Pheasant opener came early on Saturday after a late night of football coverage, but I don’t like to miss that first minute of legal shooting time at 9 a.m. Not when the conditions are so inviting.
The weather was as good as one could ask for. Low 50 degrees and a slight breeze. Quite a contrast to the near 80 degree temperatures from a year ago.
That kind of heat is tough on dogs, to the point where we couldn’t even hunt much on last year’s opening weekend. My yellow lab, Ole, and my buddy Adam Rigge’s golden retriever, Ellie, were able to work much more comfortably on Saturday and Sunday.
I waited patiently with my father-in-law, Mike Schaffran, and buddy, Jacob Busiahn, for 9 a.m. to hit to hunt a nice field of CRP near my parents’ house in southwestern Minnesota. A hen and a young rooster were the first to flush as Jacob let him fly without a shot.
Adam and my dad would join us an hour or so later, but Ole was the only dog we had to start the day. He quartered back and forth between all three of us, anxiously trying to pick up scent in what were dry conditions. We were halfway through our second push up the field when Ole stopped on a dime and locked up on point.
The bird sat for a second or two before he couldn’t take it anymore. A rooster flushed and flew right between Mike and me. We waited for it to clear each other and start flying away before we both raised our shotguns and fired at nearly the same time. Our first bird was in the bag. We finished with three roosters out of this field, pretty good considering the corn that surrounded much of the property.
Our third stop of the day put the finishing touches on a solid opener before I went into the woods to sit in a deer stand. This piece was a buffer strip of CRP along a dredge ditch that was filled with water due to so much rain in the last couple months.
It wasn’t long before Ole got birdie again. I was anticipating a flush, though not necessarily from my feet where this rooster came flying out of. Mike and I both fired at about the same time again as Ole ran down our fourth bird of the day.
We walked another five minutes or so before a rooster flushed between Jacob and Adam. Jacob followed him with his Benelli Ultra Light as the bird veered off to our left. A couple shots rang out as the rooster folded on the other side of the ditch. Ellie was quick to be there as she gathered the bird and returned it to Adam’s side.
Five birds in about three hours of hunting. I was happy with that, all things considered. Every piece we hunted had standing corn next to it. The dogs often worked their way to those field edges and made their way into the corn. I’m sure plenty of birds were using those corn rows as runways once we stepped foot in the grass.
The poor roadside count numbers from August also left me wondering what we would see this past weekend as we went into things. Pheasant counts from that Department of Natural Resources survey saw numbers plunge 26 percent from the year before and 32 percent below the state’s 10-year average.
It’s easy to look at those numbers and predict a difficult season ahead, but we never really know what’s out there until we hit the field. Nicole Davros, the DNR research scientist who oversees the annual August roadside survey that monitors pheasant population trends, said in an interview with the StarTribune leading up to opener that she feels the roadside survey might have undercounted what’s really out there for birds. She bases that off rooster numbers being up and hen and broods being few and far between. The theory being that it might have been a late nesting season this year.
Pheasants are notorious for doing anything they can to have a successful hatch, even if it means re-nesting multiple times if the eggs are destroyed.
A conversation I had last weekend made me wonder if late hatches might have been the case in some areas. A good friend of mine generally doesn’t hunt the CRP around his house until Thanksgiving. This allows a lot of those young roosters to grow up a little.
I called him on my way back to Alexandria on Sunday night. That’s his plan again after what he has seen on his walks through the grass lately.
A lot of young birds are flushing, roosters that are hard to even determine from a hen until they cackle. This seems to indicate that there might have been quite a few late hatches in the area.
After a relatively good opener, that leaves me even more optimistic that there are birds to be had as the season progresses.