If Mother Nature chose to blend a combination of adverse weather events to knock down southern Minnesota’s pheasant population, it succeeded.
As we all know, last winter seemed to be never-ending, with storm after storm dropping copious amounts of snow on the landscape, usually accompanied by blizzard-force winds and bone-chilling temperatures that dipped far below zero.
Pheasants are resilient birds, easily capable of withstanding any so-called normal Minnesota winter. Cold, snowy blasts happen in average winters, but they’re generally followed by spells of thawing that open up fields for pheasants to forage in.
Pheasants ride out numbing weather in warmer cattail sloughs, using the thick, interwoven plants for cover against winter’s onslaught. Last winter’s snow and cold was unrelenting, and snow driven on the icy edge of high winds was packed into sloughs and wooded pheasant cover, killing all but the luckiest of birds.
Spring wasn’t much of an improvement. While rising temps melted the dense snow pack, that thaw was soon followed by torrential rainfalls that flooded pheasant nests and decimated newly hatched chicks.
In other words, the pheasant population took significant losses in areas hit hardest by last winter’s wicked winter.
Every spring, I spend many hours hunkered in blinds photographing migrating waterfowl. Often, these forays take place on small water cattail sloughs that are surrounded by grassy pheasant habitat. In most years, it’s common for me hear rooster pheasants crowing as they fly off their roosts or announce their dominance to other roosters who may try to steal hens from his harem.
This spring, the big game birds were suspiciously quiet, a tell-tale sign that their numbers had shrunk yet again.
The Minnesota DNR’s pheasant forecast map reinforces the reduced numbers. According to their website, pheasant numbers, which were low in 2018, dropped another 17 percent. The DNR’s Pheasant Hunting Prospect map is blanketed in areas dubbed as poor and very poor with few spots labeled as good. Areas designated as very good or excellent are non-existent.
Does this mean sports folks should abandon upland hunting in southern Minnesota this season? Certainly not. It just means hunters will have to choose their hunting areas more carefully, hunt a bit harder and perhaps, settle for reduced bags of roosters.
I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about finding a limit of roosters on opening day, especially since rain driven by high winds greeted my labs, Luna and Cash, and I when we exited the truck at a large wildlife management area.
We scoured the fields for two hours with only one flush. That bird was a nervous rooster that blasted from the grass far from shotgun range and sped away on the swift wind in a split second. The dogs and I would have continued the search for more birds, but work commitments were looming, so reluctantly, I walked out of the WMA, promising to return another day.
Our next outing at the extensive WMA turned out better. I approached the land with a more surgical plan, hunting strips of the place that offered substantial fall and winter cover within easy flight distance of feeding fields.
Our first walk produced only one hen. The second hike resulted in five hens flushing from transitional cover where thigh-high CRP grass met the edge of corn field. Moments later, Cash nudged a gaudy rooster skyward before I brought it down with a heavy load of steel shot. I was elated at having bagged a bird from a winter ravaged and oft hunted public land. With renewed optimism, we trudged on, heading to a small cattail pond surrounded by copses of cedar trees and knee-high grass.
My canine tandem forced a pair of hens to the sky, but no roosters. After a brief rest to water the dogs and load them into the truck, I drove to another corner of the WMA where a farmer was busy picking soybeans. Fortuitously, our timing was excellent. Seconds after parking the truck, three roosters, spooked by the farm equipment, flew into the field adjacent to my truck.
Never on to look past gift birds, I quietly let the dogs out and eased towards two of the birds who had alighted together only 200 hundred yards from the truck.
Unfortunately for us, both birds — senior roosters that sported extra-long tails flushed wildly — offering no shots. Unfazed, I directed the dogs out to the gravel road so that we could sneak more quietly towards the third rooster. Seventy-five yards into the cover the dogs tails went wild with urgency, and the bird flushed in easy shotgun range. Seconds later, against the backdrop of a looming sunset, Luna delivered the back half of a hard won Minnesota pheasant limit.
While that hunt was fuel for optimism, I know that few of this year’s pheasant hunts will end that way. Maximizing hunting trips with precise planning will help bring more birds to bag, but watching good dog work, sharing fields with hunting pals, and observing other wildlife may have to substitute for limits of birds. After all, southern Minnesota is only one mild winter and spring from supporting a stronger pheasant population again.
Mark Morrison is an avid hunter and fisherman who has been a freelance outdoors writer and photographer for more than 20 years. The Mankato resident since 1979 may be contacted at email@example.com.