The winter hunt

The overnight snows that clipped southern Minnesota turned the beige and black harvested landscape into a winter wonderland with a white blanket nearly half a foot deep. In seasons past, when I played host and my friends would visit me on the post-Thanksgiving weekend, it was almost a certainty that the season’s first big snow would hit the areas in and around Lyon County in that two day stretch to set the stage for the coming holidays and strand my buddies at my house for an extra night.

Thus, it was not unexpected as I traveled to visit my friends and be hosted this time, that the weather would be any different. Following a half-day hunt before the storm where I inspected the habitat of old haunts and tucked-away WMAs throughout the area with members of my old Pheasants Forever chapter, the wind began roaring out of the east shortly after the opening hour, and by early afternoon the snow came down in earnest.

Overnight it piled up in the river bottom behind my friend Ron’s house, and by morning the landscape had changed completely. As I readied for the day, after helping clear Ron’s driveway, I glanced out the window at a variety of birds, which now found it just a tad bit harder to get to their meals. There were dark eyed juncos, big blue jays, suet loving woodpeckers of two varieties and a number of smaller birds I couldn’t identify off hand. Later that night, Ron’s wife Missy would show me photos of nine turkeys scratching around beneath the feeding station to find their post-storm food.

Donning my heavy fleece pants over long johns and three layers on top to brace against the roaring northwest winds behind the system, I jumped in the truck with my lab, Ole, and headed off to meet the two other souls brave enough to skate along the icy roads with me. The first was Nick, as a senior at the local high school, he would be the first to complete all six years with the trap team I helped start in 2013 and had become one of Minnesota’s top shooters over the past two years in the process. Joining us was Michelle and her black lab Spur, a youthful pup with plenty of promise. Michelle had taken over secretary duties with the local PF chapter and I commended her on her sacrifice for what I felt was the most demanding job in the officer list.

East on a slippery Highway 19 and south on a snow-covered County Road 9, we slow-drove our way to the massive cattail-filled complex of Wildlife Management Areas that ran for a stretch of now five contiguous sections with a chunk of Walk-In Access land tying the whole thing together. I plotted a path that would take us through the thick stuff, up and around to an adjacent draw, and then back out to where our vehicles were safely parked before the snow drifts engulfed the road.

Through the cane and down a pair of barren brushlines we walked, as I continually pointed to the willow-filled area on the southern edge that had held mass quantities of winter pheasants in previous seasons. As we set into the cattails, it became clear that any deer trail, despite the significant snow cover, would provide a walking advantage but still require a pause here and there. And it was in those pauses to catch our breath or find our footing that the birds would appear. A few hundred yards in Nick stopped to assess the scene and as he did a rooster broke from the snow-capped cover. The first shot caught my attention, and as I spun around his second shot caught the bird, which wobbled in a downward trajectory and crashed hard into the snow. I marked the spot and sort of ran with Ole through the cattails for an easy find of the orange-backed bird on top of a white, matted area of brown reeds. Finding no rooster in the willow patch, and only some heart-attack hens that flushed nearly underfoot on our way to and from the small trees, we looped back toward the north. Along the way, the same stop-and-pause would trigger flushes and Nick bagged the second rooster of the afternoon, which required some searching, but Ole eventually found buried deep in the snowy slough.

My love of winter pheasant hunting is well known, and my favorite advantage is being able to see tracks in the snow. As we neared the end of the cattails, that evidence became more frequent. In a small opening the oval-shaped landing area with subsequent footprints was an easy spot for my lab and he followed it off into a connecting trail, a few moments later a rooster broke the tops of a cane stand and I put it down behind me. A hundred yards later, the same scenario played out in a small brushy end to a drain on the north side of the now-frozen swamp.

With four birds in the bag and fatigue setting in, our trio slowly made progress up the final draw toward the last portion of our three-hour walk. Our pauses now were less to startle the birds and more to re-start our engines. It was not surprising then that as we rested and watch the dogs work, that both Spur and Ole ran up to a tall stand of cane and took interest.

A dozen birds shattered the blonde tops of the cover as the three of us lagged behind, with roosters and hens pouring out like upside-down rain. I managed a rangy shot at the last cock as I attempted to sprint to the spot and shake the cold from my hands. It was a late-season lesson that I was willing to re-learn: there will always be the biggest concentration of birds in the smallest spaces when you’re the most tired and least ready, so just enjoy the scene. A point-and-flush of a rooster by Spur showed his continued readiness for the hunt as we finished up the cane stand and made the turn toward home, fatigue impacting all of our shots on the last two birds that would rise.

With exciting opportunities and tough conditions, smiling faces and whisper-yelled conversations, hard-working dogs and solid retrieves in the snow, the trek provided memories that will last into next season and beyond. It was everything a winter hunt should be: exhausting, exciting, grueling and grand, and a true testament to my favorite time to be afield … in our outdoors.

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