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Scott Rall: Hide and seek with pheasants in the corn

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

The weather Grinch must really know a lot about me. He has the ability to create difficulty that coincides exactly with every outdoor activity I plan.

Last fall we made plans to go four-wheeling in the Black Hills, and on the exact weekend we were to leave it snowed four inches in the Hills and the high temp was 37 degrees. We canceled and waited another year.

This time it did the same thing, and although it was a little better, it still snowed on us at the high elevations. The high temperature was 42 degrees.

This year I had planned a trip to the Fort Pierre national grasslands the first week of October, and as you all well know, some areas of central and western South Dakota got between 40 inches of snow and several inches of rain. And another trip was shot down by the weather Grinch.

So the pheasant opener is this Saturday, and after a week of perfect weather the weekend has rain in the forecast. On Monday as I am writing this column the rain chance is between 30-40 percent. By Saturday it will most likely have risen to 80 percent or more.

This is just the way my outdoor calendar shapes up. I sometimes feel like the Charlie Brown cartoon character that has the little rain cloud that follows him everywhere he goes.

I will be starting the 2013 pheasant season this Saturday at the Governor’s Pheasant Opener in Madelia. This tradition was started to highlight the hunting heritage in Minnesota and to showcase the state’s best hunting opportunities.

This is the third year, and the prior two sites of this activity were Montevideo in year one, Marshall in year two and now Madelia in year three. We will find out on tonight if Worthington will be chosen to host this event in its fourth year. The Worthington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, in conjunction with Nobles County Pheasants Forever, submitted an application to host this event in 2014 many months ago. Tonight they’ll know if we were successful.

So what can the state’s hunters expect to see on Saturday?

It is going to be a very different opener than the past few years. Last year at this time there was not a single corn stalk left standing. The harvest was as close to 100 percent completed as I had ever seen. Not only was the crop out, but the field tillage work was also completed. The birds had no standing crop left to hide in which they customarily do for the majority of the day this time of year.

In a standing corn field they find food and overhead cover from predators and also protection from hunters. Pheasants spend their nights in grass cover or in tree groves. This makes it harder for predators to find them. They leave this cover in early morning and fly out to find food. After they have filled their crops they head back to cover and repeat this process again in late afternoon. If suitable feeding cover exists they will fly out early in the morning and spend all day there and fly back just before dark or even after dark.

The pheasant season opens in Minnesota at 9 a.m. in order to allow the pheasants to leave the roosting cover before hunters can pursue them. If we could hunt at sunrise like other states, such as North Dakota, an exceedingly high harvest would result. That would leave very few birds to hunt later in the season. The later start time of 9 a.m. is designed to give the bird an edge (leave the cover to feed) and spread the harvest out over the entire season.

If all the crop is gone, the birds feed and then have to head back to cover for protection where hunters can find them. With lots of standing corn, these birds can hang out where hunters have a hard time getting close to them. This is going to be the situation on this year’s pheasant opener.

Not all birds do the same thing at the same time, so a small percentage of birds will be in the grass during different parts of the day, and some hunters will be able to make contact with them. In a normal year, the hunting is better later in the season, and this is going to be one of those years.

If the rain cloud that keeps following me around continues to do so, the corn harvest will take longer. If it stays dry and warm it might only be a few weeks before these birds will be reduced to feeding for a short period and then heading back to the grass where hunters can get them under the nose of their dog.

Pheasant numbers are down, and this trend is most likely to continue. Pheasant hunter numbers move up and down with projected pheasant populations. If hunters have little success in the early season they stow their shotgun and get out their bow or rifle and start concentrating on deer hunting.

I think that whether you shoot lots of birds or only a few, it is the walk in the tall grass behind a good dog that makes for a quality outing. I will have many quality outings with my boys this fall regardless of bird numbers and recommend that you give it a try.

There is no better way to spend a fall day than walking in the tall grass, gun in hand, dog out front and a crisp wind in your face.