As farmers continued to harvest their crops, avid hunters, clad in bright orange vest with shotguns in their hands and loyal dogs by their sides, stalked the grassy areas in southwest Minnesota in search of ring-necked pheasants for opening weekend Oct. 16-17.
"The hunters were out in full force," said Matt Loftness, Lyon County game warden. "By 7:30 a.m. Saturday on opening weekend, there was at least one vehicle parked at every single wildlife management area waiting for the 9 a.m. start."
According to Kurt Haroldson, wildlife research biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), an estimated 100,000 hunters bagged 400,000 pheasants in Minnesota in 2009. Despite enduring the harshest winter in nearly a decade, this year's pheasant count was assessed as being similar to last year, Haroldson reported in the 2010 August Roadside Survey, although the numbers are down 22 percent from the 10-year average.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Brothers Derek Rignell (left) and Taylor Rignell spent some quality time outdoors Tuesday, hiking through the grassy habitat of a public wildlife area south of Marshall in search of roosters. The pair bagged one pheasant.
"We've done the roadside count every year in August since the 1950s," Haroldson said. "So it's really our one measure of pheasant abundance. We suspected that the numbers would go down, but we ended up with counts that were the same as last year. We were pleasantly surprised."
Across Lyon County, Loftness reported hearing about spotty results for the opener.
"Some hunters did really well and some struggled," he said. "Overall, I think it was a little bit slower than last year, but there were a few groups that hit their limits."
Doug Lage, Lincoln County conservation officer, didn't hear of anyone hitting their two bird per-day limit over the weekend, but also heard various reports of success.
"It went pretty well," Lage said. "It was a little tough going in some places. It was a little spotty. Some areas did well and saw a lot of birds, but others didn't do so well. But most people just want to get out and get a couple, and the hunters were having fun."
Brothers Derek and Taylor Rignell, who grew up in Tracy, bagged one pheasant while out hunting earlier this week.
"We grew up hunting with Dad (Tom Rignell) and Grandpa (Paul Rignell)," Taylor said. "It's fun getting outside and watching the dogs work. We go every year."
Taylor's dog, a Weimeriner named Ash, and Derek's dog, a black German Short-hair named Lily, do a nice job of working together, the brothers said.
"The more birds that get shot over their head, the better they get," Derek said. "They work close and hold the bids when they can. Ash is a little slower, more methodical. Lily is faster and covers more ground. It's been so dry lately, so it's a little tougher for the dogs to pick up the scent."
In addition to getting exercise and being outdoors, Derek enjoys eating pheasant.
"I've used pheasant in sandwiches, burritos, the crockpot and I've made jerky," he said.
"It's nice to replace chicken with pheasant in the freezer once in awhile."
Finding places to hunt is the biggest challenge, Taylor said. He and Derek said that they hunt both private and public lands.
"We hunt about half and half," Derek said. "We hunt private lands down by Tracy and the Lake Shetek area. We also hunt public lands around Marshall, but unfortunately, it gets hunted quite a bit."
Loftness estimates that over half of the hunters in Southwest Minnesota are from out-of-town.
"It's amazing the amount of people from out-of-the-area that were back," Loftness said. "Of the people I checked on opening weekend, over half were from out of the area. They come from all over the state. This area is prime pheasant land. From what I heard, though, hunters on private land did a little bit better than those in public areas."
Mark Running, of Brooklyn Park, has been coming down to Southwest Minnesota for the past six years, hunting in state wildlife areas.
"The hunting has been pretty good," Running said. "We've seen a good amount of birds. It's more than we expected with the hard winter."
Mark's wife Lynette and their friend Dwayne Burgstahler, of Duluth, were also hunting this weekend. With the help of black labs Boomer and Jake, the trio tracked down and shot three birds.
"It's good to get away from home for awhile," Burgstahler said. "If we get some birds, well that's just a bonus."
Lynette Running said she really enjoyed the opening-weekend weather.
"The best part is just being outside," she said.
Mark Running admitted that the toughest challenge was trying to stay patient throughout the day.
"You walk all day and then you'll finally get a good opportunity," he said. "It's really frustrating when you don't get the bird."
Years ago, Mark said he used to have a more difficult time finding land to hunt on, but credits the DNR for doing a good job of preserving a lot of public land to hunt on.
"About 15 years ago, there weren't many places to go," Mark said. "It costs a lot of money to keep this habitat available. But I think it's worth it."
Bob Meyer, Marshall Area Wildlife Supervisor, said that a lot of landowners have had CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) contracts expire the past few years, and the decision to keep the land in CRP or turn it into cropland is a difficult one.
"We're losing hundreds of acres of CRP land," Meyer said. "But crops are getting good prices right now. Congress determines how much money they want to spend on CRP."
For the 100,000 pheasant hunters in Minnesota, who hunt for the enjoyment, exercise, sport, food source, challenge, camaraderie or a number of other reasons, losing precious land is disappointing.
"The CRP program isn't as good as it used to be because farmers are putting in crops instead," Derek said. "And the DNR has to cut funding to tighten the budget. But they manage the land well. It's pretty good habitat."
By some estimates, only 45 to 55 percent of the corn is harvested so far in this area, which makes it easy for the pheasants to hide and difficult to track the numbers.
And, while the hen count is down 28 percent from the 10-year average and will likely affect numbers in the future, the outlook for the majestic birds seems steady if enough people value its presence.
"Very few pheasants starve to death, but they leave their cover in winter because they get hungry," Haroldson said. "Then they get whacked by predators. Pheasants rely on people leaving food plots and leftover grain from harvest. ...Our pheasant population looks surprisingly good."