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Approaching bird season beckons hunters
Sunrise on the plains is different.
Frosty cold air bites you as the inky black of night slowly changes into the gray, colorless world of pre-dawn, and the sun, which you know is just moments from breaking the horizon, tends to linger a bit longer on the other side of the world.
The air is clear out here, and if you spend a few days, long enough to clear the smell of the city from your lobes, you might notice the country smells that live out here. Stockyards, sure, but also the smell of soil and corn and breakfast frying in a cast iron skillet in a farmhouse kitchen a mile away.
Those are the things that define the plains, along with the people, who are also a different breed. With weathered faces and callused hands, the people here know more about tractors and cattle and crop rotation than they do about dog parks and skyscrapers, but somehow you know that those subjects just don’t come up much around the lunch counter of the local café.
Instead it’s usually conversation about the rain (or lack of), crops (or lack of), and maybe the high school football team that’s doing pretty good in 8-man.
I feel a bit out of place when I travel here. Unlike the mountains, where I can sit and talk with most folks and feel right at home, I tend to feel a bit more like an outsider here on the plains. Close-knit communities require an introduction here and those who don’t have a pass are held at an arm’s length. Come with a friend, though, and even the most urban among us are greeted with a warm handshake and smile and invited into a conversation without being made to feel too stupid.
A lot of people tell me that there’s not much to see on the plains. They recall trips across western Kansas and Oklahoma, where the combines and grain elevators and an occasional windmill are the only things to break up the monotony. I smile when I hear those things and know that those people probably weren’t looking too hard.
The rolling hills of the plains aren’t quite like the rugged rock formations of the mountains, sure, but there is plenty to see. Wide creek bottoms choked with golden-leaved cottonwoods and tamarisk get my mind thinking about the deer that live here, while the long rows of corn and wheat and milo are surely havens for pheasant and quail. And it’s the birds, surely, that bring me here on a regular basis.
Upland bird hunting is an addiction. As an 8-year-old, my dad and brothers took me to Burlington and set me loose on the pheasants there, where I received my first dose of hunting these explosive game birds on the plains. And from the first bird that burst from the cover, an explosion of colored breast and long tail feathers, and cackles that mocked my inability to recover quickly enough to make the shot, I was hooked.
It didn’t matter, really, if I was able to connect or not, it was the flush of the bird from cover that sent my heart into overdrive and made me want to find another. As with most addictions, the saying that one is too many and a million is never enough, the flush of a bird still has the same effect on me now as it did then.
Older now, and a bit more in control of my emotions, I’ve been able to put a fair number of pheasants in the freezer over the past few years. Hunting with pointing dogs helps, and I’ve been blessed to have two of the very best, but I still remember what it was like back in the days before I was introduced to the pleasures of hunting over dogs.
Pheasants, you see, aren’t easy. They can hide behind a blade of grass, they prefer running to flying most of the time to escape danger, and when hunters take to the field it doesn’t take them long to feel the pressure and begin flushing wildly way out in front and much too far away to have any chance at a shot. They are as cagey and wild a bird as any, and filling a limit can be difficult. And now, with Colorado and much of the Northern Plains feeling the effects of a devastating drought, finding birds can be nearly impossible.
Pheasants, though, are fairly predictable in how they live their lives and with the season opener just a couple days away now, hunters around the state are looking to the east and making plans for the opening weekend.
Upland birds focus on three things: food, cover, and water. Food comes in the way of crops, and corn, milo, millet, and other grains top the list of pheasant favorites. Pheasants will typically feed in the early morning and late afternoon but will linger in fields that offer good escape cover close by. Cut corn always offers an excellent combination of food and cover, and when you have a crop field that butts up against heavy weeds, ditch lines, or shelter belts, you’ve got a potential hot spot. Add running water in the form of a spring, creek, stock pond, or tank within a quarter-mile or so, and you’re definitely onto something.
Cover, especially in a drought year, is a premium for pheasants. High weeds and grass is optimal, and I really like the thick stuff that lies down on top of itself to provide good overhead cover. This is the stuff that pheasants gravitate to because while they’re having to hide from human hunters for the next couple of months, they’ll spend the remainder of the year hiding from predatory birds, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, and a variety of other animals that would love to make a pheasant their next meal.
Overhead cover keeps pheasants out of view of the prying eyes of raptors, but it also serves as a roof for the tunnels that the birds will create as they move around underneath the thick stuff. Pheasants will create literal highways that traverse the entire length and width of this type of cover, and it’s not uncommon to have them run circles around you as you plunge in and try to flush them out. Remember, pheasants often prefer to run than fly to escape danger, so as long as they have an opening to get around you, they’ll do it.
Most hunters will spend time pushing cover in a skirmish line, walking from one end of a field of crops to the other in an effort to put birds in the air. Blockers, often positioned at the end of the field, position themselves to keep birds from squirting out the end, and shots will often come at some point between the drivers and blockers where the birds will hang up. This is a time-tested technique, and it has accounted for a lot of bagged birds over the years, but it takes a lot of hunters and I’m not a big fan of having lines of hunters approach each other with the probability of having a bunch of birds jump up at fairly close range between the two.
My pheasant technique doesn’t rely on big groups of hunters, but uses the same principles of pushing birds to a place where they will hold up. I prefer pushing smaller strips of thick cover and using natural barriers such as sparse cover, roads, or creeks, to hold the birds up. Yes, pheasants will cross those areas when they’re pressured, but a slow moving line of drivers will usually convince the birds to hold rather than run.
And that brings up the next point, and that is that no matter what size the cover or how you choose to hunt it, slow and steady is usually the best approach. Most hunters that I see move too quickly through cover and force the pheasants to run. I prefer to move slowly, which keeps the birds moving slowly out in front of me, and this often convinces them to bury up in the thick stuff rather than run or flush wildly, and gives me a chance to get close.
Dogs certainly help when you’re hunting birds and being a pointer guy, there’s rarely a day that I’ll venture onto the plains without my two girls. They see what I don’t and smell what I can’t, and they’re hunters in the highest meaning of the word and live for this stuff. They see thick cover as a playground and they work well together and with me to make pheasants a little easier to find. They’re also well behaved, which makes them a pleasure to have in the field, and they’re always ready for the next field, even when I’m worn out.
But with them or without them, pheasant hunting is ingrained in me. It’s the time and place and people and yes, four-legged friends, that make the trip to the east worth my time.
With the dust billowing in the wake of my truck and the rising sun burning red against the horizon, I hope to find myself there soon, walking the fields and listening to the thunder of wings as birds erupt from the cover.
This is the hunt.
Pueblo West resident Bill Claspell is an avid outdoorsman, hunter and fishermean who also enjoys writing about his escapades. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.