The invasion begins on the last Saturday of October. That’s when we Iowans see the pickups and SUVs driven by hunters traveling from states where wild pheasant hunting is but a memory. Sometimes our visitors bring the right shotguns and ammo for ringnecks. Often they don’t. You pheasant hunting pilgrims need a friendly native (that would be me) to tell you the rules.
(1) Don’t Overchoke Confronted with the wide open spaces of pheasant country, many visitors take comfort in tight chokes. Bad decision: You may be able to see for miles, but most pheasants fall within 25 yards of the gun. A Full choke throws a small, dense knot of pellets that’s easy to miss with at the ranges you’ll be shooting.
Improved Cylinder provides more margin for error up close, yet will kill birds dead at 30 to 35 yards. The traditional Improved Cylinder/Modified chokes of a two-barreled upland gun is about a perfect combination for pheasant hunting (no, I’m not a barrel switcher; that second, tighter choke is insurance to follow up a miss or a poor hit). If you shoot a repeater, use Improved Cylinder or, at the tightest, Modified.
(2) Pick Sensible Loads The same hunters who bring guns with Full chokes often chamber magnum loads of No. 4 shot, which kick far too much in any gun light enough for serious pheasant chasing. Stick with the classic duck and pheasant load of 11/4 ounces at 1330 fps. If you choose ammunition loaded with high-quality hard, round pellets, duck and pheasant loads of 5 or 6 shot will kill birds as far away as anyone should shoot at them. **(3) Know Your Range **Plenty of pheasants flush wild, tempting you to take 40-yard pokes. An outbound pheasant, however, presents a target area about the size of your two fists held together. The heavy backbone shields the vitals from the top, and the gizzard, essentially a hard muscle full of rocks, forms a sort of firewall protecting the heart and lungs from behind. Drop a wounded bird in chest-high grass where neither you nor the dog can mark its fall, and it will be almost impossible to track.
Going-away birds are in range if you can see distinct feathers and colors as opposed to a blur. You can tell a crossing pheasant is in range if you can see its eye. Pheasants that come back over your head are always in range. **(4) Stick With a 12 or 16 **I do most of my pheasant hunting with 12-gauges out of respect for the bird’s toughness. That said, the 11/8-ounce, 1300 fps 16-gauge load gives up very little to the 12-gauge, and 16-gauge guns often weigh much less than 12s. That’s the short list of all-around pheasant gauges.
Twenties and even 28s will certainly kill wild pheasants at reasonable ranges, but I wouldn’t recommend that a nonresident bring a little gun. If I have to pass up a shot at a bird because I’m carrying my 28, I can hunt him again next week, but you will be back home by then, thinking about next year.
(5) Like Your Gun Although I’m particular about chokes and loads, I’m easy about action types. I shoot over/unders because I like a gun that breaks open for crossing fences and creeks. But if killing pheasants were my job, I’d opt for the extra firepower of a lightweight 12-gauge repeater like the Benelli Montefeltro, the Remington 870 (Light Contour barrel, please; the standard-weight is too heavy), or the Ithaca Model 37. Regardless of the action type, a pheasant gun must be light. You are going to carry it a long way.