On Nov. 9, hunters and bird dogs alike will celebrate as Colorado’s 2013-14 pheasant season opens statewide.
According to state wildlife managers, Colorado’s pheasant population, impacted by widespread drought, has declined from the banner years hunters enjoyed just a few seasons ago. Although this will likely mean fewer birds in your game bag this year, there are still plenty of reasons to lace up the hunting boots and explore Colorado’s Eastern Plains this fall.
As an avid wingshooter, pheasant hunting has long been one of my favorite outdoor pastimes. The flash of brilliant color and raucous cackle of a rooster pheasant bursting from dense cover is enough to make even the most seasoned hunter giddy with excitement. I’ve hunted these amazing birds for decades, and it’s a sight and sound that still captivates me.
But there’s also something about the broader experience of hunting pheasants that draws me into the field each year. The fall air is crisp and refreshing, and it’s almost therapeutic listening to the crunch of autumn beneath my feet as I’m trekking through fallen leaves, tangled grasslands and the golden remnants of harvested crops.
Most importantly, pheasant hunting is an opportunity for fellowship with friends or with family. I don’t think I’ve ever hunted pheasants alone. From the bonding experiences that I forged with my stepfather when I was a boy to the new friends I’ve made over the years while afield, some of my most memorable outings were defined not by the number of birds harvested but by the camaraderie and shared experiences with those closest to me.
With thanksgiving fast approaching, make sure that time spent hunting with family and friends is high on your list of things you’re thankful for this holiday season. Pheasant also makes a tasty alternative to that tired, Butterball centerpiece on the family dinner table.
If you go: In years when bird populations are below average, hunting requires more patience and perseverance. But don’t let your hunting plans be derailed by a bleak pheasant forecast. Below are some helpful tips for when birds are less plentiful:
1. Scout for Success
Scouting is always important but it’s even more critical when there are fewer birds afield. Colorado’s core pheasant habitat lies in the vast, cultivated farmlands and Conservation Range Preserve (CRP) fields of Yuma, Logan, Kit Carson, Washington, Sedgwick and Phillips counties. However, during periods of drought, pheasant populations become more localized due to limited habitat. Locating “birdy” areas prior to your actual hunt will make time spent in the field much more productive.
2. Ask for Permission
Much of the land in eastern Colorado is privately owned but don’t let that deter you. Although landowners typically reserve opening weekend and holidays for family and friends, most are open to allowing hunting access to strangers at other times of the year. Be courteous and don’t be afraid to knock on a few doors until you get a “yes.” Some of the best pheasant hunting is located on private property.
3. Burn Some Shoe Leather
There’s no getting around it: When times are tough, you need to burn some serious shoe leather to locate birds. To be successful, it’s important to get off of the beaten path. Some of my favorite hunting spots are in hard-to-reach areas or where the cover is so thick and nasty that even the most ardent Labrador retriever would retreat with his tail between his legs. After a full day of pushing through waist-high cover, your legs will be screaming for mercy. But you’ll likely be rewarded with a bird or two for all your hard work. And just think of all those holiday calories you’ll be burning, as well.
4. Understand a Pheasant’s Daily Commute
Pheasants follow a routine that’s as predictable as your daily commute (well, minus the morning stop at Starbucks for a Frappuccino). Understanding pheasant behavior can ensure you’re in the right place at the right time and help you to locate more birds. In early morning, pheasants leave the thick cover of their roosting sites and move into open croplands (corn, milo or winter wheat) to feed. Depending on weather conditions and hunting pressure, birds typically feed for an hour or two and then seek shelter in grassy fringes (loafing cover) adjacent to feeding sites, where they will remain for the remainder of the afternoon. Pheasants return to open fields to feed about an hour before dark. This behavior pattern remains consistent except during periods of extreme cold or wind or when heavy snow forces birds to seek shelter in dense roosting cover throughout most of the day.
5. Hunt Smart
Pheasants hear extremely well and quickly become savvy to boisterous hunters. Slamming your truck door, yelling at untrained dogs or chit-chatting too loudly with other members in your hunting party is a sure-fire way to return home empty handed. Pheasants often flush in response to shutting off a car engine, so be sure to park away from your hunting area. Lastly, be mindful of wind direction. Walking upwind makes it harder for pheasants to hear approaching footsteps and also makes it much easier for dogs to detect scent.
6. Better Late than Never
Like most things in life – movie debuts, IKEA grand openings, etc. – I prefer to skip opening weekend. In fact, my favorite time to hunt pheasants is in December and January. Not only have the crowds of early season hunters retired to their sofas, but the hunting conditions have improved as well. By December, corn fields and other croplands have all been cut and harvested, forcing pheasants to seek refuge in narrow draws, sloughs, shelter belts and grassy pockets – areas much more accessible to hunters. Additionally, winter snows make it much easier for dogs to track wily roosters. Of course, if you enjoy walking through vast fields with large groups of other hunters, keep opening weekend circled on your calendar. I find it much more enjoyable hunting in smaller parties accompanied by a good bird dog or two. And the conditions later in the season cater to this type of approach.
7. Take Advantage of CPW’s Walk-In Access Program
Although most of the land throughout eastern Colorado is privately owned, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Walk-In-Access (WIA) program offers an excellent opportunity for small-game hunters to access more than 200,000 acres of private land. Atlases are available at license agents and CPW service centers or may be downloaded HERE. Again, preseason scouting is critical, as not all WIA properties support the habitat necessary to hold pheasants.
8. Don’t Forget CPW’s Small Game Brochure
Pheasant season is open from Nov. 9 through Jan. 31, 2014 (Units east of I-25); Nov. 9 through Jan. 5, 2014 (Units west of I-25). A small-game license is required to hunt pheasants and to access WIA properties. For further information, including hunting regulations and bag and possession limits, pick up a copy of the 2013 Small Game Brochure, available at statewide license agents and CPW offices. An interactive brochure is also available by clicking HERE.