TRACY - Nearly 300 people gathered together for the 30th Annual Lyon County Pheasants Forever banquet Saturday at the Caboose in Tracy, to reflect on and celebrate the chapter's efforts in the past three decades. But the milestone also provided the opportunity to look ahead to the future, to keep the strong tradition alive for the next generation and the ones that follow.
"People turned out in droves to celebrate the milestone," LCPF President Nick Simonson said. "It was a really great time with a lot of great people who are life-members, who have been sponsors for 30 years. They know what it's about because they've been part of it for so long."
Conservation and hunting go hand-in-hand, Simonson said, so it makes sense the older generation would feel strongly about encouraging youth involved.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Lyon County Chapter of Pheasants Forever
President Nick Simonson conducts some fun business with the kids at Saturday night’s LCPF 30th anniversary banquet. See more photos at cu.marshallindependent.com
"We've come so far in our effort to preserve habitat and to produce new habitat," he said. "It's about getting people out there. Without the next generation getting involved, what we're doing is useless. That's why we're so intense about getting kids out there, to keep the tradition going."
Simonson said outdoor participation numbers had dropped in the last 20 years, but that those numbers had been stabilized in the last five years.
"There's hope for the future," he said. "But we have to be youth-oriented."
Simonson said helping to develop a passion for the outdoors doesn't take much effort or cost very much.
"It really only takes one person, taking one son, one niece or nephew or one neighbor out fishing or hunting," he said. "I think it's important to make that connection."
The number of children who attended the banquet was encouraging, Simonson said.
"We had a great turnout of kids ages 6-12," he said. "It was good to see families bringing those kids."
While there were 42 guns awarded Saturday, the highlight of the night for Simonson was witnessing the sheer delight on the face of Zach Kurth, who was among three other kids who won gun or bow raffles.
"Zach said, 'I want the bow,'" Simonson said. "I just started bow-hunting about three or four years ago, so I know what the excitement is like. It's nice to see that excitement from the kids."
Along with Paxton Schultz and Walker Schultz, 6-year-old Mason Eickhoff of Marshall also won a gun.
"It was good," Eickhoff said about winning. "I'm going to shoot pheasants and deer when I grow up. I get to use my new gun, not my dad or anybody."
Southwest Minnesota is known for having some of the best pheasant hunting habitat in Minnesota, especially in Lyon and Lincoln counties, so preserving those tracts of land and opportunities are certainly worth the effort. But it takes a special partnership with landowners, Simonson said.
"We realize that farmers have to feed the world and fuel the world, but that's not the end-all," he said. "We need clean air, clean water and clean land, so we have to preserve habitat, too, to maintain for future generations."
In the past 30 years, Simonson said, LCPF has worked to convert more than 3,000 acres to public land in addition to putting in more than a half million dollars of the chapter's own money. He's found that in partnering with neighboring sportsmans clubs and area landowners, great relationship can be developed.
"We have a lot of local support," Simonson said. "I find the landowners in southwest Minnesota are probably the most receptive of all the farming regions in Minnesota when it comes to habitat concerns. We have great landowners here in Lyon County who work with us and who work through Soil and Water districts and DNR."
Simonson said there are more than 14,000 Walk-In Access acres around Marshall.
"That says a lot for groups like Pheasants Forever and local sportsmen, but also local landowners who recognize the importance of getting young hunters in the field."
Simonson presented Tracy landowners Ted and Janet Schotzko a plaque recognizing them as the 2013 LCPF Landowner Appreciation Award winner. Ted Schotzko also donated a hand-crafted walking stick with a pheasant handle for the banquet silent auction.
Marshall landowners Matt and Donata Debruyckere couldn't be present Saturday, but were recipients of the same award.
The LCPF chapter will sponsor three youth education activities this year, beginning April 2 with a two-week youth fishing course.
Firearms safety instructors Steve Rykhus, Mark Lavoie and Christi Mansfield promoted their activity Saturday by selling $10 squares on a "Next Generation" board.
"We sold out in about an hour and 15 minutes," said Rykhus, who has been an instructor since the mid-80s. "The funds go for youth education, for firearms training."
Partnering with the Redwood River Sportsmen's Club, LCPF organizers are always planning a Youth and Family Shooting Sport Day in the future. They're also looking to add ice fishing to next year's offerings.
"The ice fishing would be a new addition for the chapter," Simonson said. "We want to expand our youth program."
Those plans also include a large habitat project, "The James Meger Memorial Wildlife Management Area," that is in the works.
Having initiated the project, LCPF member Al Dale handed out brochures and took time to talk with people at the banquet.
"I got to thinking, 'How do we honor this guy for everything he's done, not only for Pheasants Forever, but for wildlife in general, and not just in Minnesota, but throughout the whole United States?'" Dale said. "So I brought the idea of a James Meger Wildlife Area to our board, and they all thought it was a pretty neat idea. We have a lot of people behind this."