The Art of Solo Pheasant Hunting With Just You and Your Dog
By Lon E. Lauber
If you wrestled me down and made me choose between not hunting pheasants at all, oronlyhunting them by myself, I’d pick hunting solo every time.
Of course, 43 years of chasing wild roosters from eastern Washington to South Dakota, from Kansas back to Montana and even hunting ringnecks in South Korea has taught me the most effective way to hunt roosters is with several slow, quiet hunters with experienced, close-working dogs orchestrating a concerted or even military like strategy.
However, there are many reasons this most efficient manner doesn’t always come to fruition or isn’t quite as enjoyable as a peaceful solo sojourn into pheasant country. Let me explain:
Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to get four hunters and their dogs to stay in unison. One guy’s dog gets on a pheasant scent trail and the next thing you know they are several hundred yards out of line. Sometimes the terrain, especially in the steep, rolling Palouse country of eastern Washington, makes one person go up and around a nearly un-huntable cliff-like hillside while another hunter is walking along a stream and the other two are veering off along a cut wheat field. Before you realize, your uniform line resembles a giant zigzag stitch.
Another reason for choosing to hunt solo is a stark difference in preferred dog work. For example, let’s say you have an older, slower, close-working flushing dog and your buddy has a young, spry big-running pointer. Often the natural competitive nature of your dog kicks in. Your normally obedient close-working canine is out there racing around flushing birds out of range all the while trying to keep up with the pointer. You either have to put extra pressure on your dog to keep him close or you have to ask your buddy to put more pressure on his dog and not let his pointer range so far. Both of these choices can be uncomfortable. Maybe it would be better for the friendship to just hunt independently.
Along these same lines, perhaps you have learned hunting almost mute except for the occasional light whistle toot to reign in your dog; reinforced with an occasional appropriate nick, nick from an e-collar to reinforce the whistle is a more effective pheasant-hunting strategy. But your buddy hasn’t yet learned yelling and whistling loudly all day at his dog nets very few shot opportunities. In a case like this, you may prefer to hunt solitary.
Maybe you have a young pup you are trying to instill certain hunting behaviors into his day-to-day hunting regime and these goals are frequently made chaotic with more hunters and several dogs.
I have one bird-hunting buddy who has spent most of the last two years hunting alone because he has long-term goals of having his dog steady to wing and shot that are almost impossible to ingrain around other dogs, especially those dogs allowed to retrieve upon the flush and shot. I applaud his mettle.
Perhaps you have a new pup that is weak at retrieving and your buddy’s dog is a retrieving machine. It’s normal to want to prop up or enhance your dog’s feeble traits and hunting solo may give your paltry retriever a few more chances to fetch up a couple roosters.
Sometimes you can be the best of friends but your buddy is a dawn-to-dusk hard charger wanting to kill every bird he can, but at your age, you’d rather just hunt a few leisurely hours and are not so worried about the bird count any longer. In a case like this it might be better to hunt by oneself.
Also, there is the immense satisfaction of planning, implementing and carrying out a successful single-handed hunt. When pursuing roosters alone, you choose when, where and how you go about the day’s hunt without influence from others. If the day is a total waste you have no one to blame but yourself. However, if the day is a glowing success, you can drive home knowing you put together a great solo pheasant hunting strategy.
If you are like me, I’m always trying to find new and more challenging ways to hunt. Pursuing roosters on your own certainly qualifies as a way to up the ante.
Finally, it may come down to something as simple as your new job schedule doesn’t mesh with your buddy’s day off to hunt.
Now that we’ve established many viable reasons to get out there and hunt pheasants alone, let’s talk about specific strategies that will increase your odds of success.
First, all the strategies of truly hunting alone, meaning without a dog are basically the same as hunting with just you and your canine companion. The big difference is if I were to hunt alone, without a dog, I’d stop more frequently and stand still for longer periods to make a hiding rooster get nervous and flush nearby. I still do this trick when hunting with a dog but I’m usually standing still, with my gun at the ready, when my dog’s body language has indicated he or she is on hot bird scent and intently trying to locate the bird. From here on, I’ll presume you are hunting solo but with at least one dog.
Pick The Best Habitat For a Solo Hunter
Of course, hunting where there are healthy numbers of vibrant wild roosters will improve your chances. However, knowing your hunting ground well and picking the best “solo” habitat to increase your odds as an independent hunter is a much better strategy than just picking the very best pheasant habitat in general. For example, an entire section of CRP grass may be full of wild pheasants but trying to hunt it alone might be akin to eating an elephant. Yes, you can kill roosters in a big, homogonous CRP field with one guy and one dog, but I’d much rather hunt a smaller chunk of habitat that’s more easily “digested” by one hunter and a dog.
Before you leave home think about the ground you have access to hunt and pick three or four coverts that lend themselves to hunting solitary. If you are tech savvy check out Google Earth or one of the hunting apps like On X Hunt and Huntstand. Sometimes an aerial, visual or topographical depiction of your hunting area might help you find those small but ideal wild rooster haunts you might otherwise overlook.
Hunt The Wind Effectively
If at all possible, walk into the wind or with a crossing breeze to help your dog pick up bird scent more readily. Sometimes roads, steep terrain, property boundaries or allotted time don’t allow you to use the wind in your favor. Whenever possible, select where you start your hunt based on wind direction, even if this means walking for 20 minutes or more across barren ground so you can then walk the next mile with a favorable wind.
I just did this a few weeks back. I was hunting with my seven-month old pointing Lab pup, Tanni. I intentionally walked 25 minutes up a farm road, across a winter wheat field through some sparse CRP grass just to get to the upper end of a long, narrow cattail creek bottom that usually holds at least a few pheasants. Tanni and I worked our way down the draw for more than a half a mile. She didn’t really penetrate the cattails as effectively as I would have like but she did hunt the edges well. About an hour into the hunt she got birdy, soft pointed and then took a couple of tiger crouch steps forward and really lock up into a solid point. A few seconds later a rooster exploded a few yards out in front of her point. I turned and step towards the bird, caught my leading foot in grass and was off balance just enough to shoot two holes in the sky around the safely escaping rooster! Although I didn’t make the shot, the extra effort and crossing breeze obtained by the circuitous route helped produced a nearly perfect shot opportunity.
If you have a really experienced dog, you can save yourself some extra walking and hunt the first section of cover with the wind at your back. A good dog can range out and then work back towards you into the wind. My now deceased and beloved pointing Lab, Kacee, was a natural at hunting back into the wind.
Also, if you are hunting on one of those blustery late autumn days when the wind is howling rather than whispering, remember that a pheasant must first jump into the wind to get an effective launch but will frequently and quickly turn and fly with the wind. The two best ways to kill a flying rooster in a stiff wind is to pick him off when he’s flying slowly into the strong wind and just before he changes direction. Or, if he catches you off guard, wait for him to turn into the wind and really swing through the bird. Remember a load of number 5 shot flying at more than 1,200 FPS can easily outpace a rooster, even with the wind at his tail.
Walk The Edges With Purpose
Please understand that many pheasants will hunker down at the edge of two adjoining habitats. Use this tactic anywhere there is a noticeable change in cover, whether it’s a cut cornfield edge to CRP grass, a chiseled wheat field edging up to a steep brushy hillside or a cut bean field next to a swamp. Walk just five or 10 feet inside the thicker of the two types of cover and let your dog pin a bird along the edge.
Stop and think before you start a hunt. Let’s say you have a wide expanse of tall grass along a farmer’s stream bottom. One side of the stream has ideal pheasant cover 20 to 80 yards wide and the other side of the stream has only five to 15 yards of prime cover. When, hunting solo, I’d pick the narrower section of cover and use the abrupt edge of the tall grass near the cut wheat field to coax a rooster to sit just long enough to give me a shot. If you hunt the wide side of cover, most birds will simply run out to the far edge and flush out of range or even sneak along the open edge and then duck back into cover behind you.
I’ve done this edge-walking trick so many times it’s difficult to remember just one example. However, I recall walking a narrow strip of thick grass between two cut soybean fields. Since the beans were cut, the only logical place for a pheasant to hide anywhere within a square mile was in this thin strip of cover. Kacee got birdy, and just as she stopped to point, a big old rooster flushed, cackling in fear or disgust with our pushing him out of his safety zone. One smooth shot from my Citori 16 gauge turned him into delicate table fare.
Find Natural Barriers
Along the same line of edges, using natural barriers like cliffs, streams, and frozen ponds works wonders. One day while hunting with Tori, an excitable tiny, white pointing Lab that hunted great one day and would spaz out the next, I was hunting alone and heading up a sparse, dry ravine of public ground when she got birdy and scent-trailed a running bird for about 60 yards. Luckily, the bird held in a thick bush at the base of a volcanic bluff. Tori pointed the “stuck” rooster and I easily killed him once he had flushed safely above the rock wall. Tori, raced up and around the bluff and pranced back to me with a handsome carryover rooster like she made this type of find on a regular basis.
Another time right at dark and with one bird left to fill my limit Kacee caught wind of a big ole rooster that got pinned along some swampy CRP grass and a flooded field edge with skim ice on the surface. I can’t remember if this bird actually held for a point or just hesitated because of the ice. Anyway, I barely hit the bird hard enough to bring it down. And, I remember Kacee crashing through the ice, skidding sideways where the ice held her weight and then leaping at and pulling out all the tail feathers of the frantic bird. Finally she outlasted the rooster and returned to me with our prize bird. She was soaking wet and panting but still had a wagging tail. There was nothing at all feminine about that retrieve.
Use Manmade Barriers Too
Where legal and safe, don’t overlook roadside cover, planted windrows of short trees, abandoned railroad tracks and even old farm equipment or deserted buildings. All these items can force an otherwise escaping pheasant to hunker down or hesitate a few seconds while you get close enough to finally make the bird take flight.
I recall one time in South Dakota when my buddy Mike and his excellent scent-trailing Lab were off in the distance and basically hunting solo. But, I could tell by both Mike’s ready gun position and Rowdy’s crouched body language they were getting close to a bird. I stood and watched the spectacle in the overcast light like it was a scene in slow motion from an old 1950s black and white hunting movie. When Rowdy pinned the bird against a giant stack of hay, the bird had no choice but to take flight. Mike crumpled the bird in a cloud of feathers.
Hunt The Thick Stuff But Be Choosy
One of my favorite solo pheasant hunts is walking a frozen cattail slough that would, in warmer weather, be impassable. Often times, pheasants use the cattails to protect themselves from avian predators and the cold, biting wind. This is especially true when the cattails butt up against a cut corn, wheat or barely field. When Tori was young, I remember her intently scent-trailing a running rooster in the intermittent cattails. The flat-bladed, snow-covered cattail stems were thick enough to hide birds but there were plenty of open spaces for me to easily walk through. Tori just kept at it and must have chased that rooster around for five minutes before it finally got nervous enough to flush. I dumped him with an easy crossing shot at 20 yards.
But be choosy which type of thick cover you select when hunting solo. Realize if there are trees or tall brush and you are alone, a cagy old rooster will almost always flush out the opposite side of the cover and you may only hear his thundering wings or cackle but never see him.
If you find yourself in too tall of cover for a safe, visible shot, the best approach is for the hunter to take the upper side of the cover (if on a hill) and direct or coach the dog to go around the other side of the brush. If you are on a flat, let the dog take the favorable wind side of cover. Sometimes you can get a bird to make a mistake in this scenario.
I killed a young, gullible rooster on Thanksgiving Day, this year with Tanni when she was only six months old. It was warm, dry and windy which is about as lousy of pheasant hunting conditions as you could dredge up. Anyway, I sent Tanni down below a tall chunk of thick cover on a side hill while I walked above the cover. She scent-trailed a bird out of the cover and into a cut wheat field. I could tell by her animation she was close to a bird. But before should could point, the running bird changed its mind and flushed in the open for an easy shot.
Don’t Pass Up That Out Of The Way Eyebrow
Many times there are small, out of the way copses of cover just big enough to get a rooster to stay put. Often these eyebrows of cover are just far enough away from larger sections of bird habitat that most hunters are too lazy to walk to. When hunting alone, these little islands of cover can and do produce birds often enough to make the extra effort worthwhile. Besides, with a patch just 10 yards wide and 30 yards long, there is enough cover to make a rooster feel safe but not so much that he can evade you and your dog without flushing in range.
Years ago, I remember hunting with Kacee along a thick narrow stream bottom which was ideal for a solo hunter and one dog. Then, the stream-bottom cover petered out. I could have continued to walk along the open, sparsely covered stream with little chance of finding a rooster or head for a steep eyebrow of knee-high brush about a quarter mile away. I chose to make the extra effort and headed for the small, dense patch of cover. About half way through the eyebrow, Kacee locked up on a solid point. As I approached her on the steep hillside, a giant rooster exploded from the cover and I proceed to miss him three times with my Browning Gold! I can still see, in my mind’s eye, his long, flowing tail feathers undulating in the wind as he escaped unscathed. It’s either sad or funny, depending on your perspective, how I can recall the easy misses and yet the hundreds of good solid hits sort of meld into a big lump of delicious pheasant meat.
Always Walk To The End
In closing, always, always, walk to the extreme end of the cover. I cannot count the number of times I’ve made the additional effort to walk that extra 60 or 70 yards of sparse, short grass only to find a rooster hiding amongst the last few blades of grass.
Just a few weeks ago I finished off a wonderful day of hunting in the snow with Tanni. She’d already pointed several birds and I’d killed two roosters with two shots (which is the exception for me). Regardless of my intermittent shooting, we were hunting down an ideal solo covert. The breeze was crossing the thickly covered narrow draw that was sandwiched between two cut wheat fields. We had just walked out to the end of a 35-yard-long side spur of cover that wasn’t but a few yards wide at the beginning and tapered down to a wisp at the end. Tanni got birdy and I fully expected her to find a pheasant at the very end. However, on this occasion the rooster had doubled back and was now hiding along the six-foot-wide edge of this cover. Tanni slammed on point, almost turning sideways in mid stride. I walked up to her with gun at port arms, the rooster flushed and I dumped him with a skeet-choked barrel when he was less than 20 yards away.
I broke open my shotgun and unloaded a still-smoking empty and one unfired shell. With my vest now bulging from the weight and bulk of three roosters, I trudged back to the truck smiling from ear to ear. I was proud of my pup and pleased with my choice of hunting solo for wild pheasants.