A Fine Opening Day For Michigan Pheasants

Tom LounsburyFriends of ELO

By:  Tom Lounsbury.

In the gray light of dawn, the pheasant hunters on my farm had released their bird dogs in the yard in order to get the kinks out before the hunt. The growing light in the eastern sky let us know we were in for a splendid day weather-wise, and that certainly worked for me. You name it, and I’ve seen it on Michigan’s October 20th opener for pheasants, including blizzard-like conditions with driving wet snow, gully-wumper rainstorms, and even driving, painful, hailstorms that had both hunters and dogs seeking whatever cover could be found. Yep, folks, I always appreciate a splendid – weather opening day and sure count my blessings whenever it happens.

It was while the dogs were getting the kinks out and getting to know one another (an important pre-hunt process I’ve witnessed since I was a kid) when we could hear farm equipment getting ready to harvest corn nearby and that excited me some, because it was directly across the road from my south prairie grass field, and could be a great benefit in closing down a pheasant escape zone. However, the 60 acre cornfield on my farm, just north of the one being harvested, was not being touched, and it wouldn’t take wily wild pheasants long to figure that out, especially when they realized the hunt was on.

This is where I need to describe today’s wild ring-necks, at least those found in my neighborhood. They are not the same rooster pheasants that hunters experienced during the heyday of pheasant hunting in the 1950’s and early 1960’s (and yep, folks, I was there and remember exactly what it was like). Here in my Thumb area, what is known as the “pheasant crash” with suddenly dropping bird numbers began in the mid-1960’s. Many factors were involved, including a series of back to back severe winters, as well as farming techniques were steadily changing which would gradually eliminate prime pheasant habitat. The introduction of successful herbicides and insecticides would also play a critical role in the pheasants’ overall demise.

What was left, ended up being small pockets of cover which allowed pheasants to survive, and even propagate, and I came to call them “pocket birds”. I never gave up on local pheasant hunting, and the truth be known after all these years, it is the only (wild) pheasant hunting I have ever done. I knew that with a good dog and the willingness to cover some ground, decent opportunities could still be found. From the mid-1960’s to the mid-1980’s, I can state for a fact I rarely encountered another pheasant hunter in the field. The truth of the matter, since I was only harvesting surplus roosters, I never had an impact on destroying what some folks considered as being as extinct as dinosaurs. The key to it all, is proper habitat, especially grasslands.

CRP and CREP would come about in the mid-1980’s, which placed farmland into grasslands, and I saw the beginnings of a widespread wild pheasant resurgence, and with it, more pheasant hunters venturing into the field. When offered an opportunity, the wild pheasants will readily respond.

It was 20 years ago when my wife, Ginny, and I became the 4th generation to own the family (Centennial) farm, and we began to put a major portion of it into various government programs (which helps us pay the bills), featuring primarily prairie grass fields bordered by evergreen shelterbelts. Although it is divided into 3 fields by a ditch and a couple fencerows, it offers a solid block of over 100 acres of cover that is managed primarily for wild pheasants. Doing so, of course, helps all wildlife including wild turkeys, deer, songbirds, and even butterflies.

I would quickly discover that with such a large block of dense cover, cornering and flushing today’s wild roosters can be an extreme challenge. For a fact, I was able to kill more roosters when my cover was more marginal, than I can today. I truly believe when their numbers were down, hunting played a key role in genetically engineering today’s wild pheasant, which rarely hold for a pointing dog, and rarely, if ever, cackle when flushed. If a rooster held for a point, he often went in the bag, and the same applied to roosters which cackled and automatically identified their sex. They simply weren’t around to pass on their genes the following spring.

I also discovered some years back that wild pheasants will do a “hover-up”, by flapping their wings in order to poke their heads slightly above the cover to check out anything suspicious, and they have the keen eyesight and color perception as that of wild turkeys. I swear by and support “hunter orange”, but I know it is a dead giveaway of hunters’ presence, especially for older birds that have been there and done that, and the young birds often follow the older birds’ lead, something they have been doing since they were chicks, in order to survive. Pheasants truly know their ground, which includes “safe spots”, where hunting pressure can be next to impossible. When standing cornfields are available, it doesn’t take pheasants, young and old, long to head for them when shotguns begin booming, and patiently spend the remainder of the day there.

My local wild pheasants had a relatively mild winter this year, and there was a great carryover of birds. They also experienced great nesting and chick rearing weather. During the May/June timeframe, I heard plenty of roosters crowing all over, while they courted the hens, so I knew the fall hunting season might be pretty good (80-90% of wild roosters harvested by hunters in a given year, were hatched that summer). I also knew, with a higher presence of older roosters, that matters could get challenging quite quickly, especially with any standing cornfields close by, which was our case this recent opening morning.

I had the majority of hunters spread out across the back of the south field, and they and the dogs would work their way north all the way to the end of my property. What decided this action was the wind coming directly out of the north, and dogs require a headwind in order to effectively locate and lock onto fast running birds which only fly as a last resort. If dogs end up with a tailwind, well, folks, you might as well “whistle Dixie”, because the odds are on the pheasants’ side, which is usually running circles around you!

The corn-picker was hard at work across the road when my group started its move forward. Due to still recovering from a recent knee injury, I was being a “blocker” in the hopes of intercepting any roosters trying to escape to other parts. In order to do this, another blocker and myself would tool around in my golf cart to a likely position, get out, uncase and load our shotguns, and spread out. This was actually a new experience for me, as I’ve always been a “ground pounder” and dog handler in times past. The truth be known, I rather like being a stander, because I could witness events unfolding and while having an opportunity at trying for any escaping roosters.

I was positioned on the east side of the field, and the corn-picker was going to work across the road directly behind me when the action started at the far west side of the field. I saw a rooster go up and drop to a shot. And then the whole field began to erupt with flushing birds, with a whole bunch headed my way. The pheasants were flying past me like a swarm of bees and there were too many to count. The vast majority were hens but I did identify 3 roosters, which were not safe shots to take (having birdshot raining down on a corn-picker or in a neighbor’s yard can cause you to become unpopular in a hurry). All the pheasants veered over the corn-picker and disappeared into the standing corn to the north. Escaping to that cornfield was where all the pheasants we put up headed for, in singles or in flocks. I must say I was very impressed with the large number of hens I witnessed soaring by.

My neighbor across the road also has a good prairie grass field over a hill to the south, and I heard shotguns booming there right away as well, and saw a large flock of pheasants flying out of the cover and sailing over the corn-picker in order to reach the standing corn. I can only imagine how many pheasants went into that particular cornfield within the first hour of opening morning!

While not many roosters went into the bag (a whole bunch flushed out of range of the hunters – a well-known wild rooster tactic), there was a fair amount of shooting opportunities and there is no question that everyone had a fine time on a beautiful sunny day which featured splendid autumn colors in the surrounding atmosphere.

To me, that is what October 20th is all about, no matter the weather, and yep, folks, hunting wild roosters in Michigan is certainly not a thing of the past.

Tom Lounsbury