Despite the title, until I moved to Alberta just over 16 years ago I had never been much of a pheasant hunter. In fact, until coming to Alberta I had shot exactly one pheasant in my life – a hen released on a game bird preserve that had to be kicked into the air by my buddy because it refused to flush otherwise. I don’t even recall how I cooked it, though I am quite sure I ate it and liked it enough to want to shoot more. Sadly, Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) did not have a pheasant season (and still doesn’t) so the only venue available for pheasant hunting was the local pheasant preserve and it cost more than a university student could regularly afford. Thus most of my hunting efforts on the Island were directed to ruffed grouse, hares and waterfowl (no big game on P.E.I. either).
Despite 35 years of hunting experience, my first wild rooster was shot in Alberta just seven years ago. That hunt was facilitated by some friends from neighboring British Columbia who make an annual pilgrimage to the south-eastern corner of my province to spend a month or so chasing their German Wirehairs as the dogs chase the roosters. It has become somewhat of an annual event for me and for the past two years I have traveled with my 14 year old son, Aidan, to Taber, Alberta for the Novice Pheasant Hunt where novice and first-time hunters are educated on firearms safety, clay target shooting and pheasant biology. The young hunters are then given the opportunity to hunt with a mentor and shoot released birds on the training site. After the novice hunt, we normally pair up with the B.C. crew for another couple of days chasing wild roosters.
The pheasant along with the Hungarian partridge and chukar partridge is one of our few “benign” imported bird species. While other imported species of birds such as domestic pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows could best be called “invasive” in that they have displaced or negatively competed with native bird species, the pheasant has exploited a niche that was previously unoccupied in North America. In Alberta, we are at the northern limit of the pheasant’s range and it is only in the that thin strip of Alberta that adjoins the Montana border that reasonably good numbers of wild pheasants can be found. Thus, many of the pheasants shot in the rest of Alberta are released birds — birds hatched in captivity and raised in large flight pens that allow them to fly but keep them confined until it is time to release them.
The ease of raising pheasants in captivity while still allowing them to retain many of their wild characteristics is one of the prime reasons that pheasants are a great introductory species for new hunters. Released birds hold tighter and run less than their wild brethren allowing for close shots (sometimes too close) and multiple opportunities for inexperienced hunters. Wild birds run like rabbits and will often flush wildly out of range.
The most memorable hunt this season took place on a quarter section (160 acres) of land possessed of a long meandering, brush choked irrigation canal bordered on both sides by waist high sagebrush. We had two groups of three hunters. My son Aidan was in my group and another 14 year old novice, Haley, with her father, Jim, were in the other group. Each party worked with a German wirehair (to locate and point birds) and a Labrador retriever (to flush and retrieve them) as the canine components of the team.
Pheasants would rather run than fly and the thick sagebrush offered plenty of concealment. Our strategy was to have the wirehair and one hunter work the canal edges while the other two hunters and the Lab would work the sage brush ahead of, and to the side of the wirehair. This funneled pheasants towards the canal where they would then be forced to flush or run along the edge of the canal. Periodically and as the terrain dictated, the hunter/Labrador team would cut across a bend in the canal to act as blockers for the wirehair team still hugging close to the bank. The pheasants, now pushed from two sides and with only one avenue for escape would flush in an explosion of flapping. Notice I did not say cackling. Wild roosters rarely cackle when flushing, unlike their pen raised counterparts.
We flushed and shot three roosters and flushed another two hens, yelling “rooster” or “hen” to let everyone in the party know whether it was a legal rooster or verboten hen that was clattering into the sky. At one point we flushed a pheasant that looked like a hen on the wing. This “hen” however, betrayed itself — bursting forth with a cacophony of cackles as it flew away — and I brought up my shotgun and dumped the young rooster (hens don’t cackle) neatly into the canal. Warden, my two-year-old, male, Yellow Lab promptly splashed down for the retrieve (a good thing since we discovered that the young Wirehair refused to swim) and brought back the bedraggled and pinfeathery immature rooster. Not pretty to look at but tasty and as tender as a wild bird can ever be.
We were now had three birds out of a three man limit of six and continued to work the canal toward the other hunting party. As we approached an oxbow in the canal both dogs began gyrating with excitement, noses to the ground, tails (or remnants thereof on the part of the wirehair) thrashing. A large hen got up and I yelled “Hen!” to restrain my son Aidan who was bringing his gun to bear. He stopped to look at me and an instant later the world around us exploded in pheasants as nearly three dozen birds began rocketing off in all directions. It was every man for himself as we each tried to pick out the roosters from the hens. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Aidan drop his second bird of the day.
It was then that I experienced a first for me. I missed a pheasant. Now while I consider myself to be a good wingshot, I do miss other birds regularly enough to keep me humble but to this point in my hunting career I had never missed a pheasant (only having shot at less than forty of them mind you). Despite all the flapping, sometimes squawking, and visual clutter of wings and tails reaching for the sky that accompanies a pheasant flush, they are not particularly fast flyers on their own (though with a 60 km/hr tailwind they can really move). The reason most people miss a flushing pheasant is that they shoot too soon while the bird is too close and the pattern of the shotgun is too tight. Good thing too. If you do happen to hit a bird ten yards from the muzzle of your gun you are apt to create some very unappetizing pheasant confetti. This however, is part of what makes them a great bird for first time hunters because their relatively large size and slow flight often gives novices the opportunity to bring a gun to bear and fire before the birds are out of range.
In this case, distracted by the chaos, I shot too soon and over the rooster bearing straight away from me. A moment later I was offered redemption as another burst from the cover near my feet. This time, determined to allow the bird some room, I silently counted “one, two, three” and fired on three. My second bird of the day folded neatly and disappeared into the thick willows lining the canal.
This is an area in which a dog is essential. Though colored like clowns, male pheasants can blend into their surroundings amazingly well and dead ones seem to find every little contour and depression in the ground to roll into. A wounded pheasant that can run is nearly always a lost bird to the dogless hunter. Even with the dogs, it took a good 10 minutes to find the three roosters we downed at the oxbow – despite all three being dead in the air.
We met up with the other party of three in the quarter’s center to find we had a total of eleven birds – one shy of a 6 man limit. The other party picked up their final bird on the return trip to the vehicles and we were done hunting an hour after our day started.
Flavor-wise pheasant is the most “chickeny” of gamebirds. It is a great bird for introducing novices to the joys of eating wild game because it tastes so familiar to what the chicken-eaters of the world are used to yet has a tangy undercurrent that lets you know it is not exactly chicken. A free-range organic chicken would be most similar in its flavor profile.
Immediately after the bird is in the hand should be the time that the hunter/cook decides how and when the bird will be dressed and prepared. Young pheasants will exhibit both shorter tails and spurs than older birds and be more tender but they may also have more pinfeathers making them more difficult to pluck than a mature specimen. My rule of thumb generally is to examine the bird for shot and dog damage. Birds that exhibit excessive amounts of either are skinned, gutted and disjointed that day for use in stews, stir-fries and braises. The rest are hung and plucked.
I often hang pheasants and other gamebirds that are lightly hit and in good condition (wings and legs mostly intact and unbroken – no shot holes around the intestinal cavity) in a cool breezy place (0⁰- 4⁰ C) for up to a week. Hung fully feathered and ungutted, the process is much like dry aging beef in that it allows the flavors to concentrate and the tissues to relax, improving tenderness, especially in older birds.
Once dry plucked and gutted the birds are washed thoroughly and are ready for cooking and/or packaging.
I usually cut down either side of the backbone when cleaning birds. It makes them easier to gut and subsequently stuff and leaves me with some tough yet meaty backbones to make pheasant stock from (the most recent batch produced a serendipitous mistake that I will highlight in another post).
Any recipe suitable for chicken will work with pheasant though be warned that pheasant does dry out more quickly than chicken and as such cooking times normally can be reduced by as much as a third. Pheasants can be purchased frozen in many grocery stores and are quite costly when compared to chicken yet are unique enough to justify the occasional splurge for that special meal. At about two pounds dressed, one pheasant will feed two people when served with accompaniments and side dishes.
In the coming weeks and months I will be highlighting some of the recipes and meals made from pheasants and other game. Some will be extremely simplistic — almost caveman-like in their ruggedness — while others involve the use of long preparation times and multiple techniques. Where appropriate, domestic meat alternatives will be given. Some game has no domestic equivalent so I won’t even bother trying but will instead encourage readers to source their own — either through friends who hunt or through their own hunting.