Afield with Friends: Pheasants are a real bargain

I knew when my yellow lab, Smack Water Jackson, flushed a wry ring-necked rooster well beyond the killing range of my over-and-under Daily 12-gauge shotgun, I was looking at a truly wild bird.

My thoughts were mindful of the many pheasants that I have been able to chase and bag in a lifetime in Pennsylvania and the great pheasant states of the upper Midwestern drainage systems of Montana and the Dakotas.

The routine always was the same: load up everyone in the Nomad Trail in Jackson Hole and head for Montana, where the Crow Indian country surrounds the famous Bighorn River.

October would signal the beginning of bird season, and Jackson would get his nose full of wild bird scent in habitat that we can only dream about in Pennsylvania.

Once the Bighorn River exits the Yellowtail Dam, south of the tiny village of Fort Smith, the constant flow of cool water intercepts dozens of small streams along its banks. There, backup water provides hundreds of acres of knee-deep water and cattails, with swamp habitat that pheasants love.

Dozens of long ravines – some over a mile in length – abound in rose hip bushes and berries, providing food for long cold winters.

It is Labrador retriever habitat and, as they say in Montana, “If you don’t have a lab, you don’t have a dog.”

Hunting the ravines and swamps for several weeks gives a hunter an appreciation of fine dogs and the habitat that protects the pheasants from predators.

Pressured pheasants soon learn to do what they were born to do. That is, run, run and run great distances before they fly.

North and South Dakota offer some of the most interesting habitat for the hunter, and the wry roosters adapt quickly. While South Dakota has an abundance of agriculture habitat, its neighbor to the north has millions of acres of grass and is a pointing dog’s delight.

Many ranches farm for their second crop, which is the ring-necked pheasant, and it can be an expensive trip.

State game lands receive heavy hunter pressure so it pays to have some friends that allow hunting.

While South Dakota many times will drive pheasants from standing corn or cover for their hunters, North Dakota’s miles of grasses are a favorite for hunting breeds that run big and cover a lot of ground.

Pennsylvania wildlife managers understand that habitat is essential to the survival of pheasants and great care is taken to raise and place birds in good cover crops.

In all the states that I have chased roosters, I have noticed that birds instinctively seek roosting spots just before dark. That is something that they have been doing for millions of years.

Maybe we should condition our raised birds to go to roost and get off the ground. I say that because we have studies that show stocked pheasants , which are collared, have a life span of three to six days.

We have found the best survival rate for pheasants is in standing, unharvested corn with knee-high fall grass that also is left standing.

For the table, the best eating bird is one that has been eating grains all its life. Sage grouse have a flavor of sage; blue grouse and spruce grouse, a flavor of conifer buds. Pintails, canvasbacks and mallard ducks are delicious because they are grain-fed.

Remember this: There are pheasants aplenty in state game lands in good cover. And on the first day, everyone gets a bird or two. After that, the hunters with well-trained dogs get ’em all!