SCOTT RALL COLUMN: Tons of company are to be expected for pheasant season
I have waited 364 days for tomorrow. Saturday, October 13 is the Minnesota Pheasant hunting season opener. Last year I wandered along with a group of mostly new hunters at the first ever Governors Pheasant hunt that was held in Montevideo, Minn. This year, the Governors' hunt will be hosted in Marshall, only 60 miles away. I received another invitation this year, but am going to skip the actual hunting part of the weekend and attend a dedication ceremony for an addition to a local WMA in the Marshall area. This should be pretty cool.
In an entire day of hunting last year, we saw only one rooster and two members of the group tag teamed on that bird. I was really just enjoying working my dogs and helping other new hunters see what good dog work looked like.
Many pheasant hunters don't get serious until later in the season. This is caused by a variety of factors. The most prevalent one is that early in the season pheasants have lots of corn and bean fields to hide in. The season starts at 9 a.m. daily. This is designed to allow the birds the opportunity to get up and out of roosting cover and spread out a little. This makes them harder to target and ultimately spreads the harvest out more evenly over the entire season.
If you could hunt pheasants a half hour before sunrise, like many other species, the harvest would increase greatly, thus leaving very few roosters available for hunters in the later weeks of the season. I support the hunting hours beginning a little later in the morning. Iowa does it a little different. They let hunters start earlier in the day. I think it opens at 8 a.m. but closes at 4:30 p.m. every day. This allows the birds a little advantage as hunters can't target them as they come back to cover to roost just before sunset. Both plans work to spread the pheasant harvest out over the entire season. South Dakota doesn't open till noon the first two weeks and 10 a.m. after that.
Another reason some hunters don't start hunting till later in the season is the large numbers of other hunters that are all trying to use the same public lands at the same time. It is not uncommon for each parcel of public land to have 3-5 cars parked there four hours before legal shooting time.
This influx of hunters usually doesn't last very long in a normal season. Hunting pressure is pretty high the first two or three weeks but after that time the deer season starts and many pheasant hunters will gladly swap their bird gun for their deer gun without hesitation. I am not one of those. Most of time that I spend deer hunting, I am thinking about the lost pheasant hunting opportunities I am missing. I still deer hunt but with much less intensity than my dog and bird pursuits.
This year is a whole different ball game. In general if hunters that have traveled from the metro area to southwest Minnesota to hunt pheasants have poor success opening weekend, many will not make that trip again. On the other hand if these same hunters have success on opening weekend they may make four or five more weekend forays to our neck of the woods.
With virtually 100% of the standing crop gone by tomorrow the birds will be much more venerable and success rates should be much higher. This might make hunter numbers remain high much longer into to the season than normal. Now it still takes birds to harvest and Nobles County's' pheasant population was only listed as poor to fair in the recent roadside counts so even if conditions are perfect, if the bird numbers don't materialize the success rates could still be disappointing and that will determine hunter interest after the opener.
I am a huge fan of public lands and if these lands did not exist there would be almost no wildlife habitat in our area or wildlife for that matter. In the two brutal winters of 2009 and 2010 these lands absolutely saved what wildlife exists that you see today. The problem with these lands is that Minnesota's population and the hunters that use them are growing at a rate much faster than the public land base, at least in the farmland zones of the state. Northern Minnesota might be a different story. There is no doubt that hunters have to engage the highest ethical standards of our sport to avoid tensions when more hunters than a public property can hold all want to hunt the same spot at the same time.
I have a few tips which might help you have a little less crowded opener. Consider hunting on Federal Waterfowl Production Areas. These public areas require the use of steel shot and many hunters think it less effective. They will instead opt to hunt state Wildlife Management Areas were lead shot for pheasants is allowed. Not a guarantee of less hunters but it could make a small difference.
If you choose to hunt a large block of public land, park the car and head out early and walk to the very back of the property. When everyone else bolts from the truck parked on the road at the 9:00 opener you will already be a half mile away and can have a little part of that public area to yourself before the other hunters can make it the distance to where you started. Use your head and leash your dog to insure you don't spook the birds on your way out and wreck it for everyone. You could become very unpopular in a big hurry.
Another tip is so easy, but hardly anyone takes it into consideration. Don't hunt public properties located close to paved roads. I have seen tons of hunters who borrow their wife's SUV for the weekend and don't want it to get muddy or dusty in order to keep the spouse happy. Now I am all for keeping the spouse happy but the "keep the car clean" can work in your favor. One other tid-bit that can make public land hunting more successful is to ask adjoining land owner's permission to cross their property so you can hunt the public land parcel from back to front instead of the other way around.
I have found this permission easier to get as you are not asking permission to hunt their land. You can save the walk and get positioned for a great hunt free of other competition, at least for a short time. Never enter private land without proper permission. People who break this rule are the greatest threat ethical hunters have to private land access. Notice I did not call them "hunters," trespassers are not hunters and should never be referred to as one.
Carry the "Turn in Poachers" phone number in your cell. It is (800) 652-9093 and use when you see violations in progress. It is up to all ethical sportsmen to police the sport we all love and cherish.
There is no doubt that tomorrow is going to be a busy day with orange hats and vests everywhere. Conditions are prime for a great opener and everyone can make some memories for their own wall of fame. Just remember to do it safely and ethically. The tradition of opening day is special even if you chose to wait till later in the season the chase the college educated roosters other hunters taught and trained. A rooster on the opener is pretty cool but a rooster in December is a much bigger prize.
Scott Rall is the Daily Globe's outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.