Standing corn works in favor of pheasants on Minnesota’s season opener
MADISON, MINN. -- The dogs were ready. That much was clear. Four Labs -- three blacks and a yellow -- bounced around the legs of four pheasant hunters on a gravel road in Minnesota's Lac qui Parle County, not far from the South Dakota border.
MADISON, MINN. - The dogs were ready. That much was clear. Four Labs - three blacks and a yellow - bounced around the legs of four pheasant hunters on a gravel road in Minnesota’s Lac qui Parle County, not far from the South Dakota border.
It was a few minutes before 9 a.m. on Saturday - opening day of Minnesota’s pheasant season. Three members of the Howard family from Annandale, Minn. - dad Buck, along with sons Cameron, 16, and Jack, 13, and Buck’s friend Brent McKay of St. Charles, Ill. - had driven west for two hours on this opener.
“It’s a family tradition,” Buck Howard said. “We try to come out for the opener every year. We know the pheasant population is down, but we’re still going hunting.”
At precisely 9 a.m., when legal pheasant hunting begins in Minnesota, the Labs - Chief, Casey, Dee and Blue - led the hunters into an 80-acre piece of textbook pheasant cover. The plot was a mix of thigh-high native grasses, cattail swales and a clump of phragmites. This was private land enrolled in Minnesota’s Walk-In Area program, in which farmers are paid to allow public hunting in return for compensation from the state. Walk-in Areas are popular with pheasant hunters, who must buy a $3 validation tag to use the areas.
Howard was right about the status of Minnesota’s pheasant population. It’s down from last year and well below the recent 10-year average, due in part to a decrease in grassland habitat in recent years, state wildlife biologists say. That may deter some hunters, but not this gang
Organized crew It was easy to see this crew took its pheasant hunting seriously. The hunters, well decked out in blaze orange vests and caps, worked in a line abreast of each other across the grassland, their dogs out in front of them. Each hunter kept track of one dog. The dogs were well-trained to hunt closely, so that any birds they flushed would likely be within shooting range.
At one point, a pheasant burst into flight next to Cameron. He raised his shotgun instinctively, but didn’t fire.
“Hen! Hen!” shouted the slot receiver and defensive back for the Annandale High School football team.
Hens are off-limits to hunters, and this one flew into a field of standing corn across the road.
Another field of corn bordered the other side of the Walk-In Area, and it was still unharvested, too.
That was the biggest factor working against the Howard-McKay clan and thousands of other pheasant hunters who turned out for Saturday’s opener. Standing corn provides both cover and feed for pheasants, so they’re more likely to be among the stalks than in grasses and cattails until the corn is harvested. Virtually all of Minnesota’s corn crop remained standing on the opener, no doubt saving thousands of pheasants for late-season hunters.
As the hunters worked through the grass, they would occasionally see a rooster pheasant flit up above the cornstalks, only to alight right back in them.
Good conditions The morning was nearly ideal, weatherwise. Temperatures started in the low 40s and climbed into the mid-50s. A light easterly breeze fluttered the delicate seedheads of the switchgrass.
“Perfect,” Buck Howard said.
Rain was predicted over much of the pheasant range for Saturday night into Sunday.
The four hunters had something riding on the first rooster taken.
“We have a little wager,” McKay said as he followed his 10-month-old Lab, Blue, through the grasses. “The first person to get a pheasant, we all pay him a buck.”
“That means I’ll probably be getting the money,” Cameron said.
Confidence comes easy to a 16-year-old. After the hen flushed near him, he couldn’t help replaying the moment.
“If that was a rooster - oh, my gosh - I’d have have smoked it,” he crowed.
No roosters would flush in that piece of land for the Howards and McKay on Saturday. But McKay was glad he had driven more than seven hours from Illinois for the hunt.
“There’s nothing like that first pass on opening day,” he said. “Even if you don’t get anything, it’s worth it just to be out here.”
The crew gathered at its truck after the morning’s first walk. They unloaded guns and loaded up dogs. Then they were on to their next piece of land to continue the hunt, and they’ll hunt in South Dakota later in the season as well.
Minnesota’s pheasant season continues through Jan. 1.