Gerald Almy: Tips for hunting late-season ringnecks
While the Shenandoah Valley does not hold a native population of ringnecks, many area sportsmen pursue these birds this time of year. They do so in several ways. Some take trips to a well-managed preserve where the birds are stocked and guided trips are offered as well as on-your-own hunts. Others make pilgrimages to states that offer native birds and hunting seasons well into January such as South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.
If you’re planning a hunt in either of these situations, here are some techniques that should pay off for flushing late season ringnecks.
The first thing you need to do is realize that these birds are almost like a different species than naïve opening weekend roosters. You can’t casually stroll through the corn fields and bag a brace of birds.
Late-season ringnecks spend most of the time in different locations than they inhabited in early season and require a whole different set of tactics.
For starters, respect how skittish these birds are after being shot at and flushed repeatedly. Park far from where you plan to hunt. Close car doors quietly. Don’t shout last minute instructions. Instead, talk in hushed tones.
Late season ringnecks are a lot like late season deer. Bucks are warier and more skittish than on opening day. So are cock birds.
And just like deer, they tend to move toward smaller, overlooked patches of cover. When they do detect danger, they’ll often try to sneak out or run to escape, rather than going airborne.
Instead of hunting open fields, switch to shelterbelts, hedgerows, ditches, brushy corners and other small pockets of cover.
Search for spots where weeds grew up because a rock prevented plowing or an overgrown corner where a fencerow was left in brush.
Don’t overlook the woods, either. It may seem more like grouse cover, but pheasants often take to this unlikely habitat when they feel hunting pressure in the late season.
Wet areas are great spots for late birds. Most hunters don’t want to get their feet wet, but a swampy area with cattails is prime ringneck cover if reeds and brush are present. Small dry hummocks in these areas provide the birds with all the high land they need. Put on rubber boots and walk in after them.
It also pays to focus in general on the thickest cover available. The plant species may vary, but the thicker the better. In Midwestern states, Russian olive, kochia weed and plum thickets are especially favored. But any thick weeds can be good. Food, of course, must be nearby. But it doesn’t have to be grain. It can be wild seeds from weed plants or grapes and other fruits.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the farther you walk before starting, the more birds you’ll find. And they’ll be less skittish and easier to harvest.
As a rule, hunt during mid-week if possible to have areas to yourself. Getting up at the crack of dawn also helps. You can sometimes find the birds still in their roosts in thick areas then and get close without being seen.
Finally, hunt after a snow when you can, a time when ringnecks hide on the downwind side of plum and olive thickets and heavy brush. You can often approach surprisingly close before they burst out. When they do finally flush, be ready for a startling explosion of flapping wings as they climb skyward.
Plan your strategy before you arrive so you don’t have to talk to your partners much. Drop several hunters off at the end of the cover you plan to hunt to serve as blockers, or have them circle wide so they don’t disturb the birds.
Concentrate on areas where you can walk close to the quarry without being seen. Use tree lines, overgrown fencerows, gullies or ridges to move toward the birds.
Try to walk in a zigzag erratic pattern through the cover. Birds often try to sit tight and let you walk past without flushing if you travel in a straight line.
Another tactic is to pause occasionally. Ringnecks will think they’ve been spotted and flush. Be ready for them.
A final tip worth remembering is to hunt into the wind whenever possible. This carries your noise away from the birds, lets you hear them moving ahead, and allows dogs to scent the birds if you have them.
For late season ringnecks use an improved and/or modified choke with heavy loads of 4, 5, or 6 shot.
Good luck, and be sure to wear plenty of blaze orange and know where your hunting partners are located before shooting.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.