All indicators point to another season similar to the last few. Enjoy it while you can, because it may be followed by a noticeable decline. (October 2008)
Adam Johnson brought down a brace of pheasants with his 28-gauge shotgun.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister.
It was early season, the wind was calm, and pheasants were flushing close. There were six of us split into two vehicles, and as we pulled into the second field, I could already sense what was going through Adam Johnson's mind. Johnson and I had both packed Model 1100 Remington 28-gauge shotguns and it was time for a little light-gauge action.
Johnson and I had been debating the ballistics of today's shotshells and we came to the conclusion that the only big difference in the loads we were using in our 12-gauge shotguns compared with the 28-gauge was about 100 feet per second and a few more pellets. Well, make that much more pellets, but that shouldn't make a difference if you are a good shot.
During the debate, we peppered the conversation with stories of our shooting prowess and embellished tales of ancient relatives who settled for nothing less than a headshot, even on a flying bird.
I reminisced about my father who hunted with nothing more than his trusty .410 and seldom missed a fleeing rooster. We came to the conclusion that the only reason most of us feel compelled to hunt with a 12-gauge shotgun is because we have more confidence in that big, bad load. We also concluded that most hunters don't spend much time practicing, so their wingshooting prowess requires the additional buckshot.
Johnson dropped the first rooster with one shot. It was a layup, so it proved nothing. Then I missed one with my first shot, but knocked it dead with the second, proving that a semi-automatic may be forgiving, but it sometimes produces a lazy first shot.
I never got another chance, but Johnson did. He led a dropping-quartering rooster perfectly and made a textbook perfect kill. Is this a testimonial to the efficiency of smaller gauge shotguns? Sort of. Would we recommend hunters use lighter gauge shotguns for pheasants? Not really. Most hunters need as much shot as they can get. Was this plenty of fun? You bet it was. But around opener when pheasants are flushing close and providing layup shots, you can get away with using a 28-gauge or a .410. During the late season when birds are flushing at 30, 40 even 50 yards out, you need 3-inch magnum shells in a 12-gauge.
This year we've decided to test our skill with .410s. I have a side-by-side and Johnson is contemplating the purchase of an over-and-under. We'll push a few cases of shells through the barrels before taking the guns into the field.
When there are plenty of birds, it's fun to play. Fortunately, the last few years in Minnesota have provided a large pheasant population. According to Kurt Haroldson, the Minnesota DNR pheasant biologist with the Farmland Wildlife Populations & Research Group, there are two reasons this happens.
"What we usually look at to predict the pheasant situation is how much habitat we have compared to other years and how the weather has shaped up," Haroldson said. "In the past few years, we had all positives in those categories.
"However, this season may be different. We have a positive on winter weather but negatives on habitat abundance due to negative spring weather. So, it's not as rosy as it has been the past few years when we had all three positives in those categories."
Let's start with habitat. According to Haroldson, the push for ethanol has meant less CRP for nesting cover.
"We're starting to go backward," he said. "After several years of increasing habitat, we changed directions last fall and lost 52,000 acres of CRP land. That's not so bad compared to our neighbors in the west. North Dakota lost 420,000 acres, but I think this is just the start. We've had a couple of years of high crop prices, and I don't want this to sound like we're bashing farmers, but when crop prices are high and the potential for making a living growing commodities is great, we're going to lose conservation land. The solution is to raise CRP rental rates so we don't put the farmers in an awkward position where they have to choose between economics and conservation. The economics right now are in favor of growing crops, even on marginal land.
"As the CRP contracts expire, farmers are not renewing them back and people aren't signing up at the rate they used to either.
"That means we're going backwards in our balance. That's the scariest thing -- not just in Minnesota -- it's the entire Midwest."
There is little doubt that pheasant hunters have been spoiled by the phenomenal hunting we've had in Minnesota the past few years. Not only have there been plenty of roosters, there have been plenty of places to hunt them. From early scouting results I have had, there is a noticeable decline in cover. Some of those buffers of grass near a tree line where I recently hunted are now standing corn and some of the CRP that I've been fortunate to have access to is gone. This lack of cover will not only concentrate pheasants in what is left, it will concentrate the hunters as well, and that number seems to expand right along with the pheasant numbers.
"People respond to the higher bird numbers and it shows in license sales. In the population of hunters, we have a fraction that is casual hunters that will only go out in a good year. Last year was one of those years. My records show about 129,000 hunters last year. That's darn good for Minnesota."
As far as the higher concentrations of hunters in the available cover, Haroldson said, "It hasn't been that many years ago if you had a flexible work schedule, you could go out in the middle of the week and have a piece of public land all to yourself. I don't see that anymore. There may be some areas where that might be true, but our offices are on a wildlife area and there are cars here every day."
The overall outlook is that the nesting cover will continue to decline.
"We still are in a situation where we have good conditions compared to the losses in other states," Haroldson said. "But I think every year we're going to lose CRP until those farm payments match what they can make by farming. To lose 50,000 acres out of 1.6 million acres, which is what we have in the pheasant range, isn't very bad, but it's going in the wrong direction. Minnesota has no extra habitat like they do in South Dakota."
While the lack of cover narrows a hunter's options during the season, it hurts the pheasants in the spring.
"It doesn't kill the birds that are already there, those that came through the winter," he said." "If they plowed in the fall, those birds can get out of the way, but it does mean less habitat for them to nest in. This is going to have a long-term effect unless the markets change. That land won't be there next year."
Minnesota pheasants wintered well. This is the one high point of Haroldson's equation.
"We had another relatively mild winter across most of the pheasant range, and that's good," he said. "We had lots of breeding birds available to use the habitat."
The pheasant carryover was noticeable last spring when roosters and hens galore were spotted in ditches, along roadways and in fields. The sightings created an optimistic attitude, but in later conversations, we weren't so sure that a concentration of pheasants near a roadside was a positive situation.
The fact that the spring weather leaned toward the cold and wet side of the fence may have pushed some pheasants out of lowland swamps, where the cover is conducive to nesting, into more marginal cover where they may have been more open to predation.
When I questioned Haroldson on this potential negative, his response mirrored my concern.
"Your observations of the wetness is right on," he said. "It drives birds out of the lowlands. A lot of CRP is marginal land. We don't get prime farmland; we get the partially drained stuff. That's the reason the wetness hurts. It's not killing the hens. But pheasants are losing available nesting cover."
My uneasiness didn't stop with the nesting pheasants getting pushed to drier ground. The concentration of birds would also create easier targets for predators. From the high levels of road-killed raccoon carcasses on the edge of roadsides, my anxiety levels rose with the thought of those pheasant eggs becoming breakfast for marauding bands of skunks, opossums and raccoons.
Haroldson said predation is always a factor in success when it comes to ground-nesting birds, but the fact that we're starting with a high number of hens is a counter to the higher numbers of raccoons.
"I don't know how the predator population compares to other years," he said. "But the raccoon population has been high for quite a long time. You see a lot of dead raccoons on the roadsides and that's some indication of how many are out there."
So how do all of these factors bode for hunters this year? It depends. It depends on how fast the crops come out.
The pheasant opener is always a high point for hunters who have spotted roosters all summer long; but if crops are still standing on opening day, pheasants have the upper hand.
Whenever crops are still standing, I always try to work my way into one of those big groups where hunters line up on one end of a corn field, post shooters on the other end and pinch the birds between them. It is without a doubt the most efficient way to hunt standing crops.
When crops are still in the fields, sloughs and grassy fields may show some promise at the morning start and near the end of the day, but two hunters and a dog can slog through plenty of cover and not see a bird when they're all sitting in the corn in the middle of the day.
There is little doubt that pheasant hunters have been spoiled by the phenomenal hunting we've had in Minnesota the past few years. Not only have there been plenty of roosters, there have been plenty of places to do this.
Hunting success also depends on hunting pressure. While more public hunting areas are added to Minnesota's landscape, less CRP on private property is sure to push some hunters who relied on this cover into wildlife management areas where pheasants concentrate. This is likely to push the birds into marginal cover that is not being pressured but may not be accessible if it's on private property. Hunters whose programs consist of public-hunting land may find fewer birds after the first couple of weeks of the season.
Some of my favorite pheasant hunting happens on waterfowl production areas, those big ponds surrounded by a buffer of cattails that can hold a few roosters also. I have noticed, however, more pressure on these areas too.
I have a habit of picking up empty shell casings as I make my way around a wetland or through a slough, and the past few years have provided about three times the usual. I will say that too many hunters are using cheap loads for pheasants. It's amazing to me how many low-brass target loads I pick up compared with the high-brass hunting loads. There are also way too many hunters using small shot because they can buy a box of target loads in a seven or eight shot much cheaper than a four-shot magnum load. But then if these hunters are missing birds because they can't get ahead of them, that just means more for me.
I will add that even with the heavier hunting pressure, I've noticed hunting has been nothing short of phenomenal the past few years. I didn't attend a hunt in 2006 or 2007 where every hunter couldn't have claimed their two-bird limit if they had been able to hit their target.
It is likely that hunters will initially sense that this year's hunting compares with the previous few years. With the great carryover from winter, there will be a decent hatch and these birds will migrate to the available cover when the crops come out. Since there is less cover than what is left will concentrate the available birds. Hunters that have access to private property may have less cover options because their grass from previous years is now cropland, but whatever cover is left will be holding birds.
Those that utilize public land may discover birds looking for prime habitat in the thick grasslands of the WMAs, and while they may get kicked out by hunters into nearby plowed fields, they'll make their way back in short order. When it's all they have, it's what they'll use.
A pattern has existed the past few years. The first few weeks hunters took to the fields, they were disappointed not to see more birds. Standing crops provided cover and those pheasants could stay ahead of the dogs. Then the crops came out and the hunters still in the game enjoyed some great hunting.
The late-season hunters really fared well the past few years, as the quality cover provided by the wildlife management areas and waterfowl production areas held birds all winter long.
All indicators point to another season similar to the past few, but there may be a noticeable slight decline beginning. Enjoy it while you can because, according to Haroldson, "If the decline in habitat continues like it is, the numbers of pheasants could drop noticeably in future years. So, over the next few years unless something changes with the CRP, you can expect that a lot of habitat disappears and that means fewer birds in the long run."