Tom Lounsbury: December offers so many great hunting opportunities

December is one of my favorite months, when I have to actually pick and choose a hunting opportunity on any given day.

In regards to deer, the late archery deer season runs from December 1 to January 1, muzzleloader deer season runs December 3-12 (however, any legal firearm for deer hunting can be used in Zone 3) and the late antlerless deer season runs December 13-January 1 (on private lands only).

In regards to small game, ruffed grouse season runs December 1-January 1 (statewide), as does the pheasant season in a portion of Zone 3. Rabbit and squirrel seasons are in full swing statewide as well, all the way to March 31.

I personally like to do it all, whenever possible, and I do truly appreciate being a Michigan resident! However, I must admit that because I manage my farm primarily for wild pheasants and live right in the middle of it, I often put a priority on this pastime, and there are decent wild bird numbers this year. Yep, folks, no matter what I decide, I do love it all.

I can readily remember when the first December pheasant hunt was allowed in the Thumb in 2005, and I was an avid participant. The fact is, December quickly became my favorite pheasant hunting season -- not because it is easier, since the reverse is true, but because I have learned a lot more about wild ringneck behavior when the birds are being pursued by hunters and dogs, that I never fully understood before.

This is because I’ve often been able to study pheasant tracks in the snow on a daily basis, an environment factor that is usually absent during the earlier pheasant season, which begins on October 20. The tracks in the December snow let me know how truly evasive wild ringneck pheasants can be in the very familiar cover that they have been reared in since hatching from an egg.

The only assistance that seeing fresh pheasant tracks in the snow has given me is that their presence means wild ringnecks are in the near vicinity. Michigan’s wild roosters today are a very unique and evasive sort of bird, and my “wild rooster-seasoned” dogs and I can readily testify after many December seasons that we have yet to encounter any rooster that can be considered easy to bag.

Each and every bird harvested is earned, often the hard way, and I firmly believe hunting has genetically engineered Michigan’s wild pheasants. Roosters that readily flushed when pressured by hunters went into game bags, and those that cackled when they flushed (which ensured they were in fact roosters) went into the game bags as well. The end result is that roosters which ran instead of flushing when pressured and refused to cackle were around to pass their genes on.

Wild Michigan roosters today prefer running over flying when pressured by hunters, and they possess the speed and agility of a road-runner. They also rarely, if ever, cackle when you are fortunate enough to get them to flush within shotgun range.

I’ve often heard some folks say the December season will decimate wild pheasant numbers, but my opinion, based on the past 16 seasons of actual field experience, says otherwise. Only surplus male birds are being harvested, with shooting wild hens being not only illegal but a very traditional taboo as well.

The key to higher pheasant numbers in any given year relates to proper habitat and how successful the hens are in hatching and rearing their broods (with weather being an extremely important factor), and 80 to 90% of roosters which are harvested in the fall were hatched that previous summer.

The theory of “banking” old roosters has never been a realistic part of this equation, with the average lifespan of wild pheasants rarely exceeding one year. Despite 16 December seasons on property (with proper grassland habitat) that I pheasant hunt, bird numbers are up this year due to last year’s more mellow winter combined with the ideal nesting and rearing weather the wild hens experienced during the late spring and early summer.

A definite benefit of the December season is that any second- and third-hatch roosters which lacked enough color for proper identity during the earlier season will be usually fully colored out by now. However, expect extremely variable winter weather conditions that are characteristic of Michigan during December.

One day, you may encounter rain and sleet, and the next, you can be wallowing away in knee-deep snow. I’ve found that in knee-deep snow, the wild ringnecks literally run circles around both you and the dogs (the telltale tracks say it all), and the birds don’t sink down in the white fluff like you and your canine hunting partners do.. And when pressured by dogs and hunters hard enough, the elusive birds simply fly to other parts of their range, and they seem to quickly grasp where the non-pressured areas are.

Which shotgun choke and birdshot combination to use for December pheasant hunting can often be a debatable topic among avid bird hunters. Roosters fully enlightened by the earlier fall pheasant season can tend to flush sometimes at further ranges, but I try to counter this by having a hunter or two in the group circling around to serve as a blocker near known escape routes of fast flying roosters attempting to change zip codes.

The best combination I’ve found for either the early or late pheasant season is #5 copper-plated lead shot (high brass) and an improved cylinder or modified choke. Today’s shotgun ammunition employing shot-cups maintains denser patterns and thus more range effectiveness than ever before, and the more open chokes are far more forgiving on wing shooting for the fast flying, tough roosters. Basically, I use the same combination for pheasants whether it is the early or late season, and it works for me.

I have long looked upon trying to hunt wild Michigan pheasants without a dog as similar to trying to climb a ladder without rungs. A good hunting dog is essential and integral to this challenging atmosphere not only in locating the elusive birds, but also in recovering them after the shot. When dealing with wild roosters, I’ve discovered it takes a couple of seasons for a young dog to develop into a top-end wild pheasant dog, and having older seasoned dogs along to act as tutors is always a great asset.

I also have learned to use a combination of both flushing dogs and pointing dogs working together, because Michigan’s wild pheasant of today doesn’t hold long, if at all, to a locked-on point. The dog to often watch isn’t the one on point, but the flushing dog moving in on the flank.

Figuring out how to successfully hunt December pheasants is quite like a game of chess. It was close to Christmas a couple years ago when I divided the hunters and dogs in my group into two teams, with each team starting from opposite sides of a large prairie grass (CRP) field to create a pincer action that threw a curve into rooster evasive running tactics.

We joined at a drainage ditch and turned and spread out in unison towards a side road that offered a distinct break in the cover with a couple hunters acting as blockers. The end result was multiple roosters and hens suddenly flushing up when the running birds ran out of cover in the grass. It was one thrilling sight to behold.

Yep, folks, pheasant hunting in Michigan doesn’t get any better than that, and the December pheasant season certainly works for me. I’m real happy it is finally here! 

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