Tom Lounsbury: Pheasant hunting a great way to enjoy the outdoors in December

December happens to be one of my favorite months of the year for enjoying the outdoors in Michigan, because it offers a wide variety of hunting opportunities.

There is no question the December pheasant season in my home Thumb area, which runs from December 1 to January 1, is a favorite pastime for me to pursue on a frequent basis. What helps in this regard is the fact that I manage the majority of our farm for wild “ringneck” pheasants, birds which have genetics that go all the way back to the original pheasants released in 1917.

Being able to simply walk out my front, or back, door and start pheasant hunting is definitely a perk, and yep, folks, I live right in the middle of what I hopefully have created and call a literal heaven!

December is a very fickle and moody month in regards to weather, which can make drastic changes overnight. One day can be on the sunny and balmy side, and the very next day can represent some downright brutal winter weather with a whole lot of snow. No matter what the weather, hunting wild pheasants in December is never easy, but I do truly love it so! 

I’ve found myself in windblown rainstorms, knee-deep snows and, on a couple of occasions, some sudden, unexpected hailstorms with no place to go while out in the middle of wide-open, prairie grass fields. And trust me, folks, that can sting a bit!

The worst atmosphere, though, is knee-deep snow with a crust on top, which allows roosters to run across and sometimes even the dogs, but hunters step up on the crust only to have it break away as they reach for the next step. It is one crunch-through step at a time, a steady and tedious process in the hopes of being there when roosters finally flush, if they ever do.

I’ve heard some opponents of the December pheasant season (the first hunt began in 2005) make, and continue to make, outrageous claims that it is an easy process with wild roosters being at a total disadvantage due to the winter elements. After years of firsthand experience hunting December pheasants, I can state that those who believe it is easy, have never been there and done that.

Besides the variable weather conditions, a real challenge is today’s wild pheasants, which are the progeny of true survivors that have been honed by the steadily changing times in today’s high-tech world. I also believe hunting has genetically engineered today’s truly wild rooster pheasants. They know the lay of the ground they were hatched and reared on, they run rather than fly, and they rarely cackle, if ever, when finally flushed.

The roosters which cackled when flushed by hunters in previous years, announcing they were in fact roosters, tended to often not be around in the following spring to pass on their genes.

I’ve flushed a whole bunch of roosters this year thus far and not a one cackled, and I do miss that typical raucous cackling. Those which also held tight for a pointing dog for very long, weren’t around either, and the evasive “runners” had a lot more longevity. This is why I prefer using both pointing and flushing dogs working together as a team for today’s wild roosters. 

Yep, folks, today’s truly wild rooster pheasants are a distinctly different bird from those that were hunted in previous years. And I do truly appreciate the challenge because wild rooster pheasants never come easy, and that is as it should be. If and when you put one in the bag, you certainly earned it, and it took a good dog to accomplish it, trust me. If you don’t have a good dog ... oh, well.

An example is the recent mid-December pheasant hunt on my farm featuring seven hunters and four good dogs, entailing three Labrador retrievers and an English setter. The day before had featured high winds, and dawn, which lacked even any frost, presented us with tall prairie grass that was bone-dry. Such is a distinct detriment for the dogs to be able pick up any scent.

There was also no snow, which could have been an asset in holding scent. The key was to venture into the prairie grass in the hopes the dogs could lock-on and flush some roosters, preferably in shotgun range.

Weather plays a key role in regards to wild pheasant numbers being up or down in a region, and the past year was absolutely ideal, featuring a mild winter followed by a dry late spring and early summer, which was perfect for nesting and chick-rearing hens. The result was definitely more wild pheasants this year, wherever there is proper habitat, and since about 90% of the roosters being harvested in the fall were hatched the previous spring, there are plenty of roosters, and it is the best I’ve seen in quite a while.

Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the dogs to get “birdy” (a suddenly excited and energetic effort of working in the cover) and for the action to begin. However, the roosters were doing their typical running and evasive tactics of circling around both hunters and dogs, and only flushing as a last resort. And with the grass being dry, the roosters had a distinct edge. Wind direction is very critical in this instance, and only when a dog was directly downwind from a bird was there a chance of ever flushing the bird.

Hen pheasants typically are the first to flush, and because hens are protected, hunters instinctively yell “hen” to alert others to the flying bird’s identity. The same applies to when a rooster flushes and hunters yell “rooster,” and this is a natural part of the pheasant hunting scene that entails teamwork, which I much enjoy. The booming of shotguns is always a thrilling and satisfying moment, especially when a rooster is downed.

Dogs also play a critical role in locating and retrieving downed birds in the dense and tall grass, and pheasants are not always right exactly where you saw them drop, because some can hit the ground running and only a good dog can recover them. Wild rooster pheasants are, for a fact, very tough and tenacious birds.

It was actually a pleasant mid-December day in the Thumb, featuring sunny and mild weather and enough hunting action to keep everyone happy. Four roosters went into the bag, and at least four more were missed.

Yep, December pheasant hunting sure works for me, and it is a timeframe I have come to live for!

Merry Christmas, folks!

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