Minnesota's Pheasant Forecast

If you have taken a few years off from chasing ringnecks, you will be surprised by the number of roosters if you go afield this season. In fact, put it on your "must-do" list. (October 2007)

Minnesota's pheasants have had it easy the past few years because of our mild winters, so carryover has been good. Along with decent nesting conditions, this ensures a good population of huntable birds this season.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister.

"Does everyone have steel in their gun?" yelled Adam Johnson to the other four hunters milling around the trucks.

The whistling wind wasn't enough to drown out the plea that everyone needed to make sure they didn't have lead shot in their pockets or in their shotguns. We were setting up to hunt pheasants in a waterfowl production area (WPA) near Benson, and even though waterfowl were not on our list of birds to shoot, you cannot possess any lead shot in a WPA. Johnson was making sure he wouldn't be branded a violator if someone else in the party got pinched with an illegal shotshell.

"I'm using slugs," teased KC O'Dea. He joked that he couldn't find any that were steel, so he was going to have to take his chances. Johnson responded that we might need slugs to kill the tough old roosters we were sure to find in this grassy swamp that looked like it was full of birds.

The wind was blowing hard, but fortunately, we had it blasting us right in our faces. We wouldn't be using posters at the end of the cover, but instead we spread out with the hunters on the end slightly ahead of those in the middle. The dogs would have a hard time picking up scent in the wind, so if one of the pair started getting anxious, that would be a good signal a bird was trying to elude the canine assault.

We didn't have to go 50 yards before the hens started flushing. Every hunter knows this is a good sign, but you like to see a rooster or two in the bunch. However, those colorful exotic birds we love to hunt are never going to make it easy for you.

The first rooster that flushed never got the wind behind it. Johnson dropped it with one shot, and it was dead before it hit the ground.

I got the next shot, and when that pheasant hit the ground, it was running. The retriever next to me was right on its tail, but it eluded the dog. We needed to be on the lookout for that cripple. There's nothing worse than losing a bird in the grass.

For the next couple hundred yards, the only birds flushing were hens. Then the big, black Lab dove into a heavy clump of grass and a rooster jumped, tried to fly, couldn't, and took off running. The dog caught up to it and clamped down. It was our cripple. It added a second bird to the larder.

Nearing the end of our run, the roosters started popping out and taking to the air. They were just out of range, so we picked up the pace. O'Dea was focusing on the birds getting up way out in front of him, so when the rooster flushed right at his feet, he wasn't totally ready. The first blast from his shotgun never came close, but the second found bird and the third was solid. The third bird was in the bag.

It was the last pheasant we dropped at that spot, although we saw more roosters. The dozen that got out in front of us were just a bit too far out to waste a shot on, plus it was our first stop on a run toward the South Dakota border. We were going to hit the Danvers Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and a few other spots on some private land where we have some connections before heading into South Dakota to meet up with some other hunters, expand the group and work some big fields of CRP where the roosters are bunched up in groups in the hundreds.

If you trust the memories of some of the "old-timers" when they talk about Minnesota pheasant hunting in the "good old days," the southwestern counties used to provide the kind of hunting you find today in the Dakotas -- big clouds of roosters and hens taking to the skies as the hunters entered huge swaths of grassy cover surrounded by fields of freshly harvested corn. The glory days were when a dozen hunters could kill a limit of birds in Minnesota in a couple of hours. Harvest levels back then were in the millions each year.

The past few seasons may not generate stories like those you hear from hunters who recall some of the peak years in the 1950s and early '60s, but who knows how selective memory recall may serve to embellish the great hunting we've seen in Minnesota in recent years. According to Bill Penning, the Department of Natural Resources Farmland Wildlife Program leader, hunting has been very good the past few years, and this year should be much of the same.

"There was a significant carryover from this winter," Penning said. "The weather was mild. There were a lot of birds that were being seen all winter long. Plenty of birds were also being seen throughout the pheasant range in the spring. The good weather for the nesting season means we should have very high populations going into this fall. Overall, the outlook is good for a productive season."

Not only are pheasant numbers going up, but the number of hunters has gone up as well.

"Stamp sales in 2006 were the second-highest they have ever been," Penning said. "There were 129,291 pheasant stamps sold last year. It directly correlates to the predictions on how many pheasants we think there are going to be and what people are seeing in the field."

Does this mean more birds killed? It does, according to Penning.

"To a certain extent, the more hunting pressure there is, the more birds that get harvested," he said. "It's a linear relationship. In 2005, we sold 117,000 stamps, so we exceeded that by 12,000 stamps last year, and in 2005, we harvested 586,000 pheasants. The 2006 harvest numbers are not in yet, but I would expect it will be in that neighborhood. We may exceed it a bit, but I would say the pheasant hunting between 2005 and 2006 was pretty comparable. It was good hunting."

How good was it? My son, Jason, and I headed out to Hutchinson one beautiful day last fall to knock on some doors and catch up with some old friends where we hunted in the past. I enjoy sitting around at the kitchen table swapping stories with the landowners, with the smell of a fresh pot of coffee filling the room. Jason, on the other hand, likes to say hi, hunt, and then come back for some small talk. He's his mother's son.

At the first farm we stopped, I told Jason to check out the pheasant cover while I chatted with the landowner. Ten minutes later, he was back with his two roosters. I didn't even hunt this location because I wanted to check in with some of our other contacts. As it turned out, I finally took

to the cover after a hearty lunch and had my two pheasants in 45 minutes. Jason made a good dog on that hunt. He flushed my birds and I only told him he could shoot to back me up. It wasn't necessary. Four roosters, four shots.

One has to wonder how long this great pheasant hunting will last. According to Penning, the ethanol equation is going to have a bearing on whether we continue to feast or enter a famine.

That was but a primer for the season. On a trip to hunt roosters in Iowa, Jason and I decided to scout some public land west and south of Albert Lea on the way down. Jason typically turns his nose up at public land, preferring instead to get permission from landowners. I like WMAs because you can park, hop out and hunt when you are in a hurry. You just use the WMA for a stop off to pick up some bonus birds, and it's quick and dirty. With luck some day, the powers that be in Minnesota might work out setting up some walk-in hunting areas like they have in South Dakota where we won't have to ask permission to access certain parcels of private property. Maybe some day.

Our first stop was the Walnut Lake WMA. There is plenty of grassy cover there, some lowland swamp and some timber belts. There was plenty of cover for pheasants, but it was a few weeks into the season and you could tell hunters had been there by the number of empty plastic shotgun hulls strewn about. I can't resist picking these up, and there were over 30 in my vest when we got back to the truck. There would have been plenty more I'm sure, but we weren't there more than an hour. We didn't even get to uncase our guns at the Panicum Prairie WMA because we had our four roosters when we left Walnut Lake.

It was a brag fest on the way down to east/central Iowa, and I was on the listening end. Ten steps into the WMA and three hens and two roosters flushed. Jason dropped the first rooster before it got 10 wingbeats. The other was surrounded by the hens and he had to wait a couple of seconds until the birds separated some before taking a long shot and dropping that second bird. Fifty minutes later and after flushing half a dozen hens, another rooster came up in range and Jason only needed one shot to drop that bird. As the dog was running to pick up the third rooster, it flushed another by accident and Jason shot that one, too. It was a long trip for me.

One has to wonder how long this great pheasant hunting will last. According to Penning, the ethanol equation is going to have a bearing on whether we continue to feast or enter a famine.

"The ethanol thing could go either way," Penning said. "There could be some benefits from it if it's done right. If we can shift the argument toward more cellulose energy -- biofuels made from grass -- that could be a very good thing.

"That technology is not commercially available yet," Penning continued. "So, in the short term we're going to see more land go to corn. The question is: What land will that be? It may be bean ground that is planted in corn. Farmers may just take their existing operations and just shuffle around what they're planting. At the same time, there is a push to release some CRP, or to reduce enrollment in CRP. If that happens, we'll start seeing a significant impact on wildlife populations."

From my experience when hunting pheasants with the corn standing, it would seem that this crop provides some pretty good cover. I fare poorly on pheasants when the corn is in. But Penning said that corn cover is not a significant factor in pheasant production. It's all about reproduction.

"Corn is not nesting habitat," Penning stressed. "The limiting factor for pheasants is not food. It's nesting habitat. Corn is not that great a winter cover either. Even when you leave it standing, it's pretty open. You think about wind-driven snow and those corn stalks are planted 12 inches apart. That's not good winter cover. So, when you think of corn as cover, it's not good for overwinter survival. They need more than that to survive bad winter weather."

It was our annual whitetail scouting trip. This was the year we were going to hunt public land around Brandon and Evansville. Jason reminded me that there were plenty of small, grassy WMAs in this region, so we should take our shotguns along and try to flush a few pheasants. I argued that hunting roosters would cut into our scouting time. Jason won the argument, just like his mother usually does.

We always take a couple of days to scout for potential deer-hunting spots. After checking out a few spots south of Brandon, we moved up into the Evansville area and quickly settled on a lowland swamp rimmed by some timber belts. It looked like a great place for whitetails to move through when the hunters started to push them. It was the Alvstad WMA, and as we were preparing to leave, we were giving it one more look from the parking spot at the top of the hill when the pheasants started cackling. Jason and I just looked at each other like, "where did they come from?" We had just finished stomping all over that area and never heard or saw a pheasant. Now they were taunting us. Jason pinpointed the source of the rooster cackle from a thick stand of cattails on the edge of the pond. I told him we might get wet. He loaded his shotgun. I followed his lead.

We figured those birds would know we were there, so we moved slowly and quietly toward them. They flushed in range, a rooster and hen. We never shot because they went over the water and we didn't have a dog to retrieve that rooster if we did connect.

Now that we had our deer-hunting spot pinned down, we figured we could scout some secondary locations and see if we could flush up a few more birds.

Jason hates to hunt without a dog. I don't mind the challenge. You have to modify your approach. Instead of walking quickly straight through the cover, you move slowly in a circle while tightening it up to create a spiral to the center of the field. You actually pinch those birds into the center and flush them when they can't figure out where you are.

The best bird hunting came from a WPA, not a WMA. It was a beautiful grassy spot right off County Road 20 next to Rosby Lake. We only killed two roosters, but we saw over 30 birds and at least 10 of them were males.

You didn't see this kind of pheasant numbers 10 years ago in this region. The wicked winters we had in the early and mid-1990s knocked down the pheasant populations, and hunting up toward the northern fringe of the ringneck range or out in western Minnesota where they really were hit hard was a lesson in frustration. You could walk all day with a world-class dog and not flush a single bird. Now we're getting plenty of opportunities to shoot on public land, and we're seeing plenty of hens, which is a good thing.

There was a push in the last legislative session to raise the limit of pheasants from two to three per hunter in Minnesota. It didn't pass this year, but it could pass in years to come. I don't know what the biological argument is for this, but I don't think that pheasant hunters in this state are too worried about where the limit goes. We were elated when the season was extended to the end of the calendar year because that's what it's all about for us: getting to hunt, the bri

sk breeze of fall tipping your cap, the smell of gunpowder wafting by, and the rooster crumpling before falling to the ground. Even the birds that make it through the shower of lead or steel and fly over two roads and three fields to safe cover puts smiles on our faces.

It's going to be another great year for pheasant hunters in Minnesota, so enjoy it while you can.

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