Every year, around 2 million Americans partake in the time-honored tradition of pheasant hunting. This sport is popular for many reasons.
To begin with, you can bring your dog. A lot of pheasant hunters use Labrador retrievers to flush roosters out of cover. If you love spending time outside with your dog, this is a great bonding experience for the both of you. And it’s an opportunity for your best friend to bark and chase a wild animal without upsetting the neighbors.
Another reason is the distinctive beauty of the ring-necked pheasant. Everyone loves to eat turkey, but they’re not exactly beautiful animals. Pheasants have brilliant coloring around their necks and unique tail plumage that makes them a popular species for taxidermy.
Finally, there’s a reason that people have been hunting pheasants in Asia since the beginning of recorded history: they’re delicious. The meat is exceptionally lean, and tastes like chicken, with just the slightest hint of gaminess.
Pheasants are a popular game bird for beginning hunters. Unlike with turkey, you don’t need to spend a small fortune on camouflage and decoys. And unlike duck, you don’t need to learn to use a special call in order to draw them out. If you can aim and fire a shotgun, you’re well on your way to be a successful pheasant hunter.
In this guide, we’ll go over the basics of pheasant hunting. We’ll talk about their habits, their habitat, and the best pheasant hunting guns. We’ll also suggest some other useful gear that can make your hunt more pleasant.
Let’s get started!
Do You Need a License?
Like most US hunting regulations, pheasant hunting is regulated by individual states, not by the federal government. As a result, the laws are going to vary depending on where you live. Always check your local laws for licensing requirements, as well as regulations on acceptable shotgun loads or broadheads.
In states where pheasants live in the wild, licenses are usually easy to obtain. The exception to this is the Great Lakes region, where pheasants are relatively uncommon. Most states will require you to take a hunter safety course if you’ve never had a hunting license in the past.
In many states, pheasants are only found on private land. In those cases, you’ll need to check your state laws and the landowner’s individual requirements.
What States Can You Hunt Pheasants in?
Pheasants are actually an Asian bird and aren’t native to North America. They were first introduced by Chinese traders in the Pacific Northwest in 1882 and quickly became a popular game bird. While the West Coast and the Rockies are great places for pheasant hunting, the Great Plains states have the largest populations.
Pheasants can also be found in the Great Lakes region, although the populations there are more sparse, so game tags are limited.
Elsewhere in the US, most pheasants are bred in captivity, and can only be hunted on private land with the permission of the owners. These are generally paid hunts, so be prepared to pay around $10 a head for your birds.
Where Can You Hunt Pheasants?
Pheasants bed down in bushes and other low scrubs. However, you’re not going to be hunting them at night. You’ll be hunting them in the daytime when they’re active. This means you’ll need to find them while they’re foraging, or when they’re on the run from other hunters.
Pheasants spend much of the day grazing in open fields, and they prefer tall grass that provides some amount of shelter. Low scrub, creek beds, and open areas near the edge of the woods are all good places to find them.
A lot of hunters spend their time in the middle of a field, driving pheasants to the edges. You can use this to your advantage by moving slowly and patiently around the edges and letting the birds come to you.
A lot of states release stocked pheasants, just as they would do with stocked fish. Check with your state’s game department to find out where and when they’re going to be released. These birds are much more naïve than their wild counterparts and haven’t developed a fear of humans. If you’re fortunate enough to come across some stocked pheasants, you can fill your game bag in no time.
All of this is different if you’re hunting on private land. In this case, it’s best to talk with the landowner. They know their land better than anyone else, and are usually happy to tell hunters where best to find their game. After all, they get paid for every bird you bag. It stands to reason that they want you to have a successful hunt.
Another method is to simply talk to other hunters who’ve been successful. They’re easy to find in parking areas, because they’ll have smiles on their faces and full game bags. Ask them where they found their birds, and you’ll be well on your way to getting your own bird.
When Can You Hunt Pheasants?
Pheasants are prey animals. Like most prey animals, they prefer to stay out of sight during the brightest part of the day. You’ll have a hard time finding them from late morning through early afternoon, although your dog can still help drive some out of cover during these times. Of course, they’re just as likely to be chasing a squirrel or rabbit, but the sight of an excited dog will quickly drive roosters out of cover.
The first couple hours after dawn and the last couple hours before sunset are prime time for pheasant hunting. This is when they do the bulk of their foraging. Late afternoon is the best time of all, since it’s their last chance to eat for the day, and hungry birds will be desperate for food and take more risks.
Of course, the weather also has a significant effect on pheasant activity. Here’s a quick overview of how weather conditions can affect their behavior.
- Windy weather. This is an ideal time for pheasant hunting. The wind makes it harder to hear you approaching. Use this to your advantage. You’ll still startle them if you’re making as much noise as a bus full of cheerleaders, but the strong wind makes it hard to hear footsteps from any appreciable distance.
- Barometric pressure. Whether there’s rain, a cold front, or a warm front blowing in, birds pick up on it, and seek shelter. Ideally, you’ll be hunting during consistent weather, and not during a change in conditions. If you’re stuck hunting just as a front is blowing in, your dog can once again come to the rescue.
- Cold weather. The cold makes it easier for your dog to pick up a pheasant’s scent. Put on a heavy coat, and use this to your advantage. Pheasants remain very active in the cold, and some of the many successful hunters wait until late in the season to fill their game bag.
- Rain. While pheasants will seek shelter during a heavy storm, the time after the storm is perfect for tracking them. They’re not as heavy as a deer or an elk, so their tracks are often difficult to spot. On the other hand, when the ground is muddy, their tracks will be clear as day.
How do You Locate and Track Pheasants?
Okay, we’ve talked about pheasant habitats, and the right weather to hunt them in. But how do you find them?
To begin with, you can work the edges of fields, and rely on other hunters to drive them in your direction. This is a tried and true method, especially if you don’t have a dog to help you out.
A related method is to hunt with friends. Have one group lie in wait, while the other group swings out in an arc and heads back the same way, making as much noise as possible. This is liable to smoke out some pheasants, who will come right at your location while they’re running from the second group.
If you’re hunting alone, you can still stalk them. Look for tracks in the mud. This is especially easy near the edges of creeks. If you find a bunch of tracks from where birds were coming down for a drink, odds are they’re not lurking too far away.
Use your ears, too. Pheasants have a very distinctive call.
If you hear this sound, move towards it as quietly as possible. Chances are, you’ll be right on top of the bird in no time.
Finally, when you’re stalking, move in a zig-zag motion. A lot of beginning hunters walk in a straight line. Smart roosters will circle around them. Make this mistake, and you can spend the whole day within a few yards of a pheasant without even seeing them. By walking in a zig-zag, you make it harder for a pheasant to slip past you.
What is the Best Weapon to Hunt Pheasants With?
Most states limit pheasant hunting to shotguns and bows. If your state does allow you to hunt them with rifles, stick with a small rimfire rifle. A deer rifle makes a more impressive boom, but it will do a lot of damage to the bird, spoiling the meat and generally making a mess that you don’t want to deal with.
That said, here are some tips on shotguns and bows for getting the most out of your pheasant hunt.
Pheasant Hunting Shotguns and Loads
Most pheasant hunters use shotguns for hunting. The nice thing about shooting small birds is that you can really use any kind of shotgun. A 12 gauge, 16 gauge, 20 gauge, or a .410 will be equally effective, although larger bores will give you a wider spread.
12 gauges are the most popular, mostly because they’re the most popular shotgun in general. This means that ammunition is more readily available, so you won’t find your local sporting goods store sold out during the opening week. However, 12 gauges are notorious for having a lot of kick. This makes them a poor choice for youth, or for smaller-framed adults.
A 16 gauge is a good compromise between a 12 gauge and a 20 gauge, but they’re becoming less and less popular. Not only does this make it harder to find ammo, but most manufacturers are now using 12 gauge receivers on their 16 gauge guns to save on costs. This makes for a sloppy action that’s more likely to jam if you need to take a follow-up shot. In turn, this is making 16 gauges even less popular by the day. Buying a 16 gauge is just a bad investment.
For a smaller shooter, a 20 gauge is generally the best option. These guns are significantly lighter than a 12 gauge and have less kick. Moreover, they’re growing in popularity, which means that ammo is becoming more readily available. If you’re buying a new, smaller shotgun, a 20 gauge is the way to go.
A 410 is also perfectly viable. They’re reasonably popular, and they’re even lighter than the 20 gauge, but they have a significant drawback; your effective range is going to be about 30 yards. This makes for a more challenging hunt, but beginners are likely to get frustrated.
In terms of shot, #4 or #6 shot is your best bet. A choke can be helpful, but most chokes are only rated for use with lead shot. Before you spend money on one, make sure lead shot is legal in your state.
Pheasant Hunting Bows and Arrows
Virtually any bow is powerful enough to bring down a pheasant. To put it mildly, pheasants aren’t the most durable of creatures. Their feathers are tough compared to other game birds, but can’t stand up to a well-aimed arrow.
When it comes to arrow choice, their armor-like feathers do require some consideration. Blunt small game and steel heads are liable to slip off to one side or the other unless they hit dead on. Choose a sharp small game arrow instead.
And leave your broadheads at home. A 2-inch broadhead is going to be overkill, and will spoil a lot of meat. Unless you’re Hawkeye. In that case, just go for the neck. But most people should stick with a small game arrow.
What Essential Gear do You Need For Pheasant Hunting?
Once you’ve chosen your weapon, you’ll need to gear up with some other supplies. Let’s take a look at some of these.
- An orange vest and hat. Whether or not your state requires them – most do – these are essential for your safety.
- A game bag. You’re going to want to keep your pheasants somewhere after you shoot them. A game bag is made just for that purpose! Bring some plastic bags, too, to double-bag your game. This will keep them from bleeding all over your nice game bag.
- A first aid kit. This should be standard any time you’re out in the field. The last thing you want is to be stranded somewhere without a band-aid or Ace bandage when you need one.
- Binoculars or a field glass. These can help you scout the edges of a field quickly. Telltale rustles in tall grass can give away a pheasant’s location from hundreds of yards away.
- Waterproof hiking boots. Wet feet can really ruin your day, and you may need to cross a creek or walk through some mud. Wear a good pair of hiking boots to make this as painless as possible.
- Durable pants. You may need to walk through some dense brush to get to where the birds are. Heavy gauge denim or specialized hunting pants can keep thorns from turning your legs into a road map.
At the end of the day, a successful pheasant hunt is one of the most satisfying experiences in hunting. Depending on your state’s game laws, you can easily bring home a full game bag, and fill your freezer with loads of nutritious game birds. If you want a trophy, pheasants are one of the most popular taxidermy animals in America.
Not only that, but pheasant hunting is a great way to spend time with your friends and your dogs. If you’re splitting up jobs, with one group driving the birds towards another group, make sure to share. It’s the polite thing to do, and your friends will return the favor next year!
Safety is also important. Make sure to follow all your state’s regulations regarding hunter orange clothing. Even if it’s not required, it’s smart to wear a blaze vest and hat. Pheasants aren’t particularly sharp-eyed, so you won’t be losing out on any game, and you just might prevent a hunting accident. On the same note, be aware of what’s behind your target at all times. This is basic gun safety advice, but it’s always worth repeating.
We hope our pheasant hunting guide has been helpful. It’s our goal to share our love of the outdoors with as many people as possible. Follow our advice, and you’re more likely than not to have a successful hunt.
Now it’s up to you. Take a hunter safety class, get your shotgun ready, and go have some fun hunting these beautiful, delicious birds!