It’s not every day you’re treated like a VIP when you go pheasant hunting. Usually, for me, it involves 8-foot cattails whose seeds end up in my eyes, gun barrel and, somehow, every one of my pockets. Ankle blisters form from poor boot decisions, and sometimes walks end without seeing a single bird.
And, honestly, I don’t mind it one bit. I treat my fall pheasant hunting excursions as cardio exercises. The open prairie of western Minnesota is my gym. My “selfies in the mirror” involve brightly colored birds and a yellow lab named “Mika.”
Hopefully, I find enough time to trudge the tall grass to make it through winter without packing on too many pounds. But for the last couple of years, for at least one day, my sweat equity has been rewarded with red carpet treatment: Welcome to the 13th annual Montevideo VIP hunt.
“We come down for the VIP hunt because we like to hunt, but it’s not just about hunting pheasants, it’s about camaraderie,” said hunter Patti Carr from Detroit Lakes. “We have met so many new people since we stumbled upon the banquet at the first-ever Minnesota Governor’s Opener hosted by Montevideo.”
That was in 2011, when Governor Mark Dayton held the inaugural event at the Watson Hunting Camp. The annual VIP hunt is what planted the seed for the Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener. Congressman Collin Peterson can be credited with getting the ball rolling.
“I ran into the Mayor down here and Denny Larson. They invited me to go hunting,” Peterson said.
“Every other state has a Governor’s pheasant hunt, Iowa has one, (and) South Dakota. We’ve got better pheasant hunting than Iowa,” he said laughing. So why shouldn’t Minnesota have one?
This was during Governor Tim Pawlenty’s time in office and he already had the Governor’s Deer Hunting Opener and the Governor’s Fishing Opener, but he wouldn’t start the Pheasant Opener, despite pleas from Peterson.
“Maybe it’s because I was a democrat? I don’t know,” Peterson said. “I just couldn’t get him to do it. So we said, ‘We’re gonna do it anyway,’ and we did a VIP hunt.” Some of Peterson’s colleagues teamed up with some Montevideo-area hunters and began what became an annual tradition in western Minnesota.
“It was pretty successful, so we just kept doing it, “Peterson added. But it took a change in Governors to finally make it official.
“So when Dayton ran for Governor, he wanted my support. I said, ‘Well, okay, I’ll support you if you agree to have the first Governor’s Pheasant hunt in Montevideo.’ He said, ‘Deal.’”
And just like that, the first Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener was born.
“It was a privilege and honor to have them out here, to be able to shake hands with the folks who make rules and laws for our areal,” said Chuck Ellingson, owner of the Watson Hunting Camp and Bar. “The VIP hunt brings out a lot of people and shows off the land we have in the area.”
After a few years of harsh winters and wet springs, the state’s wildlife have been given a reprieve — 2015 and 2014 were a bit milder in longtail country and the subsequent springs have been dry enough to boost our bird numbers. Our group of 12 hunters would only bag eight roosters, but counted 45 flushes during the day, mostly hens. A frustrating sign for hunters today, but promising for them in the future.
“Everybody got quite a few birds,” Peterson said about this year’s VIP hunt. “We got 48 birds altogether, which is not bad.”
“I think everybody had a great time,” Ellingson added. “Lots of hand-shaking and high-fives going on. We want to put a special thanks out to the farmers and landowners in the Milan area (and beyond). Without them, this event would be tough to pull off.”
Private landowners donated pieces of habitat that most of us only drive by and dream about stepping onto. A $50 entry fee gained you access and three meals provided by local farmers and businesses.
“We hunted prime land and saw plenty of birds,” Carr said. “Then there was music, dancing, cold beverages and we got to share stories — or rather excuses — about why the birds got away.”
While Charlie Roth offered some evening entertainment, the highlight of the night might have been when Peterson strapped on the acoustic guitar and treated the crowd to a few favorite sing-a-longs, surprising those of us who hadn’t seen that side of the politician.
“Well, we have a congressional band,” Peterson answered. “We went to Iraq and Afghanistan and played for the troops. It’s something I’ve done for many years.”
You just never know what to expect at events like this. Next year, the VIP hunt will include a lot more surprises (and security) as it transitions into the 2016 Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener. Once again it will be held in Montevideo and hosted locally by Mayor Debra Lee Fader.