It is no secret that on opening day of pheasant season the atmosphere at the DEEP's Durham Meadows Wildlife Area is more akin to that of the New York City subway system at rush hour than a tranquil day hunting in the autumn-hued woods. Not to knock Durham Meadows, because the situation is the same at most of the state's better-known hunting areas. If you are a hunter, you probably have heard the stories, not all apocryphal, about people arguing over who shot the bird or hunters without dogs trailing those with them, hoping to sneak a shot at a stray flush.
Even after the opener, the days on which pheasants are stocked at state-owned or permit-required lands can draw hunters like mourning doves to millet and, until it gets cold, Saturdays can be mob scenes as well. Weekday hunts are best but, if you cannot manage it, there are ways to hunt even the most crowded areas and get away from the madding crowd -- while finding birds in the bargain.
Many pheasant hunters opt for parts of a hunting area that are close to the parking lot and near where they believe the birds have been stocked. Feed plots and fields within an easy walk lure the biggest crowds. Indeed, perhaps the birds are there and ready to figuratively throw up their wings and give up with a nice, easy flush in the open. Quite possibly, however, they have been spooked away by other hunters, predators, stray dogs or some other disturbance. They are way off in the thick stuff, sometimes congregating there in considerable numbers. It is worth the hike and the struggle through the brush to find them.
I sometimes hunt a large state area near the Connecticut River, especially late in the season. Much of it is wide-open fields, the kind of bird cover that lends itself to pheasant-hunting photos in hook-and-bullet magazines. The fields receive heavy pressure. As the season winds down, pheasants driven from the field crowd into a god-awful woody swamp about a 20-minute walk from where the fields begin. Hardly anyone goes there, especially when it is cold. But that's where the birds are waiting to be flushed. The colder the weather, moreover, the better. Instead of battling through watery muck and mire, you can make like an Ice Road trucker.
For many years, a friend and I would hunt a well-known area east across the Connecticut River. We would pass on the cornfields near the cars and walk, seemingly forever, up and down ridges and valleys to the farthest reaches of the management area. The fields we left behind might be crowded with blaze orange but if we met one or two other hunters in the backwater, it was unusual. The hike was usually worth it because we would find pheasants but, better than than, abundant woodcock and, in those days, more than a few partridge.
Another tactic I have used is to seek out management areas that are small, out of the way and not as heavily stocked as the larger, most popular spots. Often, these areas are hunted only by the locals. Sometimes, pleasant surprises wait within their borders. Hunting pheasants in one such place some years back, the brush suddenly erupted with a covey of quail. I bagged not a one but it was fun, anyway.
My favorite crowd-avoidance tactic is a waiting game. It requires, however, a methodical, experienced dog and is most useful close to the time birds are stocked. Wait until other hunters barnstorm through an area. Even if they have decent dogs, especially if they are moving fast, as many hunters tend to do, the odds are high that they will bypass birds, which really hunker down. Let the dog work slowly, check edges and brush clumps and take your time. Convince yourself a bird awaits and fight the urge to move elsewhere. You may very well put a bird in the bag. And have the perverse satisfaction of smirking to yourself thinking at the hunters who passed by the bird, "Look what I found."