Some pheasant hunts I’ve been on resemble track and field events more than hunts. The dogs are trying to hunt, but the hunters are moving so fast they’d be lucky to sniff out a rotting skunk.
A lot of pheasants, instead of running, simply sit and hide.
Going too fast on a pheasant drive is either inexperience, too much coffee or a case of hunters forgetting the dogs have the high-powered nose. People have a poor sense of smell and don’t really appreciate what it means to have a cosmic sense of smell. Many don’t understand dogs need some time to sniff around and sort things out scent-wise. Dogs ‘see’ with their noses afield. Take a look, dogs often hunt with their eyes closed because they don’t need them and often open eyes get injured in heavy cover.
If you’re going to speed through good cover, you may as well put your guns down, tie on some tennis shoes and go for a jog because the dogs sure aren’t going to find anything unless it’s in front of their noses to begin with.
Sure, some young roosters are going to flush close and easy early season. You can also employ blockers to intercept birds that flush way out. But let’s use our brains here folks: Dogs have an incredible sense of smell and hearing, which they often use to detect prey, so give them time to use both.
When I was young, I often walked too fast until someone older and wiser told me to slow down. Of course, it’s hard for young folks to walk slowly and for old folks to walk fast. If you’re panting and sweating, you’re going too fast. Walk like you do when you’re window shopping, saunter.
It is especially important to go slow when hunting with the wind, as is often necessary, when the dogs need even more time to sort out scent trails by back tracking into the wind and cross wind tracking. If there’s no wind and the cover/air is too dry for good scenting, sauntering is even more effective for the dogs and your game bag.
Let the dog ‘take over’
Letting your dog take the lead may seem bird hunting heresy. But think about it, once afield hunting we’re only there to shoot what the dog flushes or points. The dogs are in the driver’s seat, and we are merely passengers. That may not sit well with some ‘Type A’ controllers, but they aren’t out there to hunt anyway.
In most cases, humans can’t find the birds. That’s what a dog is for. Let them do it.
Train yourself to let go and let the dog lead. I’ve had to train myself to truly and sincerely trust my dog and follow his lead except, for example, when he’s chasing deer or about to run into a busy road.
I even tell my dog afield “you’re in charge now buddy.” It’s also a reminder to myself that the dog is in charge and my task is to follow him and walk slow enough not to push him off a scent trail. I have a springer and they, like other dogs, can be ‘hurried’ off a bird trail. Don’t do this. Are you out there to walk in a pretty, straight line or shoot roosters? If the latter, let your dog take over and follow him.
Pay attention to the dog
Watch your dog closely when you are hunting, especially its head and eyes. Dogs take their lead from their masters, as they’re trained to do. If your body language is to go jogging, they’ll do their best to find birds, but their priority is to stay with you, especially flushing dogs. But when I slow down, my dog immediately notices and puts the slower pace to very good use doing what he does best: detecting and following fresh pheasant scent and flushing birds within range.
Experienced flushing bird dogs will check in to see where we are and let us know where they are. If you look as they pass by, you’ll see your dog lift its head from the ground or turn its eye and look at you – especially early in a hunt. He’s judging your pace and adjusting his/her accordingly.
Try this. Let some ‘jog’ hunters go by you and see what your dog does. He’ll stick with you -- and will find more birds. While your buddies are at field’s end wondering where the birds are, you’ll be shooting at the roosters they just blew by. I’ve even back tracked over poorly hunted ground and shot birds.
I often employ the ‘stop’ to get roosters mid-field and just short of a field’s end. This technique came about by accident. On a drive, I’d sometimes stop mid-field for a drink of water. Also, we often stop at field’s end for the same or to chat about where to hunt next.
Then I noticed something: often while doing this the dog would either flush a rooster or one would flush just out of pure fear they had been discovered. I clearly remember one time in South Dakota when a buddy and I stopped to yack at field’s end and two roosters, one after the other, flushed within five yards. I bagged both of them without moving my feet. That’s a lesson I’ll never forget.
This discipline (and you know the definition of discipline: doing something that goes against your grain because you know it’s worth doing anyway) is particularly effective against roosters that have had jog hunters flying by them all season. They just sit down knowing the hunters flying by will drag their dogs along with them and within a few minutes they can get on with their lives. Slowing down is sort of a modified still hunting technique for pheasants; a bit quicker form of ‘stop-look-listen’ that novice hunters are taught.
It’s not always easy to insist your fellows walk slow, stop off and on mid-field or stop short of a field’s end. This is especially tough to do in the morning when everybody is full of energy, its cold and folks are buzzed on coffee. You become the controller, the spoil sport, the know-it-all. In these instances, I just go off on my own if I can.
Don’t we get outdoors to forget about work, about hurrying up and getting things done and to reconnect with nature’s ancient rhythms, enjoy her beauty and reassert our cunning predatory instincts? Focus on becoming a human-being instead of a human-doing. You’ll be more relaxed, have more fun and get more birds. Guar-an-teeeed.
Mark Herwig, who has hunted pheasants in every state that has ‘em since he first chased roosters in 1968, is editor of Pheasants Forever Journal and Quail Forever Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credits: Main image – Logan Hinners, Pheasants Forever / first image – Mark Herwig, Pheasants Forever / second image – Anthony Hauck, Pheasants Forever