The flush of the rooster pheasant has bewitched hunters since at least the Stone Age, and these many millennia later, Minnesota wing-shooters remain similarly enthralled. Saturday is opening day for these florid birds, and in advance, uplanders ponder ringneck population surveys, corn and soybean harvests, the dogs at their sides, and, ultimately, their prospects.Five areas that are top of mind:
Making a good hunt
Start with a quiz: Most important to successful pheasant hunting throughout the state's pheasant range when the Minnesota ringneck season opens at 9 a.m. Saturday is (A) a good dog; (B) reasonably good marksmanship with a shotgun; (C) pre-hunt scouting; or (D) none of these. Answer: While individual or group pheasant hunting success often depends on the help of a good dog, competency with a scattergun and knowing where to hunt, the answer is D. Most important on opening day in Minnesota is the percentage of corn and soybeans that have been harvested. To that end, recent U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics should encourage uplanders: 36 % of the corn harvest was completed earlier this week, compared to 31 % at the same time last year and 14 percent for the five-year average. Meanwhile, 83 % of soybeans are in, the same as last year and well above the 46-% five-year average. Upshot: The fact that this year's opener is Oct. 16 while last year's was Oct. 10 is a crop-harvest plus for hunters.
Pheasant hunters often argue about which dog breed is best for pursuing ringnecks. There's no one answer. Many hunters have personal preferences based on factors other than a canine's bird-finding abilities. Long or short hair can be a deal-breaker, particularly if the dog lives indoors. Big- or small-running also can be a consideration. Many Labrador owners, for instance, lack familiarity with and confidence in wide-ranging pointing dogs that must be trusted to find birds at significant distances from their masters and hold the colorful fowl in position until a shot can be taken. This is one reason Labrador retrievers are used more commonly for Minnesota pheasant hunting than pointers, setters or springer spaniels — all of which also can be excellent choices. Also in Labradors' favor: They can be used for waterfowl hunting, thus broadening their utility; they make excellent pets; and Minnesota pheasant habitat often consists of thick marshes most effectively searched with a large, close-working flushing dog. Yet . . . on a given day, a good pointing dog often will find more birds than a Labrador or other flushing breed.
What habitat is best?
Here's another quiz: If you had to choose a particular habitat that would produce pheasants more than any other, would it be (A) shelterbelts and other cover that protect ringnecks from Minnesota's harsh winters; (B) corn and similar plots to provide food for pheasants in winter; (C) grass for hen pheasants to establish nests and hatch their young; or (D) none of the these. Answer: C. Nothing is more vital to increasing pheasant numbers than nesting habitat, particularly expansive acreages of grass that allow hen pheasants to incubate their eggs and hatch their young without being killed by foxes, skunks, raccoons, hawks and other predators. This is why the diminishment in Minnesota of federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres has hurt pheasants and other upland wildlife so significantly. CRP enrollment peaked in Minnesota in 2007, with 1.8 million enrolled acres, roughly half of which have since been returned to cropland. Effect on pheasants? In 2007, the statewide pheasant index determined by the Department of Natural Resource's annual August roadside counts was 107 birds spotted per 100 miles. This year's index? Forty-one birds per 100 miles.
Where the birds are
Minnesota pheasant numbers are highest in the west-central and southwest regions of the state. Ringnecks spotted per 100 miles surveyed in August in west-central dropped from 64 a year ago to 43 (-33 %) this year. In the southwest, birds declined from 91 in 2020 to 63 this year (-30 %). These regions vary in size and have differing amounts of set-aside farmland acres (such as CRP) and state and federal wildlife lands, such as state wildlife management areas (WMAs) and federal waterfowl production areas (WPAs). Examples: In west-central, these lands total 700,826 acres, or 9.5 % of the landscape. In the southwest, the same properties total 273,323 acres, or 7.2 % of the region. The next highest percentages of set-aside acres and public wildlife lands on the landscape are in central and south-central at 5.8 % and 5.4 % respectively. Statewide, meanwhile, CRP acres declined by 5,000 acres this year from 2020, but CREP — Conservation Reserve Enhancement Acres — rose by 10,000 acres and RIM lands (Reinvest in Minnesota) increased by 2,000 acres. Another 24,000 acres in the pheasant range were gained in federal wildlife lands and state wildlife management areas.
A prediction for opening day?
If "opening day'' means Saturday, hunters likely will be at least as successful as they were last year, and perhaps a little more so. The relatively later date of this year's opener, combined with corn and soybean harvests that are fairly advanced, means some birds that otherwise would remain in the state's vast croplands will be forced into WMAs and other habitats that hunters can access. Yet Minnesota pheasant hunting has changed in recent decades. In the most recent ringneck heyday of the early 2000s, enough birds existed on the landscape to provide reasonable opening day action, even when most crops remained unharvested. As CRP losses have accelerated and bird numbers have fallen, that has changed. Now in years when the season begins earlier in October and most crops remain in the field, some hunters struggle to find pheasants on the season's first days. The silver lining: In recent years, late-season Minnesota pheasant hunting generally has remained good to very good for hunters willing to withstand the vagaries of early winter weather — better, even, in some cases, than in South Dakota (whose pheasant season also opens Saturday), because ofMinnesota's comparatively large swaths of public land in its pheasant range.