Tips for Colorado Pheasant Hunters
On Nov. 12, hunters and bird dogs alike will celebrate as Colorado’s 2016-17 pheasant season opens statewide.
According to wildlife managers, pheasant populations have improved significantly over last season. Precipitation returned to much of the core pheasant range in the last three years helping to improve nesting conditions and rebuild Colorado’s pheasant crop. Although pheasant populations remain below the peak numbers that hunters enjoyed seven years ago, there are enough roosters to keep things exciting and plenty of additional reasons to lace up your 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 birds for decades, and it’s a sight and sound that still captivates me.
In addition, 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 there’s something therapeutic about 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 important, 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 that I’ve made over the years while in the field, 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 afield is one of the things you’re thankful for this holiday season. Pheasant also makes for a tasty alternative to that tired, Butterball centerpiece.
If you go: You should expect an average pheasant population this year. Prepare to burn some shoe leather and to spend some time scouting to locate birds. The following tips will help you get the most out of your hunt this season:
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 Reserve Program (CRP) fields of Yuma, Logan, Kit Carson, Washington, Sedgwick and Phillips counties. However, pheasant populations are localized based on the habitat that’s available in these areas. Locating “birdy” spots 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 granting hunting access to strangers at other times of the season. 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. And if you’re granted access, don’t forget that a thoughtful “thank you” can go a long way toward getting future permission.
3. Burn Some Shoe Leather
There’s no getting around it: You need to burn some serious shoe leather to locate birds, particularly in years when bird populations are just average. 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 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). 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 midday. Pheasants return to open fields to feed about an hour before sunset. 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. Hunt into the wind whenever possible. 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 easier for dogs to track wily roosters. Of course, pheasant hunting is also a highly social activity, and if you enjoy the camaraderie of walking through vast fields with large groups of other hunters, keep opening weekend circled on your calendar. However, I find it much more enjoyable hunting in smaller parties accompanied by a good bird dog or two. And late-season conditions are better for 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 offices or may be downloaded HERE. Again, preseason scouting is critical. While WIA properties provide land access, CPW cannot predict what wildlife species a field may support in any given year, due to weather or local conditions.
8. Don’t Forget CPW’s Small Game Brochure
A small-game license and a Harvest Information Program (HIP) number are 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 2016 Small Game Brochure, available at statewide license agents and CPW offices.