TAIL END

Pheas­ants are never eas­ier to find—and flush—than dur­ing the final days of the sea­son

Field and Stream - - CAMPFIRE - By Phil Bour­jaily

AL­WAYS GO ON the last day. It’s one of my rules, and it goes dou­ble when the last day of the sea­son is as cold as this one. Noth­ing puts the brakes on run­ning pheas­ants like hard weather.

The only prob­lem is that for the first 20 min­utes of a late-sea­son hunt, my fin­gers are too weak and numb to push off a safety. They throb for a few end­less min­utes as the blood starts pump­ing. It’s ex­cru­ci­at­ing, but a small price to pay for the best hunt­ing of the year.

Once my hands re­turn to nor­mal, we start look­ing for birds in earnest. My Ger­man short­hair, Jed, is un­fazed by cold. Con­stant mo­tion keeps him warm. Ex­cept now he’s frozen—but in the right way, on point in front of a snow-cov­ered dead­fall. Kick­ing the branches, I hear rustling in­side, and Jed breaks to dive un­der the brush. It’s not clas­sic dog work, but it’s ef­fec­tive. A rooster bursts out the far side. It gets out to 20 yards be­fore I de­cide it’s far enough to shoot with­out tear­ing it up.

Con­ven­tional wis­dom says late­sea­son hunt­ing means long shots and tight chokes be­cause ed­u­cated birds will flush wild. I don’t sub­scribe to that the­ory, and I leave the same IC/Im­proved Mod­i­fied chokes in my gun all year. Cold tem­per­a­tures force birds to seek out ther­mal cover—heavy grasses, marshes, brush, dead­falls—and once there, they’re loath to leave. What’s more, with most crops down, that cover is easy to find now. Pheas­ants that were spread out and hard to lo­cate only sev­eral weeks ago are now con­cen­trated in the thick­est re­main­ing patches.

Hunt­ing by my­self over a point­ing dog, I see late-sea­son birds ei­ther sit tight like the one I just shot, or gather in flocks with so many alert eyes and ears that they’re prac­ti­cally un­ap­proach­able. The best tac­tic for wild-flush­ing flocks is to pass on the long shots, mark the roost­ers down, then hunt them up like sin­gles from a quail covey. Of­ten they’ll sit tight af­ter that first wild flush.

COLD MEDICINE

The same cold that ini­tially robs my fin­gers of feel­ing saps en­ergy from shot­shells, too. Be­cause cold tem­per­a­tures in­hibit chem­i­cal re­ac­tions, a shell might lose 75 fps on a bit­ter day. Add to that the fact that cold, dense air gives more re­sis­tance to pel­lets in flight, and your shells lose sig­nif­i­cant punch. Smart hunters com­pen­sate with more ve­loc­ity, bigger shot, or both. Since ad­ding ve­loc­ity opens pat­terns and adds re­coil, I’m sim­ply go­ing with 4s (11⁄4 ounces at 1330 fps) in place of the usual 6s.

For all the rea­sons above, you want a 12-gauge for the late sea­son, ide­ally one of medium weight—heavy enough to han­dle a longer cross­ing shot and light enough to point quickly at close­flush­ing birds. The ex­tra ca­pac­ity of an au­toloader can come in handy, too, when you run into a flock. My gun is a 12-gauge Beretta 687 o/u with 28-inch bar­rels. At a lit­tle over 71⁄4 pounds, it’s heav­ier than I’d like. On pa­per, the 6-pound 12-ounce Benelli Mon­te­fel­tro au­toloader I left at home would have been a bet­ter choice. But I shoot the Beretta best, and who wants to bring any­thing but their A game to the final hunt of the year?

FINAL FLUSH

At day’s end, my phi­los­o­phy on wild flush­ers pays off. We hunt un­til there’s only one spot left for birds to be, a gi­ant pile of cleared trunks in a corn­field wa­ter­way. Be­fore Jed gets half­way across the field, pheas­ants stream out of the brush­pile to­ward the prop­erty line. Most fly to where I can’t hunt. But a few stop short. I make a swing to get the wind into Jed’s face, and work­ing down the fence­line, he stops. The rooster comes up at my feet. I push the muz­zle to­ward the bird as the stock comes to my face, and the last pheas­ant of the sea­son falls into the snow.

Late Flight A rooster ex­plodes from a snow­cov­ered corn­field.

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