By Nick Simonson

When temperatures drop below freezing, my thoughts generally turn to ice fishing. My wife's thoughts on the other hand, turn to ways to keep me from testing the newly-formed surface of local waters. And as we usually do in our marriage, we have reached a nice compromise on this issue. In the days between Thanksgiving and the weekend where I get the go-ahead from her to walk on water, she okays my forays afield after late-season roosters.

While the hunts are often the most memorable of the year, and the most enjoyable for me, the challenges of winter pheasant hunting are numerous. There's quite a few less roosters after two months of open season and those that do remain are very spooky. The slightest noise - a truck door closing or a voice command - can send birds from their cover 100 yards away. On top of that, pheasants are generally bunched up tighter in the late season, and as soon as one takes flight, the rest aren't far behind. I've watched several dozen birds at a distance explode from the cattails one after another as soon as one detects the crunching of snow some distance off.

The weather provides a test of a hunter's mettle too. Snow, ice and wind all factor into the layers added on to keep warm during the hunt, and those layers in turn subtly change shot mechanics. The butt of a shotgun might not find the familiar crook on a jacketed shoulder that it did over the sweatshirts and maybe even t-shirts a few weeks ago. Gloved hands might not grip the trigger area in the same manner, slightly altering the shooting angle one might have been used to for the past few months. To find late-season success, one needs to adapt to these changes.

But the change that winter brings isn't all bad as factors come into play that even the playing field somewhat. The cold weather keeps the would-be hunters safe and warm at home, or circling your favorite chunk of CRP in their pickup trucks instead of actually walking out into it to face the elements. More of your favorite management area might be accessible too, thanks to a hard freeze which locks up a previously-soaked slough in ice, allowing you (and the birds) more room to roam. Just make sure to avoid any weak spots, or you might end up with a chilly ankle bath.

Another advantage that winter brings to the late-season hunter is the ability to track pheasants in the snow. Their tell-tale four-toed print which points in the direction they're heading shows you what your dog has smelled for months - that pheasants move in the most unorthodox manner. They duck under branches, loop around clumps of grass, tear through cattails and take off and land with their wings and tails hitting the ground, leaving a distinct impression that lets you know where the pursuit ends and where it begins again.

Since the weather has gotten colder this year, I've noticed that my yellow lab, Gunnar, has had an inordinate number of points. He's probably pointed at a three-to-one ratio the number of roosters we've come across, as opposed to those birds that would have normally flushed in the early weeks of the season. The late season birds that don't take off at the slightest hint of trouble seem to hold tighter, providing an exciting explosion of grass, snow and feathers that has left me rattled - missing more pointed birds than I care to admit!
Bagging one winter rooster is a victory, and taking your limit is really something to be proud of in December. Adjusting to the elements and reading the signs on the ground with the help of your trusted four-legged interpreter can produce exciting results. Whether you've reached an early-ice compromise or just want to prolong your upland season, pheasant hunting is a great way to enjoy the last month of the year…in our outdoors.