The Art and Science of Hunting the Ditch Parrots of Imperial Valley


Disclaimer: The fact that I have agreed to put this together for a few friends who have requested it, and will force it upon a few others who have not, is not intended to suggest that I am an expert on the above subject.  After roughly a half-century since I first hunted in Imperial Valley and with at least half of those years dedicated to exercising my passion for its wild pheasants – mostly without notable success – I prefer to be thought of as a victim of those devious creatures that invade my mind at all hours of the day and night…

Hunting Ditch Parrots

Background:  There are two tracks here, one which is fairly clear and simple and involves my background with this subject, and another which is rather murky and complex and deals with the subject itself.  Those tracks merge here and it will be interesting to see the degree of turbidity you find in the final result.

I believe I was 13 when I first visited the Imperial Valley on a hunting trip with some older cousins and if that belief is accurate, the date would have been September 1, 1960.  It was the opening of the dove season and as I followed my cousin down a ditch bank road a blur arose from the road’s edge followed by an explosion of brown feathers in response to a load of 7 1/2’s fired from my cousin’s Poly-choke equipped Winchester Model 12.

He identified his victim as a hen pheasant and hurriedly placed it in my game bag with an admonition.  “If we get checked by a warden Jimmy, you tell him you shot that bird.  They’re not going to write a ticket to a kid and when we get back to the truck, I’ll hide that sucker in my tool box.“

I was petrified.  I’d grown up being taught the importance of following rules by my parents and grandparents and the virtues of sportsmanship and game conservation by reading Field and Stream and Boy’s Life.  Now, through my cousin’s mentoring , I was party to a conspiracy that involved the shooting of a pheasant out of season, and worse, the killing of a protected hen!

What did my cousin next have in mind, hold-up of the El Centro Bank of America?  This was a rather inauspicious start for me as a sportsman and I admit it now in the hope that the statute of limitations for complicity in my cousin’s crimes ran out sometime within the last 50 years.

As for Imperial Valley’s pheasants, we don’t really know when they got their start, but the answer to that question is filled with interesting conjecture.  For many years and by most people, it has been assumed that Imperial Valley’s wild pheasants are the distant offspring of birds planted many years ago when the Department of Fish and Game operated something of a “plant and shoot” co-op program in which birds were released into alfalfa fields early in the morning for the purpose of satisfying hunters who would be permitted to enter the fields at 8 a.m.  The source of these pen-raised birds included the DFG’s own game farm as well as private breeders.  There would seem to be little dispute that it is at least possible that a few escapees survived and reproduced to provide the foundation for today’s population.

A more intriguing scenario is the possibility that the pheasants which inhabit the Imperial and Mexicali Valley to the south (they are in fact the same valley geographically, but with different names as divided by the border) originated from birds that might have been brought directly from China along with many other culturally important items associated with the thousands of Chinese who were brought in to provide labor for mines, railroads and canals, and to this day constitute a significant portion of Mexicali’s population.  My interest in the explanation for the fact that Mexicali Valley is a pheasant paradise while the Imperial Valley is a much smaller oasis in terms of the numbers and density of pheasants present, led to a study by a retired Department of Fish and Game biologist by the name of Chet Harte.  His investigation concluded that it is indeed possible that the pheasants of the region may be cultural artifacts of early Chinese occupation.

In addition it should be noted that:

In the 1960’s Afghan black wing pheasants were planted with the hope that the similarity in arid habitats between Afghanistan and Imperial Valley would result in a population of these birds, but no evidence of reproduction followed their introduction;

In the 1990‘s wild ringneck pheasants were captured at Grizzly Island by the Department of Fish and Game and planted at the Wister Wildlife Unit in hopes of bolstering the wild pheasant population in that area, but I know of no studies of data relative to that effort;

For roughly the last ten years, Desert Wildlife Unlimited In conjunction with the DFG has used upland game stamp funds to lease and plant fields in the Niland area  for the purpose of providing upland habitat and related public hunting opportunities.  This program appears to work reasonably well for doves and dove hunters when that season opens on September 1.  The same funds are used to produce pen-raised pheasants when that season opens traditionally in mid-November.  This program is reminiscent of the earlier “plant and shoot” days and is not geared toward development or enhancement of wild pheasant populations, though it might benefit them indirectly in reducing the number of pheasant hunters by attracting those satisfied with the hunting of pen-raised birds;

Various hunting clubs, sporting dog groups and individuals have planted small numbers of pen raised pheasants for hunts, training and field trials and while some of these birds may have survived, it is unlikely they have had an influence on the population of Imperial Valley’s wild pheasants;

In addition to those wild birds scattered around the valley which manage to survive “clean farming” agriculture and hay balers, wild birds from Mexicali Valley refuse to recognize international treaties or  borders and cross back and forth between Mexico and the United States on a daily basis as illegal immigrants in the south end of the valley.

Survival:  Regardless of their origin, which may well be a mixture of the scenarios described here, or include some not known to me, Imperial Valley’s pheasants are the ultimate survivors, eking out a living in the irrigated agricultural zone of a desert environment so harsh that a former DFG Supervisor for Upland Game was insistent to me that wild pheasants did not and could not exist in Imperial Valley.  He contentiously insisted that reproduction and survival was impossible due to the desert heat, and any effort to enhance habitat was therefore a waste of time when I asked about DFG support for same.

Contrary to his belief and what he might have learned from wildlife management professors and textbooks, wild pheasants do indeed survive in Imperial Valley and have done so for many years.  It is my belief that an important aspect of this survival is the availability of both permanent and temporary escape cover which provides an interesting mosaic throughout the valley, allowing pheasants to survive in variable densities from the border in the south to the Salton Sea to the north, and bounded somewhat by the Westside Main Canal to the west and the East Highline Canal to the east.

Permanent escape cover is the desert habitat which provides wildlife a valuable “edge” to the valley’s intensive and productive agriculture.  It can be found along the Alamo River, New River, Greeson Wash, and some sections of the All-American, Westside Main and the East Highline canals.

Temporary escape cover consists of drainage ditches and the occasional fallowed field.  Imperial Irrigation District weed abatement efforts and dredging make for an ever changing scenario and daunting challenge for pheasant and hunter alike, both of whom suffer in the face of ditch cleaning progress associated with mechanical and chemical abatement processes.  Occasionally asparagus is planted in sufficient quantity for this long-standing crop to serve as dependable temporary escape cover over a significant period of time when compared to crops of shorter duration in the field.  Shorter duration crops such as alfalfa, sugar beets, Sudan grass, standard and giant Bermuda, Klein grass, broccoli, kale, lettuce, cabbage, cotton, etc., provide suitable but very temporary habitat (cover, water and food – including insects) that peaks prior to harvest, but is eliminated with the harvesting, plowing and  planting associated with succession of the next crop.

Finding and Hunting Imperial Valley’s Pheasants:  At any given time and in any given field, ditch or edge, it is possible for the hunter to find a pheasant in Imperial Valley, with some areas of course much better than others.

How and where I find pheasants has largely been a process of trial and error with far more failure than success over the years.  Telling others where I find pheasants serves neither of us or our quarry over the long haul, and I have probably done too much of that already in an effort to connect others with a wild ringneck which I view as a considerable gift to them.  This issue in not unlike the parable about giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day versus teaching a man to fish and feeding him for the rest of his life – albeit I consider the pursuit of pheasants more about feeding my spirit than filling my belly.

Better that I tell you the kinds of places I find them rather than precisely where.  I find them in the ditches as opposed to the fields, hunting the former almost exclusively and the latter almost not at all.

Others find their birds in the fields which are most productive for those hunting over pointing dogs, behind flushing dogs or participating in “drives” by a line of hunters.  Almost anyone who hunts and enjoys success hunting the fields would be a better source of information on that subject.

I am by historical circumstances, personal preference and an evolved blue collar approach – a ditch hunter.  When I was a dog-less hunter and often hunting alone, walking the ditches turned up more birds for me than transecting the fields and was infinitely more interesting to me.

My success and outlook improved considerably after I was given a well started young Labrador retriever by the name of Tap, marking my transition from a hunter w/o dog to a hunter w/ dog ever since.  Tap and I along with those who hunted with us enjoyed some success in the fields as well as the ditches which we gradually came to favor.  Despite his high breeding, Tap developed a penchant for hunting the low places (ditches) when it came to pheasants.

Roughly a year before Tap died of cancer at the age of nine, I was given custody of a discarded English Springer Spaniel of unknown breeding and background.  Hunting alongside Tap for a season, Rainy quickly proved himself a worthy pheasant dog, and like Tap, had a passion for pushing pheasants out of the heaviest cover the filthiest ditches had to offer.  Retired now at age 12 (at least), “Rainy the Ditchmaster” has given way to an understudy by the name of Gus, a field bred English Springer Spaniel from Nebraska that was a field trial washout.  Trained for field trialing, it took Gus two days of hunting in Imperial Valley to make the transition from quartering a field in wide arcs to running the linear obstacle course represented by the ditches.  Now, at age 2 ½ and his first season with me under his collar, “Gus the Ditchdemon” has exceeded my expectations.  Like his predecessors, Gus relishes hunting the ditches, goes hard all day in the least hospitable of conditions and would gladly wear a headlamp if night hunting was legal.

In my opinion, the perfect ditch, the one most likely to harbor a ringneck or two is one with a mixture of vegetation types (preferably arrow weed, cattails and Bermuda grass), intermittent water (sometimes I find a mallard or teal as a bonus bird), adjacent to recently mowed or harvested fields (preferably alfalfa, sugar beets, Sudan grass or broccoli) and has a small game trail along at least one side or portions of both.  Since there are not many “perfect” ditches, the next best tend to lack only one or two of the qualities listed above.  The size of the ditch or drainage is less important than the qualities it has to offer, and no ditch with those qualities is too small.

It is my theory that the birds that utilize these fields use the adjacent ditch (unless there is a desert edge to escape to) as their escape cover in the face of danger or normal agricultural activities that might disturb them in the field.  Even in the absence of danger or farm activities, I’m confident that the birds trade back and forth between the fields where they eat and socialize and the ditches where they feel most secure.  My favorite hunts have come near the end of the season when there are few hunters, harvested or bare fields and long-tailed birds that have matured and grown wise and wary over the course of the season.  For me there is no greater prize than a late season rooster.

Finding the right ditch is merely the first step.  The next and most important is how to hunt that ditch.  Long before I had a dog, I’d walk the ditch bank and toss a rock or dirt clod every few steps and that remains the best approach for a hunter without a dog.

As noted earlier, it was about 20 years ago that I was given Tap, a Labrador retriever that was a field trial washout and it was not long before I realized that a dog was the answer to hunting the ditches.  About nine years later I found an English springer spaniel it was behind Rainy that I further refined my hunting approach.  With no disrespect toward pointing dog fanciers or their owners, who enjoy superior results in the fields, it is my opinion that among traditional sporting breeds, flushing dogs such as spaniels or retrievers are generally superior for hunting the ditches.  On the other hand, any dog with the heart and intensity to fight through  the obstacles found in ditches will be able to flush some birds and I recall a particular beagle that was terrific in that regard.

My experience with the Labrador retriever, the lost and found English springer spaniel and now a field bred springer that was another field trial washout is that these or Boykin spaniels, along with field bred English cockers are the dogs of choice for hunting Imperial Valley’s ditches.

Over many years my approach has evolved to rely more on a good dog’s instincts and abilities than any I might possess.  I believe that once a dog understands the game, the hunter’s best approach is to simply follow and trust the dog and avoid over-handling it.

Unlike field hunting where the hunter has a range of choices as to where to start, usually affording the dog the opportunity to quarter into the wind as it searches for scent, ditches are linear and leave you the choice of starting at one end or the other.  Ideally, the ditch and conditions set up in a away that allows the dog to hunt into the scent, but ditch conditions are rarely ideal and minimizing danger to my dog is foremost.  Regardless of wind direction, I avoid hunting in the direction of busy roads, downstream toward drains if there is a significant flow, or adjacent to downstream facing canals where fast moving irrigation water can lead a dog to its death in a culvert or drop.  In short, know the conditions around a ditch before allowing your dog to enter it.

While working into the scent may be preferable, I believe that most dogs when forced to work with the wind at their backs soon learn to backtrack in their search for scent and in many cases this results in a flush that begins toward rather than away from the gun.

I believe that early in the season when the bulk of the rooster population is comprised of young of the year birds that think they can hide from trouble, most flushes come as a direct result of the dog following hot on the scent trail until the bird determines it has no choice but to bail out, resulting in a better opportunity for a shot in most cases.  It is my observation that as the season wears on and the birds become wiser and more wary with regard to dogs, a fair number of birds have learned and live by the adage  “you can run, but you cannot hide.”

The result is a few birds that are only too anxious to show you what they have learned over the course of the season by flushing wild and well out of range before you even enter their refuge in the ditch.  They can do this no matter how stealthy you are in avoiding the slamming of truck doors and being prepared to begin hunting as soon as you arrive and having a strategy.

A few words about strategies; they are fun for hunter(s) to consider while offering a false sense of superiority and are never foolproof.

Here are a few based on the number of hunters and dogs involved:

Single hunter/no dog – Find a ditch with the right kinds of cover and walk the edge, preferably into the wind, tossing dirt clods into the thickest cover every 30 feet.  Since finding the dirt clods is an intermittent proposition on some ditch banks, a wheelbarrow filled with them might come in handy.  I’m pretty certain the number of rocks and dirt clods I threw into ditches when I was dog-less hastened the Imperial Irrigation District’s dredging schedule while resulting in the demise of my rotator cuff.

Two hunters/no dog –  With a hunter starting at each end of the ditch, work toward each other while employing the same clod tossing tactics recommended for the single hunter.  Otherwise known as “the dog-less pincer move” the theory behind this strategy is that any birds fleeing Hunter #1 and his dirt clods will head toward Hunter #2 and his clods and vice versa.

Single hunter with dog – Assess the issues relating to the quality of the cover, stealth, dog and hunter safety and hit the ditch hard with the hunter and dog staying within 30 yards of each other.  This will require some decent sprinting on the part of the hunter if the dog picks up hot scent left behind by a runner.

Two hunters with dog – There are two basic approaches here.  The first is to follow the same pattern as for a single hunter with dog, but to place a hunter on each side of the ditch.  The other is to use one hunter as a blocker at the end of the ditch.

Two hunters with two dogs – Same as for two hunters with no dogs, but known as “the clod-less pincer move.”

Three hunters with dog – Combines both approaches of the two hunters with dog strategy by using one hunter as a blocker with the other two on both sides of the ditch.

Four hunters with or without dog – With the exception of providing a second blocker, saving a table at Camacho’s, or using the fourth hunter as a driver in order to pick everyone up at the end of the ditch, there is no safe strategy for four hunters to hunt the same ditch.

The single most important ingredient for success is a dog with the will and heart for the rigors of ditches where they will encounter polluted water, rattlesnakes, Africanized bees, swarms of mosquitoes, raccoons, coyotes, dense and inhospitable vegetation and when hunting near the border, the occasional migrant worker who has found the ditch a refuge from the Border Patrol after crossing the All-American Canal.

An effective ditch dog rarely leaves the ditch while hunting, unless it is to run ahead downwind and back track into it.  It will find a way to fight through the dense stands of cattails, arrow weed and quail bush and ignore the cocklebur, sand burs and thorns of the mesquite.  In the denser ditches, it will rarely be seen by the hunter who stands above and monitors the dog’s position and progress by watching for the movement of the vegetation, which may or may not represent the dog.

The dog that becomes a “ditch demon” in its pursuit of pheasants becomes caked in mud, wears off its eyelashes and smells of the ditches it is reluctant to leave and longs to return to.

Rare is the dog that becomes a true “ditch demon.” They are few and far between and a treasure to those who hunt pheasants with them.


2 Responses

  1. Dave Shields

    Very thorough an well done Jim, speaking from a life time of experience hunting in what I call extreme conditions in the valley of Hell Centro/ Center of Hell!

    1. sportnlyf

      Thanks Dave! I put that together for a few folks who asked for my help in hunting those tough wild roosters in Imperial Valley and this post was the culmination of that experience over many decades. Thanks for the great photo of your giant Montana buck!

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