Minnesota's Pheasant Hunting Outlook

Minnesota's Pheasant Hunting Outlook

Our state's pheasant population responded to good nesting conditions last year, and hunters who went afield did well. Don't be left out of the action this season.

Photo by Roger Hill

By Tim Lesmeister

Things have a funny way of averaging out. When there was a decent amount of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in Minnesota, we had the cover but the winters were hard and the spring weather was wet so that there was little carryover for pheasants, and nesting success was marginal.

Now the winters have been mild, the spring weather has been moderately dry, but the cover is gone. Farmers are striving for a few extra dollars by draining the waterlogged lowland areas of their croplands, and the CRP is hardly what it was in the CRP heyday. Those poor pheasants just can't get a break.

That's not to say the pheasant hunting won't be good in 2004. Whenever you have a situation where the winter is mild and the nesting season is productive, you're going to have a bunch of birds come fall. With the lack of cover pushing these pheasants into whatever's available, hunter opportunities go up because the birds get concentrated in small zones.

One interesting phenomenon that I noticed last season was pheasants in the open. In 2003, much of the crops came out early, and the pheasants were pushed into swamps, waterfowl production areas (WPAs) and wildlife management areas (WMAs). After a couple of weeks of getting hounded - pun intended - some of the sly birds that were still alive were taking cover where there was no cover at all, as in plowed fields.

I first noticed this at a WMA where we always get a couple of birds. We pulled up in the truck and quietly got out to look out over the grass that surrounded the cattail marsh. Surrounding this WMA was black dirt in plowed fields where not a speck of cover was available.

My hunting buddy noticed the pheasants moving out in the middle of that plowed dirt about 100 yards from where we parked. A rooster and four hens were taking short running spurts at the base of a row, occasionally stopping to pop their heads up and look around. They had likely heard us come in and were putting some distance between them and us, although they didn't look hurried.

Of course we thought this was an anomaly and off we went, the dog and two shotgunners to flush some roosters from their normal haunts.

As we walked down the fence line I spotted another few birds in the plowed dirt. They too were moving away from us in short spurts, constantly ducking and weaving from row to row and putting some distance between us.

There was no rooster action in the grassy WMA, but we flushed a few hens.

Whenever something like that happens, it always makes you change your pattern. All of a sudden at every stop we made we would scour the plowed ground that surrounded the WMAs we were hunting for pheasants. It was amazing how many birds we saw in that open country. We even tried to sneak around to the other side on one batch of roosters, but they saw us and changed directions. Never did those pheasants flush. They stayed on the ground and maneuvered to keep their distance. I guess this is the bird of the future - a newly conditioned pheasant that is making the best of the poor cover situation and using open country to steer clear of the hunters who have harassed them for a couple of weeks. They have small brains, but they sure seem smart.

In the past, us pundits always espoused how important habitat was to a viable pheasant population for hunting. In fact, habitat will always be the No. 1 variable in generating quality numbers of birds. But the habitat is still disappearing, and fortunately for us, we have a couple of other variables that are helping achieve some good bird numbers, such as carryover and breeding success. Which is more important? I'll let John Giudice, the Department of Natural Resources' pheasant research biologist, answer that question.

"It takes both," he said. "You can't separate the two. If you have a lot of brood stock that comes through, then you have a lot of potential for production. If the brood stock doesn't come through in very good shape, you have high mortality, and if the hens aren't in good condition, then you won't get the response you expect. They go hand in hand. We could see another very good year with even average nesting conditions when we get good carryover.

"Now if you have a spring that is drier than average," he continued, "the ground-nesting birds tend to do pretty well. But if you go too far along that extreme, then you have a couple of things happen that are indirect effects. Vegetation doesn't grow as well, so you don't have as much cover and it's not as good of cover. Another thing that happens when it's really dry is that the chick survival may be lower. There are problems of getting adequate food. The general rule is that dryer than average is better, but not too dry."

The ability for pheasants to make a quick comeback was the reason my prediction last year for tough hunting in the Stevens, Pope, Swift, Big Stone and Lac qui Parle counties was completely wrong. The pheasant populations in that area of our state had been brought down due to heavy winter mortality, and pheasant hunting even just a few years ago was pretty bad there. Last season, that was not the case, and this year could be another banner year for hunters in this region.

"When you bring birds through the winter in good shape and you have good nesting conditions, they have phenomenal reproductive potential," said Giudice. "So it doesn't take but a couple good years like we've had for the birds to respond."

And respond they did. Hunters I spoke to that spent some time hunting both private and public hunting areas in these counties had outstanding success.

Hunters looking for public-hunting opportunities in this west-central region are going to find slim pickings. There are some small WMAs spread out around Morris in Stevens County and to the northeast of Benson in Swift County. Big Stone and Lac qui Parle have quite a bit of quality cover along the river, but those WMAs get a lot of attention, especially on weekends. Make sure you check the regulations if you're planning to hunt pheasants on the Lac qui Parle WMA because this area is very restrictive during the goose season and requires permits at certain times in certain areas.

I also predicted the southeast region of the state would provide a challenge, but I was wrong there as well, and this year should also be outstanding in that river-bluff region.

I have the good fortune to have a couple of solid connections in that eight-county area of southeast Minnesota. Pheasant hunting pre

ssure in this region has never seemed very extensive, so the responses I've received from landowners has been generally positive. In the past I've hunted the good cover in the Whitewater WMA, but the last couple of years this has become a popular hunting spot and is the one area of this region that does sustain heavy hunting pressure.

One of the beauties of southeastern Minnesota is that because of the rolling terrain and the large amount of drainage in this river country, there is more undisturbed cover available for pheasants. Where the sloughs that were so prevalent in the southwest and south-central section of the state have all been drained and tiled, there is a lot of natural buffer left in the cornfields in the southeast. It's a pleasant sight to see a big strip of cover winding from one corner to another as it zigzags through the center of one field we hunt. The fence line follows a creek, and there's a lot of grass between the fence posts and the water. The birds love it.

As always, the south-central and southwest sections of Minnesota will be where the most pheasants are. That is also where the majority of pheasant hunters congregate.

I used to moan, whine and cry all the time about the lack of public hunting in the south/southwestern part of the state, but there are quite a few WMAs in southwestern Minnesota these days. The south-central section of our state is still lacking the public hunting opportunities, but there is plenty of hunting there for a couple of guys and a dog if they want to put some miles on the vehicle during the middle of the week.

One of my favorite pheasant hunts is a trip to Murray County for a morning of pheasant hunting and an afternoon of fishing on Lake Sarah. Murray County has a penchant for producing good numbers of pheasants, and with the marginal cover on the farms in this county the birds load up in the WMAs to the east and west of Lake Shetek.

It's also the perfect time of year to pull the boat and get into some of the phenomenal walleye fishing on Lake Sarah, which in my opinion is one of the best prairie pothole lakes in the state for both walleyes and perch. If you hit Sarah right before ice-up with a live-bait rig and minnow, you're going to catch fish, and you won't have any company on the lake when you're doing it.

Last year I had to work a little harder for my birds in the north-central part of the pheasant range. This area consists of Kandiyohi, Meeker, McLeod and Wright counties. I saw a lot more hunters there than I normally do, too. I can expect that when the bird numbers are up in that region.

When we hunt around Willmar we're strapping on the waders and heading for the WPAs. The cover is grass and cattails, and occasionally we have to send the dogs into the water to fetch a downed bird. It can be tough hunting in that heavy swamp cover, but there can be a big rooster in any of those thick clumps at the base of a cattail stand.

There are times when the dog - even if it is the mighty hunter you trained it to be - is not much value in those swamps. I've been known to wade through a knee-high bog to get to a grass-covered rise to check for roosters. One out of 10 times I'll flush a bird or two, and three-fourths of the time they're hens. But I have shot some roosters off these small spots so I'm compelled to check them all. A dog is not a good option here because they beat you to the cover and flush the birds before you're in position to shoot.

I also secure the dogs when I'm in a small section of sparse woods. You can usually see the roosters as they zigzag around the bases of the trees trying to get to the edge to take to the air. You have to change speeds a lot when hunting those woody roosters. You speed up when they slip behind a tree and can't see you, and you slow way down when they're in the open. Once you get them to the edge they'll take to the air and you can get your shot if you've positioned yourself properly.

What's amazing in this swamp country is how the best cover in the entire section won't produce a bird, but as you're walking some short grass back to the truck, a couple of roosters will bust out right at your feet.

Last season three of us decided to kennel the spaniel on a Wednesday evening and head up to Douglas County, which is pretty far north when you're talking pheasants. We stayed at one of the motels off Interstate 94 and spent the next day checking out the WMAs around Brandon and Evansville.

The first WMA we attacked didn't produce a single pheasant, and I was taking some good-natured verbal abuse because it was my idea to hunt this area. I've spent some time in the past deer hunting the WMAs in this region, and have always seen a few roosters and heard plenty more cackling as I waited for my doe.

We didn't have to drive far to the next stop and fortunately we flushed a big rooster about halfway through to get our confidence levels back up. That was the only male of the species we saw there. We flushed a half-dozen hens as well, which we saw as a good sign.

We hit pay dirt on the third stop. There was a pond in the middle of two big fields of grass, and we took the right side first. Hens started flushing right away and the roosters were obviously running ahead of us. The first rooster that flushed came down hard and spooked another right where it dropped. That bird took some buckshot, too.

By the time we reached the far side on that first pass we had five birds between us and needed only one more to send us home. How quickly I went from a zero to hero.

Coming down the left side of that cover must have affected our equilibrium because none of our shots connected. Three roosters flushed in range and none were touched.

Three WMAs later we hadn't seen another rooster, but we still had a couple hours left, so the decision was made to check out a WMA south of Osakis on the way home. A hundred yards into our first stop and I dropped the last bird. Whenever three guys can bag six roosters in what is considered marginal pheasant country, that's a great trip.

There's a lot of public hunting options in this northern region, and as you can tell by my experience, they're not all going to produce pheasants. The ability to stay positive and not give up will serve the hunter well who chooses to chase pheasants in this range.

In every pheasant forecast I always take a little space to inform landowners how much we hunters appreciate it when ditches are left natural until after the nesting season is over. Too often ditches get mowed too early, resulting in chick mortality. Some people just think a mowed ditch in front of their property looks better than one left alone. According to Giudice, who tracks nesting success all over the pheasant range, "In some areas that's all the cover we have anymore, the roadside ditches. Ideally the cover should be kept intact until mid-July if you want to maximize wildlife benefits."

* * *

So there you have it. Another great winter for carryover, another great spring for nestin

g. There should be a lot of birds competing for the available cover when the crops come out, and this is going to mean that hunters get to see a lot of roosters. Now if we could just hit them when we get those opportunities, then we'll have a rewarding season!

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