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Late season pheasant hunting



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December 01, 2008
This December represents the fourth annual late season pheasant hunt for the Thumb area. I make no secret about the fact that I fully support this hunt, and the December season has actually become my favorite time to pursue roosters. This is not because of the higher count of roosters in the bag either, but is due primarily to the immensely challenging atmosphere it provides for both my dogs and I.

I have had some negative feedback from a few folks that believe the December pheasant season is an abomination featuring a wholesale slaughter of roosters rendered helpless by a winter landscape. In all cases, the people that I talked to with these feelings have never hunted December pheasants, or even considered trying it. Some had not even hunted pheasants at anytime in recent years, if at all.

One individual told me pheasants appeared so helpless in the snow that he was sure he could run them down and catch them with his bare hands.

I've always had a number of friends and family over for a pheasant hunt during the first two days of the early pheasant season. The average total number of birds that we harvested during those two days have always exceeded the total number of birds taken on my farm during any of the month-long December seasons thus far.

Well, you might say, that is because there are fewer roosters available during December because of the preceding October season. In a world of numbers that may be true, especially when you also figure in birds killed by predation and even automobiles on a daily basis.

However, due to knee surgery, I didn't have an October hunt on my farm last year. Certainly there was pheasant hunting pressure on neighboring properties, which in turn caused my property to become somewhat of a pheasant sanctuary. I noticed plenty of roosters in my habitat during the November deer season. I even witnessed an unusual rooster pheasant ritual in one of my clover firebreaks on a sunny afternoon while deer hunting.

Roosters started coming out of my prairie grass and converging together, and began doing displays with heads lowered and wings outstretched, with a movement not unlike a prairie chicken dance. Being fall, this certainly wasn't some sort of mating ritual that only occurs in spring. I tried to accurately count the roosters, but their movements amongst one another continually thwarted my efforts, although there were probably at least 30 colorful pheasants in attendance.

Fortunately I later ran into a wildlife biologist who had also witnessed this same fall-time behavior, and he believed it to have something to do with the pecking order of roosters before the onset of winter. In any event it was a spectacular display to witness, whether or not I ever have the opportunity to see it again.

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Bob Walker of Kingston bagged this pair of Thumb roosters last December while hunting with the author. Each bird was hard-earned, because December pheasant hunting isn't a cake walk.

Now with seeing that many roosters at one spot, and on un-pressured property, you might think hunting rooster pheasants in December would be a cakewalk. In reality, I must admit that I thought my odds were going to be better than usual. I could not have been more wrong however.

Due to still moving about on a bum leg during the December season, my primary duty was acting as a blocker, something I haven't done since I was a kid, and such gave me a whole new insight into December pheasant hunting.

The first day of December found me scooting quietly around the field of prairie grass we had selected to begin on, well before friends and hunting dogs appeared on the scene to move towards my position and that of another strategically placed hunter. I have long known that roosters hover or hop to pan a field with their sharp eyesight (including better color perception than we humans) to discern any danger when they sense something is amiss. Nothing but their heads will pop up out of the cover for just a brief instant.

My hunting companions with the dogs were just venturing into the field a quarter mile away when I heard one of them call to his dog. I immediately saw what appeared to be black sparks flashing just above the top of the prairie grass at various points of the field, which clued me in roosters might be on the move ahead of schedule.

And they were. They had also keyed in on the locations of the other blocker and me. Roosters began flushing 200 yards ahead of the dogs and being sure to evade the blockers on their winged exit to another field of grass. I had only one fly directly over my head, and I missed him with both barrels.

We then proceeded to the field where all these birds had headed, and knew besides them, there were probably others not flushed yet as well. This new field included a filter strip of switch grass that was heavily laden with a top layer of fresh snow, which opens up a whole new atmosphere of sheer endurance. For starters switch grass is a chest to head-high, dense and tangled nightmare to walk through at any time. Throw in some snow and the challenge is intensified both in physical stress to hunters and dogs, but also in closing the gap on ground running roosters.

I have found that cottontail rabbits create travel corridors through the switch grass under a canopy of snow. Pheasants obviously use these corridors to elude predators, including human hunters and it makes an interesting puzzle for a dog to sniff out as it flounders through both grass and snow.

Needless to say, I didn't locate any helpless roosters I could run down and grab with my bare hands. Such birds should be easy pickings for bird dogs as well, but ours didn't gobble any up. My group didn't shoot any supposedly easy to get roosters either, despite our high expectations that first day. But we had a great time trying.

One thing is for sure. There are not any "dumb" roosters in December, whether or not they are previously hunted during the October/November season. Although my average flush rate averaged five birds per hour this past December (I do a count and log it daily as a volunteer "cooperator" for the DNR), the total harvest for my farm during the '07 December season was only eight roosters. I've had more than that taken by my group on a single October 20th opening day. Finding and flushing the December birds is one thing. Being in range and putting them in the bag is an entirely different matter. I truly appreciate the ultimate challenge this represents.

I'm not sure where this wholesale slaughter of December pheasants is taking place as stated by some. I've been out there regularly from the beginning here in the Thumb and I have yet to partake of a feathered massacre. Pheasant numbers were up last year in my area as well, despite two previous December seasons.

Actually, harvesting surplus roosters promotes the survivability of hens by eliminating undue competition for critical winter food and cover sources (I've viewed grouped up roosters driving hens away from critical food and cover sources), which in turn promotes a better spring hatch. A good hatch with associated weather that promotes the survivability of chicks is what precedes a good pheasant hunting season, not a carry over of older birds. Due to the less than a year average lifespan for a pheasant in the wild, the vast majority of roosters harvested in any given season are young roosters born that same year.

Studies in Michigan have clearly shown there is no effect on the annual propagation of pheasant numbers in counties that have a December season when compared to counties that do not.

If I had to choose only one pheasant hunting season, it would be the December season because I have truly grown to appreciate the added wintertime challenges and a unique atmosphere, despite fewer birds in the bag.

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