The first weekend in December remains a special time filled with cold morning jaunts and warm local hospitality as pheasant hunters from near and far look for their picture-perfect moment.
Perhaps it’s that first rooster that rises against the glowing eastern horizon, its kaleidoscope of plumage glistening in the brilliant light as it barks out resonating cackles in its haste. Maybe it’s the sight of a pair of well-trained bird dogs nosing through stubble and vegetation looking for their own magic moment. Or it could just be the beaming smiles of old friends and new ones as you partake in a tradition as old as anyone can remember.
This pheasant season has shaped up to be good in the top of Texas and decent farther to the south, and while that isn’t a great forecast as there previously has been in the past, there still should be a plethora of birds this weekend and further into the season.
With that in mind, here’s a quick look at some things to remember whether you’re hunting your 50th opener or your first.
Target thick cover: Look for the heaviest vegetation near food and water sources, including areas that would discourage some hunters, and you’ll find birds. One of the greatest opening-morning pheasant outings I’ve been on took place in an overgrown, abandoned feedlot near Gruver. There still were poles and fences, which hindered moving quickly through the area, but there probably were a couple of hundred birds hanging out in about a 10-acre area, which made for some wild action. Playa areas, tailwater pits and stubble adjacent to lands in the Conservation Reserve Program are examples of places to target that almost always hold birds.
Work slowly: Early in the season, pheasants won’t hold as tightly, but some still will hide out rather than take flight, and by moving slower through an area, you’ll often make birds nervous. Pheasants would much rather not take flight to avoid oncoming threats, but many times I’ve seen hunters and dogs simply miss wary roosters because they walked right over them. It still amazes me how such a brilliantly colored bird can hide at all, but they do and do it well.
Work into the wind: This will give dogs better scent patterns and will make for easier shots as pheasants almost always flush and fly with the wind. This is a good strategy if you aren’t working with canines, but if you are it simply makes it easier for them to locate birds, especially on colder days when it’s easier for dogs to work and also pick up scent easier.
Pick only safe shots: Know where your drivers, blockers and dogs are at all times, and if you have any concerns, don’t shoot. On that same opening hunt in Gruver some years back, a fellow an acquaintance invited at the last minute peppered a good family friend in the face who was blocking the end of the field because he didn’t check his background before squeezing the trigger on a fluttering rooster. On some hunts, a line of hunters quickly can become condensed, especially if a field narrows near the end of a walk, and it’s always the best policy to keep the muzzle clear and pointed straight up. When it comes to dogs, they almost always come into and out of view if they’re working thick stuff, so don’t expect only pheasants to pop out of vegetation at any moment.
Be quiet: Don’t slam doors or talk loudly when preparing to hunt an area. It’s the easiest way to alert birds to your presence and send them running. On another opening morning hunt in a past season, the caravan of pickups and SUVs stopped near a hot spot at first light and everyone piled out and commenced to cutting up and talking about how cold it was while also banging around in a search to find more clothing and other gear. The happy mood quickly changed when everyone noticed scads of birds busting cover in the distance and loafing toward the horizon and the end of the field where blockers hadn’t had a chance to set up.
Hunt later in the season: Birds will be more wary and likely will hold tighter but there also will be less pressure, which could mean concentrated bunches of pheasants near available food source areas. There’s no doubt pheasants wise up to the whole situation after being hunted for a week or two, and especially later in December they often will gather in places where they haven’t faced a threat. By going off the beaten path if you have access, you also can up your chances of finding enough birds for a limit.
Stick with it: It is generally agreed that the first hour and last hour of daylight are the best times to hunt pheasants since they are more apt to be around food sources, but the birds are still around during the middle of the day. You just have to target areas where they head to and hunker down after feeding.
Stay legal: It’s illegal to possess pheasants with proof of sex removed until you reach your final destination, which means leaving a leg including the spur or the entire plumage attached to the carcass. It also is unlawful to hunt by the aid of dragging of a cable, chain, rope or other device connected to or between a moving object or objects. The daily bag limit is three roosters and the possession limit is nine, and hen pheasants may not be harvested.
Plenty of opportunities: Many hunters will only hunt opening weekend, but if you’re looking to hunt later, contact the chamber of commerce in almost any town in the Rolling Plains and Panhandle, and they more than likely will be able to hook you up with someplace to hunt unless you prefer going through an outfitter or a landowner. You also can search TPWD public lease areas, which will have less pressure later on.