By John Cross
Free Press Staff Writer
Amidst predictions that Minnesota’s pheasant population is up 68 percent from 2011 levels, most hunters probably waded into bird haunts around the state with a measure of optimism when the 2012 pheasant hunting season opened yesterday at 9 a.m.
Certainly, there was plenty of room for improvement over last year’s affair after bird numbers had been decimated by a one-two-punch of the severe winter of 2010-11 and a cold, wet spring that dampened chick production.
According to data gathered last August during the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources annual roadside surveys, the best bird numbers this year would be found in west-central and southwest Minnesota.
But a DNR map highlighting the best areas also showed a pocket of “good” hunting in Brown County and just a few miles north of the Wildlife Management Area northwest of Madelia, where my daughter, Amanda, her husband, Nathan Fenske, along with their nephew, Joe Fenske, and myself had parked at 7:30 a.m., early enough, we assumed to claim a promising spot to hunt.
Then with just five minutes or so before legal shooting time, four trucks rolled up and parked in a nearby hog confinement operation.
The four hunters who climbed out of the trucks and began donning blaze orange acted like they owned the place.
As it turned out, one of the hunter’s brothers owned the property along the edge of the WMA that we — and evidently the late-comers — had intended to hunt.
The hunter suggested we join them.
With novice hunter Joe on his first pheasant hunt, we weren’t particularly keen to hunt in a large party with strangers.
We acceded the edge to them, instead beginning our hunt a hundred yards or so to the west, cutting through the center of the WMA.
A year ago, in the middle of the 2011 season, I made a solo hunt in the same WMA. A rare snowfall had occurred nearly a week earlier, yet there were no hunter’s tracks anywhere to suggest the area had been hunted recently.
During the two hours I crisscrossed the area on that November morning, even after a week of snow cover, I did not see a single pheasant track, let alone flush a bird.
With that memory still fresh, roadside survey results notwithstanding, I was less than optimistic about our chances as we waded into the grass behind my aging English springer spaniel and the Fenske’s energetic German shorthair.
Several hundred yards into the hunt, shots rang out. They weren’t ours.
The other group was banging away at birds along the edge of the WMA where we originally had planned to hunt.
We put up a few hens, a marked improvement over my last hunt on the parcel and then finally, a young rooster that Nate and Amanda downed as a we-bird.
The other group by now had crossed the fence to private property we presumed also was owned by the one hunter’s brother.
Their continued shooting suggested that DNR predictions of more birds and an improved season were on the mark.
Nearly two hours later, ours and our dog’s energy flagging, we were making one last pass through a patch of switch grass when Sampson, my spaniel, grew animated.
I was warning the others to get ready when a rooster sprang from the edge of the thick cover, crossing in front of me from right to left, an easy shot.
I fired once, a second time.
The bad news is that I clean missed — didn’t cut a single feather with either shot at the first bird of my 2012 pheasant hunting season.
So the good news, I guess, is that just like last year’s pheasant season, my shooting also has plenty of room for improvement.
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or be e-mail at email@example.com.