Illinois Department of Natural Resources
November 2019
November 1, 2019

Hunting Pheasants in Illinois

By Nancy Donaldson

Photos courtesy of Gail Jacobsen, Hilltop Meadows Hunt Club, Fulton, Illinois.

The days of finding wild ring-necked pheasants in scrub rows and roadside strips of prairie grass among acres of crops in Illinois may be in the distant past but many fine places exist where you can still enjoy walking afield to flush and harvest “ditch chickens.” From state managed game lands to privately owned hunting preserves, anyone from novice to advanced hunter can experience the thrill of watching a bird launch into the air and testing your wingshooting skills. “Wingshooting” is the term typically used to mean engaging a moving target with bird shot from a smooth-bore shotgun.

A hunter wearing blaze orange aims her shotgun at a pheasant in flight. Reddish-tan prairie grasses and a blue sky are in the background.

It is advisable to understand and practice the basics of shotgun shooting before heading out on your first bird hunt. If you’re considering learning the sport or refining your techniques, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources annually hosts several free or low-cost Wingshooting Clinics around the state. These clinics are designed for all skill levels. There are other organizations that offer coaching and beginner hunts as well, such as Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and some outdoor sports or wildlife conservation associations.

Hunting clubs sometimes offer guided, instructional hunts for beginners. If you have no previous hunting experience, call ahead to inquire if they are willing to coach new hunters. A session that teaches safety in the field, hunting etiquette, how to hunt with a bird dog and ethical shooting will be well worth the time and expense. Connecting with an experienced hunting mentor is another great way to begin, especially because upland bird hunting can be very enjoyable and successful as a group activity. If you are an experienced wingshooting hunter, consider mentoring a new hunter; you’ll gain a lot by investing some time, and gain a new hunting partner in the process.

Once you know the basics, get out and enjoy the experience. A working bird dog, whether a flushing breed or a pointing breed, is an incredible thing to watch even when you don’t have a successful harvest. There are various types of hunting dogs and varying hunting styles among them, but all the breeds that you will find in the field will amaze you with the pure joy and energy they display on the hunt.

A bird dog flushes a pheasant in an agricultural field. Trees are in the background.

A wide variety of terrain and cover exists that you may encounter on an upland hunt in Illinois. Farm-raised, released pheasants and the infrequent wild bred bird can most often be found in planted crop rows, wildlife food plots or natural prairie. Occasionally you will also find them in forested areas. Most hunting clubs and game lands will maintain some type of pheasant habitat and place birds in preparation for a hunting party. A rare find that makes for a different kind of hunt is an outfitter or club that releases birds in natural prairie throughout the season so that they revert to wild behavior. This type of hunt can be very exciting because you are likely to encounter wild flushes and multiple birds taking flight at the same time.

A hunter in blaze orange poses with her pheasant harvest and bird dog.

Consult the annual Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations for the pheasant hunting season, which begins in November, and all associated rules and regulations. There is still time to get out for a little shooting with clay pigeons before the season starts. Many shooting clubs offer trap, skeet, 5-stand and sporting clays games, all of which were designed to hone your shotgun shooting skills during the off season. Check out your local clubs for opportunities to practice.

Upland bird hunting in Illinois is a long-standing tradition, not just for the sport. There is value in knowing where your food comes from, in taking part in the harvest and in supporting conservation for the generations that will follow. Not many activities compare with spending a day afield with a hint of chill in the air, in great company with a good working dog. Here is wishing you a safe season and the joy of sharing it.

Nancy Donaldson is a U.S. Army Vietnam Era Veteran, earned an MBA from North Park University and retired as an ARAMARK Executive. She serves as a volunteer shooting coach and is an avid hunter.