By Tom CarpenterPhotos by Dr. Seth Bynum
The only thing you can control about wind is how you hunt it.
You can also enjoy the companion On The Wing Podcast to this story: Podcast Ep. 138: 11 Tips for Bird Hunting with the Wind
You must be laughing at the title of this story. That’s good.
Hunting with the wind? Every pheasant hunter knows you keep the wind in your face and coming right at the dog’s nose, yes?
But that only works part of the time. At some point you’re going to have to turn back to vehicle or camp, and then what do you do?
And “out and back” isn’t always a reality — or the best idea — anyway. The edges (both sharp and subtle) in terrain and habitat features that we pheasant hunters like to follow are not always straight. Being in the right place is more important than having the wind “right.” Wind can be a fickle thing: it can roar so hard you can barely stand up straight, it can lay so low you think there isn’t any airflow at all, and in pheasant country it can change direction and velocity on less than a whim.
And I offer this: Working directly into the wind is the best plan less than 50 percent of the time. Digest that. There is no scientific basis for the statement. But there are 46 years’ worth of upland journals notating the details of every pheasant hunt (mostly on our own) that my dog at the time and I have been on, telling me so.
The one commonality in all those entries is this: Wind is seldom “perfect.” Nobody knows what a perfect wind for pheasant hunting is anyway, and your idea of it would differ from mine. So you need to be creative day-by-day, hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute sometimes, in how you and your dog work with the wind — with in the teamwork sense — to increase your odds of cornering a rooster.
As you might suspect, some of the ideas I share will challenge conventional wisdom.
Big, small, nonexistent, damp, dry, hot, warm, cold and compass direction: Wind does what it wants and there is nothing you can do about it other than hunt. If you wait for your idea of an ideal wind, you’re going to have a lot of excuses not to hunt.
So, with utmost consideration to your dog’s safety (mostly as it relates to heat, cold or wet), don’t fret. Just go. Pheasants are not shot in diners or from truck seats, or in wishes or daydreams. And especially when on a trip, you may not have the luxury of waiting for wind perfection. You gotta hunt.
CULTIVATE CANINE CASTING
Do everything you can to encourage your dog to quarter — that is, cast back and forth as you two cover ground. It is elementary yes, but key to everything. Dogs that run straight lines only find occasional birds by luck. That said, who cares about how perfect that quartering is? I don’t even like that name, preferring casting instead. As long as your dog is having fun, engaged, and running-habitat, great. That is its best chance for catching bird scent and working up a flush or point.
How to encourage casting? With a pup, put them on a check cord and guide them back and forth as they romp head of you, until it becomes natural and part of them. Fortunately, most well-bred bird dogs of every breed have casting DNA’d into their behavior. But many great online resources can help you figure out how to teach it in both pups and adult dogs.
Here we go: You and the dog are in the field. Moving into the teeth of a breeze seems to make sense, especially if you can get into position downwind of key terrain or vegetational edges. In these situations, I’d rather get a wind blowing from the best cover out to me and the dog.
Take advantage of this whenever you can. Example: the wind is coming across heavier cover where the birds might be — a cattail seam or flow of willow thickets, let’s say — so work along the edge and let the dog cut in when it wants.
HUNT CROSSLOTS OR ANGLES
Blocks of cover present a different challenge.
As pheasant hunters we often end up in expanses of grass, be they native uplands, prairie restorations, WPA grasslands, good pasture grasslands, CRP fields, big pollinator plots, you name it.
Heading straight into the wind, even with your dog casting well, covers but one swath. But consider this: Your dog’s nose is a magnificent machine. Couple that with the concept of casting and you can cover a field more thoroughly by working back and forth across the wind, or at angles into it. Scour that place. The dog is smarter than you and will constantly have breeze flowing to its nose.
I call it crosslots. Cross at the downwind end, work ahead an appropriate distance to just reach uncovered ground, then cross back the other way. Repeat. Or do angles.
If you insist on attacking a breeze straight on, at the very least don’t waste steps and time just walking straight back when done. Whenever a breeze is generally from behind you, work crosslots back and forth to give the dog some chance of picking up scent of birds you pass.
Sometimes it’s tempting to try and work a poor wind out, and then hunt prime cover back, into the breeze. Even if it takes extra planning, driving or other maneuvering, use your fresh, energized and engaged dog first on the best thrust you can envision in the cover. Hunt birds, not the wind. I would rather be where I think the birds are, with a less than ideal wind (that’s what we have casting dogs for, to run the nuances of scent and do what they were born to do), rather than rigidly stick to a plan because the wind dictates it. That leads us to:
SWING, ANGLE, MANEUVER AND CIRCLE
Being honest: Wandering is fun. Part of the “hunt the habitat not the wind” mentality is being willing to take the extra steps and time needed to swing, angle, circle and maneuver into some type of favorable wind position for the dog to work a particularly pheasanty-looking patch of cover.
GET OUT OF THE BLOW
If you need to hunt in a big wind, do what pheasants do: Get out if it, or at least where it’s not blowing as hard. Hunt there. Look for swales, draws, dips, thicker vegetation, cattails, and grassy shrub thickets such as willows or dogwoods.
Big winds are tough to hunt. Bird scent blows away fast, making scenting conditions challenging for dogs. It has always been stylish to say birds are fidgety in big winds. My journals show they are just as likely to sit tight, whether it’s all of them or just that one straggler you need to sag your gamebag on a crappy day. The solution either way? Hunt those less-windy micro-spots on the landscape. And hunt slow. Real slow. Let the dog work and re-work good places. Keep working for the straggler-holder if you get a mass or popcorn flush.
FIND THE WAFT
Big wind is a pain and not always so fun to be in. Extremely calm conditions are pleasant to be in, but can be tough to hunt in: With no wind movement at all, it’s challenging for your dog to scent a bird.
When the wind lays low beyond perception, try floating some milkweed seeds into the air to see if there’s some miniscule indication of a wafty airflow to work into. Or use a deer hunter’s wind-checker.
Early and late in the day, when wind is likely to be calmest, consider another deer hunter’s trick. In morning, when thermals are rising, hunt higher than where the birds might be. In the evening, when thermals are sinking, hunt lower.
TRUST THE DOG
Our dogs are better than we are at finding birds. Sure, we can see the habitat and make guesses and try to help. But a dog’s nose doesn’t guess: It knows. And your dog knows how to use whatever airflow there is. Treat yourself sometimes and just let the dog lead the hunt.
For the pheasant hunter, wind is more friend than foe, more ally than adversary, more helper than hindrance. As long as you work with it.
Tom Carpenter is editor at Pheasants Forever.
This story originally appeared in the 2021 Fall Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!