This month is the ideal time to target Minnesota pheasants. But make no mistake — they are not easy.
Deer season was going on, but Rascal, the little Brittany, needed some work. She didn't approve of the time I had spent in a tree, alone, hunting whitetails. But now she was getting her reward.
Wrapped in a bright orange vest, the eager but experienced dog hit the ground bounding with joy, and then soon settled into her usual business pace as we coursed a spread of Big Stone County grass.
She got birdy a couple of times, and paused in brief points, but kept moving. We were getting the runaround!
I didn't have an agenda other than getting the dog and myself some exercise, and hoping to see if this piece of habitat had any roosters. Based on the harvested corn and soybean fields and the way the dog was acting, there had to be birds there in the grass — or down in the cattails along a slough.
MINNESOTA'S PHEASANT PROGRAM
The fact that Minnesota has ring-necked pheasants may well be quite an accomplishment in itself. We have concerned organizations, and sportsmen and women who care, to thank for that.
In 2014 the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Pheasants Forever (a national organization but headquartered right here), Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, and Hunting Works teamed up to create the Minnesota Pheasant Summit Action Plan.
Expiring Conservation Reserve Program grassland acres was one catalyst for the pheasant summit. More than 495,000 habitat acres in total could expire by 2018 if contracts are not renewed or new acres are not enrolled. The pheasant plan actively engages in grassland conservation and other pheasant-centered topics in prioritized, step-by-step fashion.
Here's an important status update on five key steps of the plan's 10-point initiative, according to the DNR's 2017 Report Card on the topic.
- Goal: Target habitat enhancement and protection in habitat complexes at least 9 square miles where 40 percent of the land can go into permanent protection. Status: A total of 43 counties now have big habitat complexes identified, with work in progress on the ground.
- Goal: Increase enrollment and retention in short-term conservation programs and permanent conservation easements by private landowners. Status: The trends are strong here, except for potential loss of traditional CRP acreage approval in the upcoming Federal farm bill.
- GoaI: Increase management of habitat on both public and private lands. Status: The trend is good, with strong wetland preservation and enhancement. More work is needed on improving existing habitat, such as with fire, haying and grazing that rejuvenates old grasslands.
- Goal: Develop and implement a comprehensive riparian buffer program. Status: The 2015 buffer initiative is at work and creating pheasant habitat — and cleaner water — right now.
- Goal: Secure federal funding to sustain the Walk-In Access (WIA) program in Minnesota's pheasant range. Status: This important step — access to private lands — is in process, with further funding requested. Our WIA program continued to grow to more than 23,000 acres in 2016.
While that's not a complete rundown, it's good to know what's going on. Let your state legislators know how important conservation and grassland are to you — not only for roosters, but for all the game that thrives there, including whitetails, ducks, turkeys, rabbits and songbirds, just to name a few. And join organizations like Pheasants Forever to get your voice heard.
OUTSMARTING SNEAKY ROOSTERS
Those who remember what pheasant hunting was like in Minnesota in the "olden days" were spoiled in a good way. Oh, the pheasants that flew our skies! While the birds aren't as abundant today, they definitely are there for the hunter willing to do a little work during the month of November.
October is good for pheasant hunting from one standpoint: There are inexperienced birds on the ground. But that changes fast as slow birds (of mind and of wing!) are shot. And, depending on the crop harvest status, standing corn and soybeans can hinder hunting.
November can be better. With the crops in by now, the pheasants are going to be in the grass, cattails or thickets during daylight, not a jungle of cornrows. Half the fun of pheasant hunting is walking to find the birds. They are educated now, though; you have to know their tricks and hunt accordingly.
Pheasant Trick: Skedaddle Before The Hunt
Ringnecks know exactly what slamming doors, loud whistles, and shouting voices mean, and the birds run or fly off before you ever hit cover. You wouldn't make all that racket before or during a deer hunt so why do it when pursuing a paranoid pheasant?
Response: Treat Pheasants Like Big Game — Park away from the hunting grounds. Don't slam doors or tailgates, speak only in whispers and approach cover silently. Then hunt with stealth. Remove beepers and bells from dogs; teach your dog to re-direct to the softest of whistle toots; use only hand signals to communicate maneuvers with hunting partners.
Trick: Pheasants Run Downwind To Escape
Survivor roosters stay alive by running with the wind, instead of into it. This trick can foil even the best of dogs.
Response: Circle Downwind, Come Back At Them — When you're working into the wind and the trail peters out, that pheasant has circled downwind. Instead of following and hoping, loop way downwind and come back into it, letting your dog quarter the cover.
Trick: Hunker In For The Long Haul
As much as he likes running, a rooster that's cornered will just burrow into the best available cover, sit tight and let you pass.
Response: Circle, Kick, Wander, Lurk And Persist — No pheasant flew. The dog is searching. The bird is there. Work until you find him. It's amazing how little cover it takes to conceal a 3-pound rooster that doesn't want to be found. The birds have surprised me from ditch grass mowed to 8 inches, the furrows of a plowed field, and a knot of weeds in a fieldside rockpile.
Trick: Forgets He Has Wings
A pheasant in the air is a pheasant in trouble. That's why he will do anything he can to stay grounded and use his fleet feet for escape.
Response: Use Blockers — When hunting with partners, station at least one hunter and preferably more at escape routes, pinch points, or at ends of coverts to surprise birds and flush them or turn them back. Don't be afraid to hunt a patch of cover a second time even if you saw some birds fly the first time through.
Finally, rather than wander and hope, think about the weather conditions and how pheasants will react at that time of day. Then gear your hunting approach and route to hit the likeliest cover.
In the morning, and again in mid-afternoon, work in and around food plots and other feeding areas. This is when pheasants will be out and about, laying down scent. Midday, go to cattails and heavy cover. Hit big grassy fields too; isolated birds feel safe. Late in the day, head to the grasslands with lighter cover, where birds like to roost after their afternoon feeding session.
WHERE TO HUNT PHEASANTS
Minnesota's pheasant range can be a fickle thing. A winter blizzard can roll through one region and hurt pheasant populations there, while another area (perhaps not as prime for pheasants) is spared, and the birds reproduce well.
That's why Minnesota's August Roadside Pheasant Survey is so important for gauging bird numbers in different area of the state. Access this year's pheasant report now at the DNR Web site (dnr.state.mn.us) to get an idea of current pheasant populations.
That said, there are still some standard regions around the state that are going to produce more birds than others. That's because those areas have the best habitat. The winter of 2016-2017 was definitely on the mild side though, and relatively short, so the following six areas should see good hunting this fall.
Southwest Corner. As you head to that Minnesota/South Dakota/Iowa corner area, you can't go wrong. Rock, Nobles, Murray and Pipestone counties always are going to have birds. Plus, there are decent amounts of WIA and WMA acres to hunt.
Western Border. North of that southwest corner, run the layer of counties bordering South Dakota and you'll find birds. Lincoln and neighboring Lyon County both do well, as does Yellow Medicine.
West-Central. The west-central counties of Lac Qui Parle, Big Stone, Swift and Chippewa traditionally serve as good pheasant range. Some areas are better than others, but scouting — and just getting out and hunting — does the trick for finding birds. Ample public opportunities exist, focusing on Waterfowl Production Areas.
Quad Counties. Though they seldom reach the bird densities of other places, the four "square" counties in western Minnesota — Stevens, Pope, southern Grant and Douglas (especially in the north) hold birds.
North-Central. At the northern end of our pheasant range, there's a good pocket of pheasant country, due to excellent habitat — wetlands, grass and shrub lowlands — centering in Todd County but extending out to Otter Tail to the west and Morrison to the east.
East-Central. Minnesota's pheasant sleeper country sits north of the Twin Cities, zeroing in on Kanabec County but reaching east into Pine and west into Mille Lacs. Woodlands are common there so concentrate around agricultural fields and nearby areas of grass and wetlands.
While knocking on doors can work for securing permission to hunt private land in November, there may be some resistance from landowners who are hunting deer or have guests doing so. That's why public lands are so important to Minnesota's November pheasant hunter. Three opportunities dominate.
Wildlife Management Areas. Minnesota's WMA circuit is truly the envy of many states. With almost 1.3 million acres spread over 1,440 total parcels, many of them are right in the heart of prime pheasant range. WMAs often present the best habitat in a township. Explore them at dnr.state.mn.us/wmas, then get out there on foot.
Waterfowl Production Areas. These lands often hold grassland (good for duck nesting, and pheasants too), plus good cattail cover on pothole and slough edges. Find a WPA next to cropland and you have a good pheasant spot. Remember, this is federal land so you must use non-toxic shot, even for pheasants.
Walk-In Areas. As mentioned previously, Minnesota is building a good WIA program. Total enrolled acreage for 2017 wasn't fully known, but my bet is we'll be nearing or surpassing a meaningful 25,000-acre threshold. All you need to do is get a $3 endorsement on your hunting license and you have access to this land. That's a small price to pay for a nice rooster or two in your game bag.
Rascal the little Brittany finally cornered a bird. It took a little doing. The pheasants were playing dirty little tricks on us — running downwind to try and evade the dog's nose.
After looping downwind far out through a cut cornfield, we came back against the wind through an area I thought the birds might have run to. Rascal locked up in a patch of bluestem, and my hands started shaking as I walked in.
The big rooster flushed in an explosion of wingbeats and cackles. True to form, I totally muffed the first shot but then folded the bird on the second. As I hoisted the bird to admire and appreciate its colorful magnificence for a few moments in the warm red glow of the late afternoon sun, the little dog looked at me as if there were more business to attend.
And so off we went again, in pursuit of another cagey November rooster.