Where to look
Daily pattern
When to hunt pheasants
How to hunt pheasants
Suitable equipment

Scattered populations of pheasant and California quail are present in coastal sand country, in pine plantations and in areas of bush and scrub, such as those adjacent to streams and rivers and in sheep and beef country. Most of these areas are on private farmland so the appropriate permission should be sought. Favourable breeding conditions in recent years have meant that areas of good habitat are holding reasonable numbers of pheasant.

Permits are available free of charge from the Whanganui office of Fish & Game or select here to fill in a request form for upland game hunting in Harakeke Forest and Nukumaru Recreation Reserve.

Pheasant Hunting in Taranaki

Rob Hugo with some fine Taranaki pheasants.

With the exception of the coastal forests and reserves around Whanganui, hunters may sometimes underestimate the opportunities to hunt pheasant around the Taranaki Fish & Game Region. Indeed, over most of the region there is likely to be a pheasant or two wherever there is suitable habitat. Furthermore, with the extensive predator control programmes now in place around Taranaki Maunga it is expected that the pheasant population around the ring-plain will benefit from this.

Where to look

Pheasants are fringe dwellers that like to fossick around on the ground, and when in danger to run rather than fly. However, when they are on the ground they are also vulnerable to predators and so they prefer to be in the open where they can see, but with cover close by. They are also very partial to being warm and will actively seek out the sun on cold days.

Ideal habitat is about a composite of features, all of which invariably need to be present and within walking distance (up to 2 to 3 km);

  1. A tall tree or two to roost in at night, particularly those with horizontal branches like pines.
  2. Cover to escape into when feeling threatened – rank grass, manuka, gorse and blackberry, shrubs or forest
  3. Open edges where they can feed but also see. Ideally these areas will have different plants and weeds with a variety of seed heads, leaves and tubers and insects to feed on. Alternatively, it may be a harvested maize paddock but with cover such as that provided by a riverbank close by. A prime food are ripe inkweed berries and anywhere this plant is common is always worth a look.
  4. Sunny faces or tracks where they can warm themselves, particularly on a frosty morning.
  5. Water be it a small stream or river or just a swampy area.

Inkweed - ideal for pheasants.

Typical examples of prime pheasant habitat include;

  • Cutover or young pine forest. The open nature allows sufficient light for the weeds and shrubs to come away, along with providing sunny roads and often large roosting trees nearby.
  • Coastal sand dunes and pasture land with associated lupin and rank grass/ weedy areas, preferably with pine forest or isolated ‘old-man pines’ in the vicinity.
  • The edges of recently harvested maize paddocks. Maize is often planted on river flats and while the paddock itself is very open it provides a ready food source while the banks of the nearby river or across the river may often provide all the other habitat features pheasants require. 
  • Undeveloped or poorly developed farmland with lots of manuka or forest edges and pockets, rushes and cover as well as lots of weeds and swampy or stream margins. This is classic Northland and East Coast pheasant habitat, however such corners are also common in inland Taranaki in particular, and it’s no surprise they often hold reasonable numbers of pheasants.
  • Big wide braided river flats with low islands of grass, weeds and shrubs and heavier vegetation like willows along the banks. Such areas are uncommon in Taranaki but worth looking out for if you travel elsewhere.

Ideal pheasant country.

A useful way to locate suitable spots is to drive prospective areas just after sunrise or late in the afternoon on a calm clear day looking for birds along or adjacent to the road. A particularly good time can be when the birds are sunning themselves after a good frost. Similarly if during spring then just stopping and listening for pheasants crowing early or late in the day will soon reveal if there are any cock birds in the area.

Daily pattern

Typically, pheasants will fly down from their roost tree after daylight and spend several hours on the ground foraging around for food. On a frosty morning they may also spend periods standing in the sun on or along road edges and other open areas. During the middle of the day they will typically rest up on the ground in cover such as rank grass and rushes or on scrubby faces, before commencing their evening feed in the early afternoon. They will usually walk or fly back to their evening roost once the sun has gone down and may if they are on the shady side of the valley retire quite early.

When to hunt pheasants

Windy days do not usually make for good hunting. This is because while pheasants are moving around on the ground, they are reliant on their vision and hearing to detect danger. However, in a strong wind everything is moving, and noisy which pheasants find very disconcerting and so tend to bunker down making them much harder to locate. Rather the ideal is a sunny day with a light breeze to assist air scenting dogs.

If hunting in the morning give the birds time to move around a little to leave longer scent trails for the dogs to pick up on. Target feeding areas or on frosty mornings open spots such as road and track edges where the birds can stand in the sun to warm up. By late in the morning look more to sunny faces with lots of shrubby cover or rank grass and rushes where the birds can tuck up for a noon time sleep while still being aware of what is going on around them.

In the afternoon start hunting early initially targeting around these noon time roosting areas. Often the birds will already be out foraging however by starting near these spots the dogs can pick up on the trail left as the pheasant walked off. Spend the afternoon hunting open areas adjacent to fringes of cover where the birds are most likely to be feeding. Often the birds are most active through this mid to late afternoon period, presumably feeding up in preparation for the long winter night. Such movement makes it more likely for the dog to cut their path, and many hunters prefer to hunt the afternoon over the morning for this reason. However once the sun goes down it is usually time to retire for the day and enjoy what will be a well earnt rest.

How to hunt pheasants

Great pheasant habitat.

First and foremost, pheasants prefer to run rather than fly when they sense danger, and this behaviour strongly influences how best to hunt them. While hunting over a dog certainly makes it easier, it is sometimes possible to successfully hunt without a dog using this trait. The key is to approach a spot such that the pheasant when disturbed will run into an area of cover from which there are limited escape options. For example, they may run from a paddock into cover along a fence line or riverbank. If there is some sort of natural block, we can use such as an area of open ground or the river itself we may be able to push the bird to edge of this where it will often hold. A really useful tip to flush them at this point is to stand quietly for several minutes. Pheasants rely on their hearing to keep track of you and once they can’t hear anything they rapidly become unsettled and will often flush at this point. We often unintentionally follow this strategy when we come to cross a fence which is why birds sometimes catch us out at when we are halfway over.

This example also highlights the importance of hunting quietly. If we are talking loudly or yelling at the dog, then the likelihood is that any pheasants will have vacated the area ahead long before we arrive. Instead, just whisper to our mates or dog, wear quiet gear that doesn’t rattle and use a whistle and hand commands over voice control to work the dog.

Ideally, we use a dog to hunt pheasants as this greatly increases our chances of finding birds. Typically, pheasant dogs either air-scent the bird directly or follow ground scent to locate a pheasant, or a bit of both. There are two main groups of pheasant dogs – flushing dogs like Labradors and spaniels which drive in and flush the bird as quickly as they can, and pointing breeds which stalk and fix the bird in location until the hunter is ready to shoot. Depending on the country you hunt there are advantages and disadvantages with both types and what you go with is really a matter of personal preference and hunting style. For example, it is a joy to walk up behind a locked up pointer and in many ways this epitomises pheasant hunting. However in country where the bird can run easily such as under manuka which has been grazed out, then unless the dog gets in and puts it up quickly the bird may very rapidly be 100 metres or more away before getting up well out of range.

If hunting over a flushing dog don’t let it work out of range, it is a pointless exercise to keep jumping birds that are too far away to shoot. That said once the dog is hot on a pheasant you will often be better to run after the dog as pulling the dog back at this point simply allows the pheasant to keep running. It just depends on the country, in rank grass, rushes or weedy shrubs the pheasant may sit and hold better especially if you have got close before it was aware of you. This highlights the value of hunting in silence. Pheasant hunting is a matter of choices and we don’t always make the right one, much like whether we go round the left or right side of a tree as the pheasant flushes - and that’s all part of the sport too.

One point worth remembering is that when in danger the rooster often displays little loyalty towards his hens and will decamp first, typically running while the hens flush and take our attention. Therefore, if you put up several hens look for where he may have run to and quickly move there if he hasn’t already flushed in the distance.

When hunting with a dog we want to hunt into the breeze so the dog can use its nose to best advantage. Try to keep your dog quartering backwards and forwards in front of you so as to maximise the likelihood of it cutting a scent or detecting a bird sitting tight. Obviously, some hunters have dogs under immaculate control but even if you can just get your dog to always turn when you give a short whistle can work well, especially in combination with hand signals.

A third way to hunt pheasants is to drive them to where other shooters are waiting.  In many ways this is similar to the strategy we use when hunting without a dog. However in this case we use the waiting hunters to block their escape route and as the other hunters come behind the pheasants are forced to fly. It’s usually a matter of cutting the birds off where they have to leave the cover to cross open country and while most birds will usually fly over the waiting guns some may also try to double back providing shooting for the ‘beaters’. The strategy can be used informally between a couple of hunters where one hunter keeps covering the most likely escape route around each patch of cover or it can be a much more planned manoeuvre involving a much larger group. However, the larger the group the more each hunter has to be aware of where everyone else is and the importance of safety. In these situations, hunters should adopt a rule of ‘blue sky’ shots only; that is they only shoot at birds against an open sky.

When shooting at pheasants it is very easy to miss behind due to the long tail dragging our eye back. Instead, consciously aim to shoot at the head rather than the bird in general. Many birds flush with an element of surprise and only a limited opportunity for the shot before the pheasant puts an obstacle between him and the hunter. Hunters maybe pleasantly surprised how often they make these difficult shots, perhaps because in these situations they tend to shoot more instinctively.

One last tip which has proven the demise of many a cunning bird. Pheasants having adopted a certain tactic to successfully escape a hunter will in similar circumstances invariably use the same tactic again. With a little forward planning so that there is a hunter waiting along the usual escape route then a more favourable result can be achieved.

Suitable equipment

Pheasants often flush quite close and also are not particularly hard to knock down so open chokes and a light load of #6 lead shot or #4 steel shot in a 12g shotgun works very well, with the advantage of having a denser pattern over a larger shot size. Similarly a quick handling and light to carry 20 or 28 gauge shotgun can also be very effective. While many hunters use semi-automatic shotguns very effectively there are advantages in using a break-open under & over or side by side if you have access to one. Firstly they are often lighter which makes these shotguns easier to carry over a long day on the hill, and secondly are shorter which makes them more manoeuvrable when walking through cover or taking a hurried snap shot. However perhaps most importantly they are readily made safe simply by breaking the gun open. This can be a big advantage when the hunt involves regularly climbing fences or slippery hills, pushing through cover, walking through streams and so on.

Clothing should be comfortable and quiet and footwear suitable for walking reasonable distances. Particularly when hunting with other hunters then wearing a blaze orange cap can allow everyone to more readily keep track of each other. A cartridge belt is a convenient way to carry spare ammunition and a small day pack or hunting vest can be used to carry any shot birds along with snacks and the like.