Lynn Burkhead — Reading cover a key trick for panhandle pheasants

Herald Democrat
Pheasant hunting success in the Texas Panhandle is admittedly tougher these days than it used to be. The art of reading upland bird cover can go a long way towards bagging a limit of three roosters.

With the Texas Panhandle pheasant season opening up this weekend for its Dec. 5-Jan. 3 run, and as an aspiring upland bird hunter searching for a first bird dog, I’ve admittedly got birds on the brain.

Specifically, the brightly colored roosters that can hide in inches of cover and befuddle even the best hunting dogs and most accurate shotgunners out there.

Add in the fact that rooster busting isn’t quite as good as it used to be in the Texas Panhandle thanks to weather woes and shifts in agriculture and ranching practices — meaning there isn’t as much food and cover as there used to be — and anyone heading northwest in the next few weeks might have a tough time finding a limit of three roosters.

But it can still be done, even if bird numbers are down this year.

According to Derek Wiley, coordinating wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever (www.pheasantsforever.org, www.quailforever.org), there were dramatic differences in precipitation amounts even by a few miles. That means that some areas got better moisture and will have better habitat, and in theory, a few more birds.

“Spring and summer conditions for pheasants have been a little all over the map for Texas with some areas receiving decent moisture and some areas being incredibly dry,” noted Wiley in the 2020 Texas Pheasant Forecast put out by Pheasants Forever.

Where precipitation and the right kind of agricultural production collide, there is still a chance to bag a few roosters for hard working hunters and their bird dogs.

“Pheasant country in Texas is all high plains cropland,” said Wiley. “Finding corners that are planted to grass around a milo field would be the best bet. Public land is limited so be sure to ask for permission.”

If you do happen to hand to the Panhandle for some December wingshooting action — or maybe on to Kansas or northwestern Oklahoma — a simple piece of advice from a couple of pheasant hunting gurus should help up the odds on pheasant hunting success, even in the High Plains country of Texas.

What’s that advice? Good reading, that’s what.

Now, obviously, if you’re reading this, you must be a connoisseur of good reading material. Okay, maybe not. But whether you like my outdoor drivel or not, it pays to learn how to read pheasant cover if you want to bag more roosters.

“How do you read a field?” queries Bob St. Pierre, the longtime VP of marketing and communications, as well as a familiar face and voice for the Minnesota based Pheasants Forever.

“First, you’ve got to pay attention to what is happening around you (when you hunt a hunting spot),” notes St. Pierre. “For instance, if you’re hunting in the late season, you need to know where there is winter cover, where there are shrubs that can hold them in when it’s really harsh. Second, you need to ask, ‘Where’s the food.’”

When in doubt as to where to start focusing his hunting efforts, St. Pierre gets a little bit on edge — literally, I might add.

“When I’m looking at a plain field on opening day, I’m looking at the edges,” he told me in an interview once upon a time. “Things like ditches or where a cornfield meets a little woody cover, pheasants like to focus on this edge type cover.”

The reason for this according to St. Pierre is that edges often serve as a transition zone between where a bird is eating and where it is seeking security or rest.

“(The edge) between food and cover, that’s a good focal point,” said St. Pierre. “Pheasants spend a lot of time in edges, the transition habitat between food, cover, loafing areas, and roosting cover.”

While some edges might be obvious, don’t forget to thoroughly investigate isolated patches of cover urges Rick Young, longtime VP of field operations for Pheasants Forever.

“They’re worth taking a gander at, especially later in the season,” said Young. “Areas that haven’t been hit can be really amazing in the late season.”

While reading a pheasant field correctly at the start of a hunt is important in Young’s mind, so too is simply entering that field with the perseverance to exit the field sometime later having left no stone unturned where a pheasant might be hiding.

“You can walk for six hours, put up a few hens here and there, and all of a sudden you can find a spot where there’s 20, 30, or 40 pheasants there including 10 roosters,” said Young. “When you tell your buddies, it will sound like a really good day, but there was a lot of hard work involved.”

“You’ve got to keep after it,” he added. “I’ve had a lot of experience here. The average guy may get discouraged and give up after four hours by thinking there aren’t a lot of birds here. There could be a lot of birds, you just have to find that one spot.”

In other words, there is often a price that hunters must be willing to pay if bagging a limit of roosters is the goal. What’s that price? Keeping on keeping on, even if the pheasant hunting fields in the Texas Panhandle tend to be smaller than they are in the upper Midwest.

“I’m a firm believer that if you want to shoot roosters, then you’ve got to get out there and put one foot in front of the other,” said Young. “I enjoy getting out there and figuring it out. It’s a game in a sort of way.

“You can’t get frustrated; you’ve got to keep on going. If you put one foot in front of the other, repeat the process, then repeat it again 10,000 times if necessary, you’ll eventually get into birds.”

And that’s true even today in prime habitat areas of the Texas Panhandle, a semi-arid and changing place that can still spit out a limit of December roosters.

Especially for orange clad, shotgun toting upland bird hunters willing to make the lengthy drive, put down some boot leather with their dogs, and shoot straight when the cry of “Rooster! Rooster! Rooster!” goes up into the chilly wintertime air.

That’s a holiday season show that I certainly don’t want to miss, even if the ticket takes a few highway miles and a little sweat equity to purchase.