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Early season strategies important to pheasant hunters

Along a rural road near Windom, Minn., a rooster pheasant sits in a tree on a frosty morning in October 2014. (file photo / News Tribune)1 / 2
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Minnesota pheasant hunters are optimistic about the coming season, with roadside counts up 29 percent from a year ago. The state’s pheasant season opens Saturday and continues through Jan. 1.

Northeastern Minnesota residents, who have to travel farthest to reach pheasant habitat, will be happy to know that some of the biggest population increases were in the east-central and central regions, where increases were 27 and 72 percent, respectively. But the southwestern part of the state still boasts the highest pheasant counts.

Much of the state’s corn crop is likely to be standing during opening weekend. Many birds will be in the corn much of the day, where they’re difficult to hunt.

Bob St. Pierre, marketing director of Pheasants Forever based in St. Paul, said opening-day strategy will be important.

“Dealing with corn and crops being up, it’s important to be in field that first hour when the birds are more likely to be in the grass (where they roost),” St. Pierre said.

Rest yourself and your dog from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, he suggested. Then go at it again.

“Don’t burn yourself out in advance of the golden hour — that last two hours of the day,” he said. “The birds will be out of the feeding mode and into the grass again, where you have the majority of your success.”

As of this past Monday, about 40 percent of the state’s soybean crop had been harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but rain this past week likely slowed the harvest. Most farmers don’t begin harvesting corn until after the beans are harvested.

Habitat concerns

Pheasant hunters know, despite higher roadside counts this year, the state’s pheasant population is not what it was in the mid-2000s. Loss of grasslands has reduced the amount of pheasant habitat as farmers have opted out of contracts under the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

As a result, Minnesota’s pheasant numbers remain 14 percent below the 10-year average and 48 percent below the long-term average.

The state’s current CRP acreage is at 1.1 million acres, St. Pierre said, and nearly 400,000 acres currently enrolled in CRP contracts will expire by 2018. While many farmers want to get back into new CRP contracts, a cap on total CRP acreage nationally allowed only about 18 percent of this year’s applicants to be accepted. The cap was set in the 2014 Farm Bill.

“We’re already focused on 2018 Farm Bill, and one of the biggest priorities is to expand the CRP cap,” St. Pierre said.

In addition to CRP issues, spring and early summer rains in some parts of Minnesota likely resulted in poor brood-rearing success in some areas, St. Pierre said.