PRESSURE-COOKER ROOSTERS

PAUL STEFFEN

Pursuing pheasants in the weeks and months following opening day presents challenges hunters seldom face at the season’s start, including extreme weather and extremely wary roosters. Hunting harder can boost your success, but veteran pheasant fans like High Plains guide Paul Steffen prefer a plan that also includes hunting smarter.

A lifelong upland hunter and co-proprietor of Steffen Brothers Ranch—a 5,000-acre, fourth-generation South Dakota spread catering to upland and waterfowl hunters—Steffen knows a thing or two about putting roosters on the ground after the easy birds of early season are gone.

His strategies invariably entail focusing on areas that hold pheasants, which often change as the season progresses, according to a variety of factors from crop harvest to hunting pressure and weather conditions. When heavy snows topple fragile grasses in early fall roosting areas, for example, birds often migrate en masse to heartier cover, such as conifers or cattail swamps close to their feeding grounds.

Bean Birds

From mid-October through the completion of the soybean harvest, Steffen says pheasants might also roost in unconventional areas. “In recent years, I’ve noticed pheasants using standing soybeans as roosting cover—even bypassing CRP land to get into it,” he reports.

To be clear, he’s not talking about the lush, green bean fields of September. Steffen is referring to dried tangles of gnarly, brown stalks and leaves left after hard frosts hit the countryside. The jury is still out on whether the birds’ preference for soybean fields stems from hunters or predators pressuring CRP ground and other roosting areas. Either way, Steffen’s bean pattern holds promise for hunters seeking overlooked ringnecks.

Capitalizing on it requires the right timing. “Since most states don’t open shooting at sunrise, there’s no way to catch birds coming out of the beans,” Steffen says. “They’re already in the corn or other feeding areas when legal shooting arrives. But late afternoon, especially the last hour before sunset (where legal), is a great time to target birds headed for the roost.”

Pass shooting is one option, but Steffen typically opts to stalk beanfield perimeters. “Hunting the edge offers jump shots at birds that just entered the field, plus bonus shots when birds farther out in the beans get nervous and try flying back to the corn,” he says, noting that large groups of hunters can also surround and drive through the cover—though it’s wise to discuss such plans with the landowner beforehand, and if you do get the green light to hunt standing beans, take care not to damage the crop.

Power Drives

Steffen often guides multiple hunters, so drives are a big part of his playbook. The basic tenets of driving remain similar through the season, but he tweaks the location of flankers—hunters positioned to the sides of the cover—as roosters become warier.

In a 40-row corn strip, for example, he might join four drivers in the field, send two or three flankers to each side, and position two to four blockers at the far corners of the corn.

“Drivers should be able to see the hunters on either side of them and communicate with the others vocally to keep everyone in a straight line,” he says. “Pheasants slip through the cracks of a jagged line.” Steffen also cautions drivers never to follow a single corn row. “That’s a good way to walk past tight-sitting birds,” he says. “Zigzag to keep them moving toward blockers.”

A flanker’s job is keeping roosters from busting out the sides of cover. “Early in the season, I position flankers roughly 50 yards from the cover, 75 yards apart,” he says. “Later, flankers might start out 1/8 to 1/4 mile from the edge, to keep roosters from flushing wild. As the drive progresses, flankers can move closer to the corn, say, 100 yards when the drive hits the final 200 yards and within 50 yards during the home stretch.”

Flankers are also positioned at key escape points. “Breaks or changes in the cover, like where woody cover or CRP grass interrupts a corn strip—are notorious spots for birds to bust out,” he explains. “Pheasants shoot off to the side at high spots. So you should always put flankers along hilltops.”

Flankers patrolling cover breaks and ridgelines are positioned differently as the season passes. “Early on, I put them 30 to 50 yards from the cover being driven,” Steffen says. “Later, the distance increases to 100 yards.”

Steffen advises slowing your pace as the drive progresses. “It’s fine to start out at a brisk walk, but slow down within 200 yards of the field edge,” he says. “If the drive went as planned, you now have the birds where you want them. Take your time and let the dogs do their jobs putting birds in the air.”

Such tactics work wonders in clean cover such as relatively weed-free corn. “In dirty corn or thick natural cover like frozen cattail swamps, pheasants want to sit tight,” he cautions. “Here, a driver’s job is more to make the birds nervous than trying to chase them to the blockers. Drivers poking along in zigzag patterns produce way more birds than fast walkers.”

Hit More, Miss Less

Putting roosters in the sky is only half the battle, of course. Connecting with hard-pressed pheasants can be just as challenging as kicking them up within range. To boost his clients’ odds of hitting their targets, Steffen offers the following advice.

“Mid- to late-season shots tend to be higher and longer, so I recommend beefing up your firepower,” he says. “You can still use No. 4 shot in your 12-gauge but bumping up from 1¼-ounce to 1½- or 1 3/8-ounce loads provides added power to turn long shots into clean kills.”

In a similar vein, he says tighter patterns can mean the difference between seeing late-season roosters crumple or watching them glide away unscathed.

The veteran guide also offers sage advice on aiming. “Too many hunters focus on the bird’s tail,” he begins. “Fueled by adrenaline, they rush to pull the trigger the second they swing past it—which puts the pellets either behind the bird or in its tail feathers. I encourage our guests to focus on the ring around the bird’s neck. Find it and fire as you pull past it, always keeping the gun moving.”

Steffen has thoughts on knocking down high fliers, too. “Pheasants often fly straight over flankers, presenting a high overhead shot most hunters hate,” he says. “But I love getting chances like that. If you block the bird’s head with the barrel and fire as you swing past him, he’ll fly right into your pellets.”

Steffen’s final shooting tip centers on being ready to send lead downrange. “Sauntering along with your gun over your shoulder is a sure way to blow shot opportunities,” he warns. “If you’re serious about putting birds on the ground, be prepared to take advantage of every chance you get. Keep your shotgun at port arms position while walking, and when you pause, make sure your foot position is right for accurate shooting.”