of cover at the sound of a car door closing,” he said. As well, Montana winters vary year to year. The end of the season may bring too much snow and far too cold of temperatures. Still, those willing to take the risk may be rewarded—a late Christmas present and a happy New Year.
December 25 through January 1
Late season holiday hunters should find virtually no hunters sharing the field. Holidays also mean there are far fewer out-of-state hunters vying for pheasants. The right amount of snow cover could maintain the perfect amount of bird concentration.
Colorado resident hunters contend opening week can be incredibly hectic and packed with other hunters. Late season in Colorado can offer great opportunities. Birds remain bunched up in heavier cover next to food sources. Also, in late November, birds often leave behind tracks in the snow, therefore making it easier for hunters to track their movements.
November 21 through November 28
Huddled birds and footprints in the snow make late November in Colorado a viable option.
Fresh snow in Kansas knocks down cover for pheasants, and the birds tend to congregate in shelterbelts and hold tighter. Some fair weather hunters remain at home this time of year. Depending on the level of snow, running dogs in Kansas in mid-December may be tough. Hunters are required to hunt smarter, locating food sources and the most logical cover may lead to bagged birds.
December 11 through December 18
While the first snow typically falls around Thanksgiving in Kansas, the snow’s sustainability and frequency varies each year. Vigilant hunters monitoring the possibility of fresh snow overnight in the middle of December may very well get into some birds the following morning.
Like Kansas and Colorado, the snow in Nebraska during late season has its advantages. After weeks of being chased out of cover, birds are hunkering down a short distance from food sources. Pheasants have grown smarter by early December. A challenging, but potentially rich, outing awaits hunters willing to deal with the colder weather.
December 4 through December 11
Pheasant populations are less spread out in early December. Hunters prepared to contend with all potential conditions may be pleasantly surprised with their harvests.
“For sheer number of birds available to harvest that are unfamiliar with hunters and dogs, the first two weeks of the season are the best time to hunt,” explained Todd Bogenschutz, Iowa upland wildlife research biologist. “From a pure numbers standpoint AND the greatest number of uneducated birds to hunters and dogs—hands down the first two weeks of the season.”
Iowa hunter harvest surveys over the last 10 years indicate hunters harvest, on average, 35 percent of their roosters in the first nine days of the Iowa season, with 75 percent of the birds harvested by December 1st.
November 7 through November 14
Numbers don’t lie, at least not in Iowa. Pheasants have yet to get wise to those orange vests and drooling snouts. Birds are less likely to spook at the sound of a snapping twig. In addition, crop harvests will ensure birds stick to grasslands and you will have avoided the opening week crowds.
A short recap, if you’re planning a road trip this season:
Story by John Hennessy. Passionate denizen of the outdoors and former line cook, John is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack.
Photo Credit: Steve Oehlenschlager
- Iowa: Nov. 7 through Nov. 14
- North Dakota: Nov. 13 through Nov. 20
- Minnesota: Nov. 10 through Nov. 17
- Colorado: Nov. 21 through Nov. 28
- South Dakota: Nov. 27 through Dec. 7
- Nebraska: Dec. 4 through Dec. 11
- Kansas: Dec. 11 through Dec. 18
- Montana: Dec. 25 through Jan. 1