Late-Season Roosters

Published in the East Oregonian, January 18th, 2020. 

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Let’s face it. Whether satisfying a hard-charging, time-consuming passion or taking afield as a weekend warrior, hunting hard can wear you down. And, Heaven forbid, at some point you may even want to take a break. From my perspective, I don’t necessarily want a day off. But the pre-dawn wakeup calls get old in a hurry once the temperature dips below freezing. This is where pheasant and I have something in common.

A general theme among pheasant hunters is to bust thick roosting and refuge cover all season long. This is a solid, proven tactic. However, the terrain and expanse of wheat in our area can narrow covers and funnel the wind, setting up a repeated, ideal scenting approach, worn out by the hunter/canine duo.

Rooster pheasant are some of the sharpest game birds out there, sporting incredibly fleet feet. They wise up quickly, particularly to repetition. And by the end of the first month of the upland season, finding roosters willing to hold for a pointing dog is like telling your buddy with a straight face that his Griffon is “stylish” as it backs your setter. Not happening! (Relax, I am only kidding.)

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Understanding pheasant behavior provides insight to changing tactics throughout the day, as well as across the season. Pheasant spend a large part of their day working edge habitats such as the crop field/grassland interface common among our rolling ag-lands. It’s true that severe cold will force birds to seek heavy refuge cover and stay in it or near it much of the day. On average winter days, bird may sit longer in the morning before leaving cover, but they will lazily leave and move upslope to feed and loaf in the sun in often overlooked covers. And the bonus goes to the uplander who capitalizes on this behavior, enjoying a later, more relaxed morning before heading afield.

Late-season roosters are bound to flush further ahead and out of gun range relative to early-season. The majority of the birds will vacate public land when pushed, but a handful are likely to drop back into the refuge cover and sit tight or disperse to predictable pockets. If the roost cover is what you and your dog work best, go ahead and hit it early, but consider this: There may be another approach angle conducive to pushing fleeing birds into strategic locations for a second contact.

The experience of flushing a quail covey and hunting singles sprinkled across the prairie can translate to pheasant, particularly when flocked up at the tail end of the season. I have found this productive with flocks generally of more than a dozen birds.

Another strategy is to hunt with partners and additional dogs. I spend the majority of my season alone with one or two setters on the ground at once, which puts me at a disadvantage over those who hunt with friends or run flushing dogs in the thick stuff. First, identify any likely escape routes and try to cut them off. Also, narrow points that you can spread across and push birds into are likely to hold birds longer as some will be reluctant to flush into open areas like an expanse of planted wheat field.

Vary your path through cover. If I had a nickel for every rooster that ran around the dog and flushed behind me, I might have five bucks by now (you can do the math). Walking a predictable path allows a wily rooster an easy escape. By varying your path, you are more likely to encounter that escape artist trying to pull the end-around on you, forcing a flush out front, opposed to over the shoulder; a much higher-percentage opportunity. The only downside? There are no [legitimate] excuses for a miss out front.

Alright, we’ve covered the coverts. Let’s consider a few other points. How often do you hunt quietly? Pheasant will flush at the sound of a distant car door or voices when heavily pressured. Leave the whistles and beeper collars in the truck. Speak only when necessary and use soft voices. This sounds a little silly and extreme, but is a must if you hunt public land or public access.

I use a whistle and run my setters in vests. I have seen roosters flush hundreds of yards ahead at the blast of a whistle or the sound of brush against the vest as the dogs close in. I avoid all unnecessary auditory communication with my dogs by mid-November, relying heavily on visual cues to direct them, even when they want to run big.

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Now, what are you shooting? I have been a 16-guage fan for years, but finally broke down and bought a CZ Bobwhite G2, chambered 20-gauge. Loaded with 3-inch magnum Kent steel 4-shot, this little gem has secured more pheasant this year than I have ever touched in my upland career. While some claim that the 20-gauge is best swapped for a 12-gauge magnum load when hunting extreme cold, I have no intention of switching out for late season. With that said, I do agree that magnum loads are a must, as well as larger gauges if you consistently shoot lighter loads, as extreme cold can rob power from the powder charge.

Another consideration is choke, and I do recommend choking up with colder weather and the potential for pheasant to flush further out. Remember that steel patterns tighter than lead. This means that when changing out choke tubes (if you have this luxury), swap to “improved cylinder” if you want to shoot a “modified” pattern, for example. For a double gun, I recommend “improved cylinder” and “modified” chokes for steel shot and “modified” and “full” for lead shot.

As the season progresses, get creative. Try new territory. Don’t be afraid to get a late start. Play on pheasant feeding behaviors considering upland food sources over lowland coverts. The pheasant season ends December 31st in eastern Oregon, but the eastern Washington season runs through January 20th this year (two days left). You can pick up a 3-day non-resident small game license for $68 and there is plenty of “Feel-Free-to-Hunt” land within an hour of Walla Walla.

Regardless of how you play the game, bask in the moment of every hunt. Our passion is stoked by the time afield, the work of the dog, the feel of that coveted scatter gun, cold in our hands, and the distant cackle of a rooster making a fool of all who pursue him. Tail feathers protruding from the vest, while hard earned and respected, is mere icing on the cake.

Tenkara Angling for Snake River Smallmouth

Since discovering tenkara fly-fishing a few years ago, I don’t travel much without a tenkara rod. Tenkara rods are telescopic, collapsing down to about eighteen inches and only require a fly line, leader, and a handful of your favorite flies. Minimal gear and super simple. Absolutely unfettering after years of lugging a minimum of four fly boxes, two reels to accommodate floating and sinking fly line, fly line sink tips, split-shot and strike indicators for nymphs, a variety of leaders and tippet strengths, dry-fly float coat, and the list continues. 

This third-generation fly-fisherman seeking squishy-finned, speckled trout and salmon almost exclusively, had convinced himself to carry every possible method and fly pattern in the pack at any given time. We all know trout can be picky. But with the burden of gear selection removed from the equation, fly-fishing is once again magical, comparable to my single-digit years casting from the red clay, muddy margins of a forgotten farm pond. Back when I was a normal-sized human, able to snag my line in the tall fescue on the back-cast.

Given the simplicity of tenkara gear, its easy to toss the necessary items in the truck or pack for any occasion as you never know when you might find yourself in a situation where a fishing rod comes in handy. One such occasion was a recent trip to the Snake River to still-hunt Eurasian collared doves.

A tenkara fly rod on the Snake River is about like hunting grizzly bear with a straw and spit-wad. The gear doesn’t quite match the task. Nevertheless, I tossed the tenkara rod into the back seat with my CZ Bobwhite double-gun and hit the field. I figured once I had missed a few birds, I could sneak around some backwaters with the tenkara rod to try and pluck a few bluegill from their spawning beds.

The CZ Bobwhite G2 and tenkara rod are a formidable team for an epic day afield.

If you have never hunted collared doves, I recommend it as a challenging bird hunt to be had at any time throughout the year. Collared doves are considered an invasive species and not regulated to a season or bag limit. Watching, listening and sneaking through cover, closing the gap on their raspy coo is nearly as thrilling as crawling through starthistle and yellowjackets to get a bow shot at a dandy four-point muley buck. And the table fare is exquisite.

 Hunting collared doves is a story for another time, suffice it to say that on this particular day, I scattered eight-shot to the wind, simply making a racket with my little twenty-gauge side-by-side and educating the doves to heighten the challenge on my next attempt. Disappointed in having failed to add the appropriate choke tubes to the shotgun, I strolled over to a small riverside pool and reached for the tenkara rod.

Bluegill were stacked into the shallow margins of milfoil beds and guarding nests with hostility.  Casting ahead, I began slowly twitching a hideously-tied prince nymph through the shallows and into the beds policed by the feisty gendarmes. Readying myself to deliver a one-man clinic on the proper techniques for catching panfish hand-over-fist, I experienced crushing fail number two of my cast-and-blast adventure.

Amusingly, the bluegill that I was certain would eagerly run down and engulf the fly, fled hastily as if the nymph were noxious. A first for me in thirty-five-years of angling panfish. While switching to a smaller fly would likely have done the trick, I decided to change tactics, casting beyond the weed bed and letting the fly sink. On the second cast, the line jerked as if someone reached out and flicked it with a finger.

Popping the rod tip and sinking the hook into what I thought was a bigger bluegill turned out to be a smallmouth bass about eight-inches long. While I wielded a rod I had built for salmon, I was surprised at the small fish’s power against the heavy backbone of the thirteen-foot broom stick. Marveling over its bronze striping and deep red eyes, I eased it back into to the semi-turbid waters, excited at the opportunity.

Thinking it a fluke, a few casts later found the fly embedded in the upper jaw of another smallmouth, only this one a bit bigger. A solid twelve-incher that worked the tenkara rod impressively. Growing up on the Shenandoah River in Virginia, I had landed literally countless smallmouth of this caliber in my youth. The moment reinvigorated the excitement and admiration for the fight of the bronze-back that never fades from memory.

A momentary flashback to a sultry summer evening with a few of my best friends wading deep into remote ag-land reaches of the South Fork Shenandoah sparked a chuckle. While the Shenandoah was a blue-ribbon smallmouth river, I still rarely caught fish much bigger than I was seeing this day on a pocket water to the Snake River, 2,700 miles west.

Returning to reality and the immediate problem of daydreaming of fishing past rather than capitalizing on fishing present, I laid out another cast to the edge of the weed bed. Working the shoreline, about every fourth cast enticed another willing smallmouth. The bluegill scurrying from my shadow now completely forgotten.

The Snake River is a bit of a stretch to recommend as a fly-fishing destination, but if you find yourself in the position to give it a shot, go for the backwaters. Every boat basin and drainage mouth provides a unique environment much simpler to fish and teeming with bass and panfish, not to mention common carp, if you seek true adventure.

The wisdom of using big baits for big fish holds true for bass, but don’t over-do it. Nymphs, streamers and dry-flies, sizes eight to twelve are my preference. Ironically my personal best bass have all come on some of the smallest baits, and always while fishing for panfish.

Warm-water fishing for a cold-water evangelist is a back-of-the-mind prospect, yet each time I give it a whirl, I am pleasantly reminded of the merits of such an endeavor. It’s a great opportunity in a pinch requiring little time and the most basic gear to realize the value of keeping it simple and simply catching scrappy smallmouth in the marginal waters of the infamous Snake. 

Fresh Snow, Blaze Orange and Opening Day Roosters

Turning down Lewis Gulch, I spied a beautiful draw curling into the wheat fields, free of human track. A sight for sore eyes on the eastern Washington pheasant opener. Whipping the Tundra to the shoulder and throwing her in “park”, we finally had something to look forward to.

Deciding to try something new this year, I quickly re-learned that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We had left home at 5:00am. Four hours hence, we had yet to put boots on the ground for lack of room in the bird covers.

Releasing Finn and Zeta and wading the waist-high grasses, we took delight in our first snow romp of the season as about an inch had fallen above 2,500 feet in the wind farm. The girls and I climbed steadily through the white fluff with the anticipation of pushing roosters to the end of the draw began building. My gut tied in knots with visions of the red-faced, cackling prairie clowns erupting at field’s edge. I knew birds were there. The variety of thick and thin shrubs and grasses was too good to be void.

Zeta inspects the field edge, pretending to find a wily rooster.

It was risky running Zeta the only hour we would hunt this opening morning, but she needed the exposure and the exercise. Half way up the draw, the grasses began to shorten and the cover narrowed to a teardrop point in a ridge-top saddle. Exactly where a running rooster hesitates briefly at the open field before bursting airborne as the dog creeps onto point. And bursting pheasant is precisely what Zeta had in mind.

Shifting my grip on my 20-gauge double for a quick mount, I spied Finn trotting back toward me, eyes on the wheat field. She then stopped cold, turned and came at a run. The gig was up. Finn always returns when a dog bumps the birds. Sitting at my feet with a sheepish gaze, her wide eyes tattled on young Zeta, who was ranging out of sight in utter merriment, according to my GPS locator.

Finn and I crested the hill to find Zeta frolicking in the snow and leaping grass tufts as she does at home, double-checking the brush in the ditch after blowing through at the speed of sound to scatter in terror the birds, cats, chickens, deer and anything else that cares to run. She lives for the chase.

Disappointedly laughing it off, we circled the draw, coming off the far side, and marveling at the splendid winter view. Every visible piece of habitat simultaneously under dissection by hunters, revealed by the specks of blaze orange sprinkled across the landscape.

Descending from the ridge crest, my mind escaped from the hunt into a state of winter stroll. Finn scented below hillside pines while Zeta plowed beneath piles of tumbleweed and thick reed canary grass. At the truck, I emptied snow balls from the front of their jackets and turned the rig toward home.

Finn boasting her snowball collection tucked neatly in her vest. Best laid plans for revenge on Zeta’s follies.

The sun was already warm and rich back on the homestead and Yuba was due a hunt. It had been two months since her second hip surgery to correct dysplasia. She lives to hunt pheasant and her pride was bruised over not loading up with the others this morning. Grabbing the gun and vest from the back seat, I kicked open the paddock gate and smiled as “wobble dog” disappeared behind the barn into the golden, waist-high wheatgrass.

Rounding the barn, I spied Yuba on point, statuesque, her tail-feathers wafting gently in the breeze as the afternoon sun streamed through the long strands of white hair. She encircled a path I mowed for watering our golden currant plantings, catching the scent of birds feeding along the path.

Closing in, she broke point to follow the scent and a dozen pheasant erupted 20-yards to my right, silhouetted against the sun. The occasional down-feather drifted behind them, lit up like orbs and boasting a starburst edge as sun rays streamed through them. Swinging through and squeezing both barrels, the birds vanished unharmed. I had once again delivered a stellar lesson as a professional wildlife educator.

Whistling Yuba back, I sent her into the hillside weed hummocks where the birds had flushed. We entered nearly side-by-side when she slammed onto point simultaneous with a single rooster rocketing from beneath my feet. Sufficiently startled, I whiffed with the right barrel, but as the bird made the 30-yard mark, the left barrel connected perfectly, securing our first bird of the year.

“Wobble Dog” Yuba with her first rooster of the season.

Racing as fast as two unsteady hind legs can carry pup buzzing on the rich aroma of roosters, the black and white flash claimed her bird, mouthing it gleefully as I approached.  Admiring the bright plumage of the young wild rooster and the curiously long, banded tail feathers flanking the two longest in the middle, the success was just a bit sweeter coming from the homeplace where we work the land to serve the birds, and take just one when the numbers are high.

Prancing to the house with our prize in hand, Yuba’s exuberance defined the highlight of her fall. Reveling in the sweet opening day success on the homestead, a dozen birds, no competition and a tight-holding rooster set the bar abundantly high for hunts to come.