Just enough pheasants to keep hunter coming back for more
My expectations were low going into this year’s pheasant season, because I knew that birds in southeast Minnesota had taken the double-whammy.
Last winter was hard on them. Freezing rain in December put a thick crust of ice on the snow that didn’t melt until February. That ice made it very difficult for pheasants to scratch out a living in the ice-caked fields. Many birds starved to death or were picked off by hawks when they were forced to spend too much time in the open searching for their meager rations.
Those that did survive the winter were not in good shape come spring. Hens that have had a stressful winter tend to have smaller clutches than do birds which have plenty of food through the winter months.
Then we had a cold, wet spring. Some nests were no doubt drowned out in the spring flooding. Those hens which did hatch a clutch of babies were having a tough time protecting the chicks from the incessant cold rains.
By September, I had not seen a single brood of young birds. So when pheasant season opened in October I was anticipating a tough season.
And I have not been disappointed. It has been tough. There are not nearly the number of pheasants that we have had the last five or six seasons. I and my two pointing dogs, Casey, a Brtittany with three years under the collar and Duke, the hard-charging German Shorthair, who is just beginning his second season, get out at least four or five times each week. We have done all of our hunting this season in Olmsted and Mower counties.
So far, we have taken half of our birds on public land and half on private properties where I have permission to hunt. We have averaged one rooster per hunt, which is not great, but it is better than I thought we would do.
Encouragingly, most of the roosters we have taken have been young-of-the-year birds, so perhaps the hatch was not as poor as I had feared. Judging by the number of very young pheasants I have seen so far this season, it is obvious that many hens did a successful job of renesting. Hens will renest if their eggs are destroyed before they hatch, but rarely will a hen renest if she pulls off a hatch and then loses the chicks to weather or predators.
I’ve seen quite a few pheasants that were not at all colored out yet, and on October 23rd, I saw the smallest pheasants I have ever seen during the hunting season. The dogs each caught one of the group of three, Duke actually plucking one out of the air. Luckily, both dogs are soft-mouthed and I released the juvenile birds unharmed. But these birds could just barely fly. They probably did not survive the couple days of cold rain we had later that week.
The corn harvest has been drawn out this fall. Some hunters do not like that, because the standing corn gives roosters a great place to spend the day unbothered by hunters. Personally, I prefer a year like this when the harvest is spread out over a month or longer. By keeping tabs on the corn harvest, I can concentrate my efforts hunting grass cover near the most recently harvested cornfields.
When I hunt mornings or mid-day I will hunt areas with no standing corn nearby. But in the evenings, I like to spend that last hour of the day hunting grass cover adjacent to standing corn. Pheasants do not roost in the corn, so sometime during that last hour of the day, often just before sunset, they will move into the grass to roost for the night. Most of the birds I’ve taken this season have been taken during evening hunts. That will change once the corn harvest is completed, but the way it looks right now, that probably will not be until the end of the month, maybe even early December.
This week, I plan to make my first trip to western Minnesota to hunt pheasants. The western counties have more good pheasant habitat than we have and the ice that made things rough on our birds last winter did not extend west of Mankato, so winter survival was very good in the western part of the state.
Reports from friends who have hunted western Minnesota this season indicate that bird numbers are very good.
Gary Clancy has been a full-time freelance outdoor writer for 25 years. He writes for many national publications, is a long-standing columnist for the Outdoor News and has written eight books. For a list of titles, go to www.garyclancy.com.