Few things bring more satisfaction than walking ringneck cover behind a pair of eager bird dogs..
Watching a well-trained pointer work is pure pleasure matched only by receiving downed birds from the soft mouth of an experienced retriever. Few would argue that a good bird dog is the upland hunter’s best friend.
Everyone knows the advantages dogs bring to pheasant hunting. Educated canine noses can quickly track a faint, birdy scent to its frantic source. Once a rooster is located, the dog’s intimidating presence often holds the bird frozen in place, delaying a flush until the gunner moves into range.
While bird dogs are great, sometimes circumstance prevents their use. When I first began hunting I didn’t own a bird dog. None of my teenage buddies did, either. Lacking a better alternative, we were forced to hunt without four-legged help. Our first efforts were largely unproductive, but as we doggedly pursued the elusive ringneck, we gradually evolved tactics that paid off. We didn’t score as often as the dog owners we saw working adjacent fields, but the tricks we learned usually prevented us from going home empty handed.
Several hunters walking slowly a few yards apart will flush nervous ringnecks. Occasionally I still hunt dogless when canine-owning friends cancel out and I refuse to do the same. That’s when I fall back on strategies I learned as a youth too many years ago. The tactics don’t always work, but it’s highly satisfying when they do.
Hunting without dogs requires a whole, different pace. You’re not relying on a sharp-nosed canine to scent nearby birds, so slow down. Way down! Canny roosters tend to hunker down until you’re safely past. The slower you move, the more agitated these birds become.
“Has he seen me?” they begin wondering. “Am I really, truly invisible, or do I stand out like a sore thumb in this tiny patch of weeds?” Walk too fast, and I guarantee you’ll leave a lot of birds chuckling in your wake. When you’re convinced you’re in good pheasant cover, move at a leisurely pace. Zig occasionally, then zag a bit to keep those roosters guessing. Stop abruptly every few dozen yards and look carefully around. Remember to glance behind you. Sudden halts can stretch a hiding bird’s nerves to the breaking point. Don’t be discouraged if this doesn’t yield instant results. Hunting dogless requires stealth and patience. This tactic worked forty years ago, and it still works today.
Numbers is another key. I’ve never been a fan of gunning in large groups, but you need company to flush ringnecks without the aid of dogs. The more, the merrier–within reason. Two hunters will be three times as successful as a lone shooter. When there are only a pair of you, one proven tactic is to work a brushy ditchbank or fenceline. Don’t drive the ditch (or fence) walking side by side. Instead, start at opposite ends and move toward each other. This kind of squeeze play can be remarkably effective. Just make sure you don’t shoot toward each other.
Four hunters are even better, while a party of six may be nearly ideal. Groups become unwieldy much beyond that size, making safety a serious concern. It’s important to keep the line perfectly straight. Stragglers or shooters striving eagerly ahead increase the risk of accident.
Don’t space yourselves too far apart–a half dozen yards is plenty–then make several overlapping passes to cover a large field. Don’t put all the gunners on line. Before you begin a drive, have two shooters circle wide around and position themselves at the far corners of the field. Birds fleeing from the drivers almost always head for the corner pockets before taking flight. These “stopper” positions are coveted, as that’s where much of the action takes place. This is particularly true when driving standing corn.
You don’t always need dogs to find and flush birds. Hunting in corn can be particularly hazardous if each gunner doesn’t know precisely where the other shooters are. Always wear blaze orange coats or vests, as well as similarly fluorescent headgear. Make lots of noise, and call continually back and forth to track each other’s presence. Again, keep the line straight and move v-e-r-y slowly, with frequent halts. Don’t always walk directly forward. Instead, take short right-angle detours to the path you’ve been following. This kind of behavior will put birds in the air. Shout “rooster!” when you see one flush, and “hen!” when a lady pheasant takes wing. This is a signal for other hunters to immediately crouch down, making it safer for the gunner to shoot. Never, EVER take a low-angle shot in tall corn. If the bird doesn’t tower safely up, let it go. This prevents accidents and gives outside gunners a chance to shoot.
Take particular care when the drivers reach the end of the row. That’s when pheasants being pushed ahead discover the exit is blocked (remember those corner “stoppers”?). When action finally comes, it can be fast and furious as all the birds herded into this narrowing corridor finally decide to flush. This is the most hazardous part of the hunt. When the flurry starts, it’s easy for shooters to become excited and forget the safety rules. Whatever you do, DON’T fire unless you can clearly see that NO other hunters are in front of the gun. If you’re not 100 percent certain the shot is perfectly safe, hold that trigger!
I don’t condone road hunting, but dogless gunners can improve their odds by glassing from a car or truck while slowly driving country lanes. Spotting a cock or two hunkered down in a plowed field is no guarantee you’ll get shooting, but locating birds is a good part of the battle. When a rooster is found, take a minute to devise your hunting strategy. Simply walking to the bird never works. It will simply run the opposite direction or fly away.
The trick lies in anticipating the bird’s probable escape paths, then sending shooters ahead to intercept it. Be sure blockers can’t be seen by the bird as they move into place. If the rooster knows hunters are waiting at points A, B and C, you can be sure he’ll run or fly to point D. Once the blockers are in position, the designated driver should carefully cross the fence (there’s ALWAYS a fence) and walk directly toward the bird. This isn’t always a “no-win” proposition for the driver, as fleeing birds often reverse course when the blockers are finally seen.
I hunt with dogs every chance I get, but that sometimes isn’t possible. When canine help isn’t available, I do the best I can without it. Very often, that’s good enough to put a few birds in the bag.