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The Ring-Necked Pheasant was originally from Asia, but is now found all over the world. About the size of a chicken, pheasant are brightly colored and sport long tail feathers that are used extensively in the fly tying industry. Considered upland game birds, they can be found in areas of tall grass and brush where they feed on seeds, grains and insects. This type of quality habitat is characteristic of the great plains regions that cover much of the Midwestern United States. However, with the expansion of farming over the last few hundred years, much of this habitat has been changed and is no longer suitable for maintaining strong populations of the birds. This has led to the careful management by both the government and wildlife organizations throughout the Midwest in an effort to rebuild and maintain quality pheasant habitat.
Pheasant can be found throughout much of the United States, but the densest populations are in the Midwest. States like Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota have strong populations of wild birds that offer some of the best hunting around. However, ask any hardcore pheasant hunter what state they would choose to hunt and you would likely only get one answer, South Dakota. With over five million acres of public land and a population of nearly 5 million birds, it is no wonder that hunters harvest over a million pheasant every season. To the west, the northeastern regions of Montana have a large population of birds, and coupled with over 2.5 million acres of public pheasant land, the state makes for a fantastic hunt in some beautiful country. Birds can also be found in the northeastern parts of the United States, but due to habitat loss, populations of wild pheasant have diminished significantly. To combat this, state wildlife agencies run annual stocking programs to help bolster the local population. These continuously successful efforts have created a huntable population of birds and provide a great option for those hunters living in the surrounding metropolitan areas that do not wish to travel far.
Pheasant hunting typically employs the use of specialized bird dogs that are either trained to flush or point birds. A “flusher” typically works the area in front of a hunter and attempts to smell a hidden bird. When the dog picks up scent, they attempt to flush the bird out and give the hunter a shot. Alternatively, pointing dogs will find a bird and stop and stare at the spot he is hiding in, giving the hunter time to close in and prepare for a shot.
The most efficient way to hunt pheasant is with several dogs and hunters. Groups will typically walk a field in a horizontal line, making sure to stay 20 to 30 yards apart, and have dogs work in front of them while they push the field. Sometimes, a few hunters designated as “blockers” will be stationed at the end of the field to help knock down any birds trying to escape the pushing group. This method is extremely effective, as it leaves no stone unturned and often allows for multiple shots at the same bird.
Being the largest upland game bird, pheasant are not easily taken down. Because of this, #4 to #6 lead shot is used in conjunction with a modified choke to deliver the damage needed to kill these tough birds. Hunters typically choose between a semi-auto or an over-under shotgun in either a 12 or 20-gauge caliber. However, those using a semi-auto have the advantage of holding an additional shell for those birds that have escaped the previous two shots.
Pheasant hunting regulations vary greatly depending on the area you are hunting. States like Nebraska or Kansas that have strong populations of wild birds only allow for the harvest of roosters (males), whereas areas like New England that stock birds allow for the harvest of both roosters and hens (females). Bag limits are location specific, but typically fall between two and four birds per day, with some eastern states having season limits as well. States with stocked birds usually require the purchase of a pheasant permit in conjunction with a small game license, so make sure to check the local regulations before hitting the woods.
Pheasant are renowned for the quality of their meat. Typically, birds are breasted out, with careful attention given to removing any shot from the meat. Unlike a chicken, pheasant are very lean and can dry out easily if overcooked. Because of this, hunters often braise them in flavorful soups or bread and fry them. Either way, it is tough to beat the taste of wild pheasant.