The pheasant is one of Minnesota’s favorite upland game birds.
Wily and elusive, it has a well-honed reputation for humbling shotgun-toting hunters by fleeing on foot or exploding into the air.
Minnesota offers good and sometimes excellent pheasant hunting in parts of southern, central and western Minnesota.
If you haven’t tried pheasant hunting you should. It’s hearty exercise with the reward of excellent table fare.
- When to hunt
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- Where to hunt
You must have permission from landowners to hunt private agricultural land so make sure you ask for permission and understand Minnesota's trespass law.
To find the locations of private land open to public hunting visit the Walk-In Access finder. This program allows you to hunt certain private lands for a small fee.
Pheasants are creatures of farm country. They roost in grasslands. They feed in corn, soybean and grain fields. They seek shelter in sprawling cattail swamps, which provide thermal cover in winter and safety from hunters and predators throughout the year.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources produces a map every autumn that shows the relative abundance of pheasants throughout the state. It’s a handy piece of information.
- How to hunt
Pheasant hunting is all about walking. Unlike hunting wild turkey, waterfowl and many other species that largely involves sitting and waiting, pheasant hunting means hoofing through fields of prairie grass, cattail swamps, tree lines and other habitat that provides food and shelter for this chicken-sized species.
Pheasant hunting is often done with a dog. That’s because a common pheasant survival strategy is to remain on the ground when approached by humans. Since pheasants like to hunker down in tall grass and cattail stands it often takes a pheasant-scenting dog to flush them from their hiding spot.
The second benefit of a dog is that a dog can find the bird you’ve shot. A dead or wounded pheasant isn’t as easy to find as many imagine. Wounded pheasant, for example, will often run great distances or burrow deep into thick grass to avoid being found. A good hunting dog can track and catch a fleeing pheasant or retrieve a rooster that has burrowed deep into grass or cattail stems.
Still, you can successfully hunt pheasants without a dog. What follows is general hunting advice.
- Practice shooting: One of the keys to successful pheasant hunting is being able to shoot quickly and accurately. Typically, you have two to three seconds to make a shot after you’ve seen a rooster rise into the air. That’s plenty of time yet not much time. Prior to the hunting season you’ll want to practice shouldering your shotgun and hitting flying clay targets at a trap range, sporting clays range or on private property with your own clay target thrower. And before doing that you should “pattern” your shotgun by experimenting with different choke tubes and shot sizes so you know how your gun performs at different distances.
- Scout: Experienced pheasant hunters scout before they hunt. This means eye-balling the land you are likely to hunt to evaluate the quantity and quality of its habitat, check the status of adjacent farm crops and look for pheasant sign such as tracks, roosts, droppings and the birds themselves. Pheasants are most visible early in the morning and near sunset. That’s because in the morning they move from roosts to roadsides to eat small pebbles that help digest food, and toward evening they are move from feeding and loafing areas back to their roosts. Listen too. Roosters cackle, and their crowing voice can give away their location.
- Be quiet and cagy: Pheasants have good hearing. So, don’t slam car doors or make a lot of noise prior to heading afield. That’s the kind of behavior that sends smart pheasants to distant places. In fact, it’s often smart – when possible – to hunt a field starting from the opposite direction of the parking lot. That’s because most hunters start their hunt from the parking lot and may quit hunting before reaching remote locations. Finally, when possible it makes sense to walk into wind rather than with the wind. This reduces the pheasants’ ability to hear the noise you make and enhances a dog’s ability to detect pheasant scent.
- Walk slowly and with purpose: A hunter without a dog should walk slowly in an “S” pattern rather than a straight line. You will cover more ground this way, and you are more likely to flush birds that have moved laterally. Also, make brief stops from time to time. This can have the effect of making pheasants nervous. Repeated 10- to 20-second pauses often flush pheasants that otherwise would stay on the ground. As you walk, make sure you pass through so-called “transition” areas, which are seams of cover where one type of habitat merges into another. Common transition areas include fence lines, tree lines, ditches, weedy swales and places where crops, cattails and grasses converge. Other good places to hunt are grassy areas near standing corn or soybean fields. Those hunting in a group should walk in a line so that no hunter is out front (and therefore in a potential field of fire) or lagging behind (potentially in a dangerous area) if a bird flushes behind the line.
Pheasant hunting doesn't require a lot of specialized or expensive equipment, but there are some basic items that will make your time in the field more enjoyable and productive.
- Maps: Scouting an area will increase your odds of finding pheasants and good maps will help your efforts. Go to mndnr.gov for free maps that identify Wildlife Management Areas and Walk-In Access areas. Combined, these programs provide 1.3 million acres of public hunting on 1,550 parcels. A local plat book may also come in handy to identify specific pieces of land.
- Shotgun and shells: Bring along a shotgun that you have practiced with and are comfortable shooting. The style or gauge of the shotgun is not nearly as important as your proficiency with it. Since pheasants are fairly tough birds, you will want to choose a heavier load such as 4 or 5 shot and limit your shooting distances to 50 yards or less. This will result in fewer wounded birds. Also be aware that if you are hunting federal land, non-toxic shot is required.
- Blaze orange: Minnesota pheasant hunters are required to wear at least one visible article of clothing above the waist that is blaze orange. This could be a hat, jacket or hunting vest. Remember that more blaze orange will make you more visible to other hunters.
- Good boots: Pheasant hunting involves a lot of walking on uneven terrain. Good quality, above-the-ankle boots will provide the comfort and support you need for a day in the field. Since crossing creeks and marshy areas is common, waterproof boots are preferred by many hunters.
- Layered clothing: Cool fall mornings often turn into sunny, warm afternoons. Layered clothing will prepare you for a variety of weather conditions. Long sleeves and gloves will help keep you from getting scratched up when moving through tall grass, cattails or woody cover. Hunting chaps or brush pants will protect your legs and keep you dry on mornings when the grass is wet.
- Eye protection: Anytime you use a firearm, you should protect your eyes. A pair of sunglasses will provide basic protection.
- Refreshments: After a few hours in the field, you will need to refuel and hydrate.
- What’s important to know
- Only rooster (male) pheasant can be harvested.
- Resident hunters age 18 to 64 must purchase a pheasant hunting validation in addition to a small game license.
- The daily limit is two roosters (3 roosters from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1). The possession limit is six roosters (9 roosters from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1).
- To hunt Walk-In Access program lands you must purchase a $3 validation wherever hunting licenses are sold.
- You cannot shoot pheasants with a rifle or handgun other than a .22 caliber rifle using short, long or long rifle ammunition.
- Shotguns used for upland bird hunting may hold more than three shells.
- To legally transport a pheasant it must have a feathered wing or one leg attached.
- Basic biology
- Ring-necked pheasants were first successfully imported from China to the United States in 1881. Their first successful release in Minnesota came in 1916.
- Pheasants eat insects, weed seeds and grain and can survive a relatively wide range of temperature conditions.
- Length: 20 to 36 inches, including the tail.
- Weight: 2 to 3 pounds.
- Males (called cocks or roosters) have mostly reddish-copper body feathers, greenish black heads with a red eye patch and white neck rings. They also have a spur on each leg. Females are mottled brown, a color camouflages them when sitting on a nest.
- Ring-necked pheasant roosters crow loudly in spring and summer, especially at dawn and dusk. A rooster's crow is often followed by loud, rapid beating of the wings that can be heard only from relatively close distances. Roosters also often cackle when they fly.
- Pheasants begin mating in April and May. Hens lay an average of 12 eggs, which hatch in 23 to 25 days. They are persistent re-nesters. If a hen loses her nest before it hatches, she will lay another albeit smaller clutch until it successfully hatches or until she runs out of energy reserves to lay more eggs.
- Fox, coyote, owls and hawks are the primary predators. Raccoons and skunks eat pheasant eggs. Other animals likely prey on eggs, chicks, and/or hens, too.
- During extreme winter weather, pheasants can go up to two weeks without feeding by reducing their metabolism and energy.
- Helpful information