HINCKLEY, Minn. — We were roughly 60 seconds into this early-season pheasant hunt when Jaxon locked up in a statuesque point.
Jared Wiklund’s 4-year-old English pointer left no doubt that a pheasant was somewhere just beyond his nose.
“When Jaxon locks up like that, it’s pretty much 100 percent,” Wiklund would say later.
Wiklund walked in on Jaxon’s point. A gaudy rooster first ran, then took flight. Wiklund’s 12-gauge double-barrel sent the rooster tumbling across a sky where low clouds were beginning to break up. Jaxon raced out to pick up the bird and delivered it to Wiklund.
We were hunting a state wildlife management area near Hinckley just six days into Minnesota’s pheasant season. Wiklund, who grew up in Duluth, Minn., and now lives in Forest Lake, Minn., is public relations manager with Pheasants Forever, the upland conservation group based in St. Paul. He had wanted to hunt this sprawling parcel of grassland, wetlands and aspen forest to make a point.
“People do not understand that you don’t have to go to western Minnesota to shoot a pheasant,” Wiklund said.
While Minnesota’s highest pheasant counts typically are in the west-central and southwestern portions of the state, the east-central region has plenty of public land that holds decent numbers of pheasants. In roadside counts conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in August, the pheasant index was up 27 percent over last year in east-central Minnesota and up 72 percent in the central region.
Wiklund slipped the handsome bird into his vest, and we let Jaxon lead us to more birds. Some, however, weren’t waiting around. As we walked north through thigh-high vegetation, a flurry of pheasants boiled out of willow shrubs beyond gun range. It was a spectacular sight, as the birds exploded simultaneously, fleeing in several directions. It was the kind of scene usually reserved for Terry Redlin wildlife print, minus the sunset and the old pickup.
“There had to be eight roosters in there,” said Wiklund, 30.
We took our best guess at where some of the bids might have settled and moved in that direction. The soft clank of Jaxon’s bell let us know where he was much of the time, and if he was out of sight and sound for long, Wiklund just checked the GPS receiver he wore around his neck. Jaxon was wearing the transmitter.
Learning from dad
Wiklund cultivated his outdoor skills early in life, hunting grouse and deer and elk with his dad. Grouse hunting was his first love. After graduating from Duluth East High School in 2004, he chose Luther College in Decorah, Iowa — “a wildlife paradise,” he said.
“That’s where I learned my love of pheasant hunting,” said Wiklund, a state doubles champion in tennis at East High School. “With my two roommates, we’d make a line and walk. We had no dog. My last two years at Luther, I had all my classes on Tuesday and Thursday. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I was hunting.”
After college, he took an unpaid internship with Pheasants Forever in St. Paul and nine months later had his first paying job with the organization. He spent five years in Iowa doing land acquisitions and fundraising work for the group. He’s been with Pheasants Forever in St. Paul for nearly two years.
“I’ve always been a conservationist,” Wiklund said. “To go to work and write about your passion and do things like this hunt is great. We’re a conservation group motivated by hunting and recreation.”
Pheasants Forever, a nonprofit founded in St. Paul in 1982, now has 740 chapters and 150,000 members across the country.
“We’re adding 4,000 to 5,000 acres a year around the state,” Wiklund said. “Our mission is to put more acres of habitat on the landscape. We want to protect the landscape, make more pheasants and quail and pollinators — and get kids outside.”
The group tries to set aside lands for habitat that were only marginally productive for farming.
“A lot of it starts with a call from a willing landowner (who wants to sell some land),” Wiklund said, “or we see some promising land that’s next to an existing wildlife area.”
When all the pieces fall together, a piece of land like the one we were hunting is the result. And this habitat benefits more than pheasants. On this parcel, we saw a large buck and lots of deer tracks. In the soft soil along a path, we saw pheasant tracks, bear tracks and sandhill crane tracks.
“There are sharptails here, ruffed grouse and pheasants,” Wiklund said. “It’s extremely diverse.”
We flushed one more rooster within gun range, off another Jaxon point, but it did not end up in a hunting vest.
Wiklund gave Jaxon a rest and put his 6-year-old black Lab, Koda, on the ground for a walk around a wetland.
On to grouse and woodcock
Back at the parking area, we met another hunter coming out of the property with his Gordon setter. He wore a Pheasants Forever cap, which spawned a rooster-related exchange with Wiklund. The hunter had been focusing mostly on grouse in the nearby aspen, with lots of success. He was going to have to eat some, he said, before he could shoot any more, in order to stay within his possession limit.
Wiklund and I took Jaxon and headed for those woods. Wiklund, too, knew this patch of aspen.
In an hour, we flushed nine grouse and nearly a dozen woodcock.
Jaxon ranged through the woods, often out of sight in the dense stand of young aspen. The jingle of his bell would slowly fade away, and if it stopped entirely, Wiklund called up the pointer’s location on his GPS receiver.
“Thirty-seven yards that way,” Wiklund would say, marking the direction of travel with an extended arm.
And off one of us would go to flush the bird.
Along one trail, where Jaxon had gone on a rigid point, a single woodcock flitted to the treetops, followed shortly by two more. A couple of them fell to our shots.
In another spot, Jaxon had a grouse pointed, and three others took off as well. All of them lived to fly another day.
We were headed back to the truck by mid-afternoon, Jaxon still hunting grassy cover along a two-track road. It had been the kind of day that any hunter would welcome — good time in great cover with a pair of excellent dogs.
“I’d do this every day if I could,” Wiklund said.
Some days, though, he just gets to write about it.
To find wildlife management areas and other public lands open to hunting in Minnesota, go to mndnr.gov. Click on “Hunting and Trapping,” then “Public Lands.” Search by county and then by name of WMAs.