Still looking for that rooster

It took off flying so quickly.

Was it a rooster or a hen?

By the time I realized it could have been a rooster, it was too late. I said nothing and the pheasant flew past the hunters in my group.

He was one of the few that got away last Saturday during the 2017 Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener.

It was my first pheasant hunting experience. Actually, it was my first hunting experience ever.

It started with a proclamation from Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton.

“You’re off, you’re off,” he shouted out inside of the Red Baron Arena in Marshall in front of the room full of pheasant hunters.

I put on my orange vest and hat and followed Minnesota DNR assistant wildlife manager Troy Dale to his truck parked in the parking lot. Pheasant Hunting 101 was to begin for me. We took off on the highway toward Camden State Park and the conversation turned to the quality of pheasant hunting in southwest Minnesota.

“Bird numbers statewide are down 26 percent,” Dale said. “Locally, I was going over these numbers a couple weeks ago and we are down 19 percent — something like that. We are down a little bit, but it’s not significant. It’s not really going to make a difference. The corn is going to make the difference.

“We still have birds around. Our bird numbers have been pretty good the last few years. Not necessarily up or down a whole lot. They kind of held steady. For as long as the crops come out pretty good. I think next weekend (this weekend) will probably be a more productive weekend for pheasant hunting after more of the corn comes out, stays dry and there are good conditions for farmers.”

I found out how much hunting and agriculture are connected.

“It’s like anything else, pheasants need to eat, obviously,” Dale said. “And they like to eat corn — it’s high protein. So they eat the corn a lot because it’s taller, thicker cover just like they hang out in cattails. Or they like to hang out in the tall native grasses. It’s taller cover. It’s all open underneath, so when a predator comes, it’s clear rows and they can see farther and it’s easier for them to jump and fly and take off rather than something that is thick and mangled down close to the ground where they have a hard time to get through.”

“How do you guys count the birds?” I also asked.

“So we have what we call our August roadside surveys,” Dale said. “And we run them in a 15-day period on each of these survey areas we have a chance to run the routes. We have to wait for when the conditions are right. We start them at sunrise and they usually take an hour and a half per route.

“So we have to look at the forecast the night before. We are looking for clear skies, relatively clear,” he said. “You want a lot of dew. The more dew in the deeper grass, because that means the birds will be out of the grass and they will be trying to dry themselves on the road.

“Twenty-five mile routes is what we run. We just drive down the road real slow on these routes and anytime you see a pheasant, you get out of your vehicle and run out and try to scare them on the grass. You are deciphering between the doves and chicks at the time and how many each. (Check) If they are a brood of eight chicks that were 6 weeks old. So that’s how we run out routes and we compile our data and submit it.”

One of the highlights as I followed the hunters in my group was to watch 19-year-old Alison Fenske shoot two of our three recorded birds. Her dad, Marc Fenske also didn’t hunt, but walked with the group and offered support to his daughter. She actually recorded the longest tail among all the hunters at 23 1/4 inches long.

On the way back to Marshall, Dale turned toward me and asked if I’m ready to take up pheasant hunting?

Maybe when I can identify that rooster a little quicker.