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Finding pheasants tougher this year

By Sam Cook

Northland Outdoors

MADISON, Minn. -- We knew what we were up against when we heard the neighboring farmer's report after picking 72 acres of corn.

"I picked the whole South Farm," Stan Patzer had said, "and I didn't see one pheasant."

Gary Larson and I were at his family's farm near Madison for a delayed pheasant opener. Each of us had other obligations on the Oct. 15 opener, but we had come west to hunt Sunday and part of Monday.

Patzer's pronouncement was ominous. In decent to good years, farmers routinely push clusters of hens and roosters down the corn rows ahead of them while combining. The birds don't like to leave the corn.

But this year is a year unlike any that Minnesota pheasant hunters have seen since at least 1997. Birds are scarce. Minnesota's pheasant season will continue through Jan. 1.

Hunters on opening weekend of Minnesota's pheasant season ground-truthed Minnesota Department of Natural Resources road counts that indicated Minnesota's pheasant population had been hammered by a deep-snow winter and a wet spring. Counts were down 64 percent statewide and

82 percent in this part of the state.

Our party's three-hour morning hunt on Sunday, the second day of the season, confirmed those reports.

"It's bleak," said Larson, who has been hunting these family lands for nearly 40 years. "Probably one of the lowest years I remember."

In our morning hunt, joined by Bruce Bonde of Woodbury, Minn., and his son Collin of Eagan, Minn., we had flushed one lone hen and, on that South Farm, a flurry of a half-dozen hens. Not a single rooster.

In the afternoon, the party had shrunk to just Larson and me. Our dogs flushed another half-dozen hens before they pushed up a rooster in the last hour before sunset.

Larson's yellow Lab, Copper, flushed the rooster. We were so accustomed to seeing hens that the sudden splash of color against the sky seemed almost like a mistake.

Maybe he was just too pretty to shoot. Whatever the reason, he kept flying after both of us had shot.

It is one thing to miss a good opportunity at a rooster. It is another to miss one in a year such as this, when you know the opportunities are going to be few and lots of boot leather between.

Some find birds

Others in the area had better luck. A party of four hunting nearby private land had had shots at eight roosters on the opener and picked up six, Patzer said.

Ron Sorenson, owner of Lou's Lodge in Madison, said several hunters have stayed with him since the opener. Results have been mixed.

"Some good, some bad," Sorenson said. "If they happen to be in the right spot, they get some birds. If they're in an area where they haven't combined the corn, it's pretty bad."

He said at least six hunters staying with him got their two-bird limits on Monday despite high winds.

"And some buddies of mine went out southwest of town. They got four for three (hunters)," Sorenson said. "And they saw lots of hens."

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, hunting in Lac qui Parle County on opening day in a party of four, picked up five pheasants.

So, hunters who put in their time are going to find some birds. And the corn harvest is humming along. By Monday, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 48 percent of Minnesota's corn had been harvested. Conditions for harvesting were good, and combines were everywhere, gobbling up golden stalks.

Monday morning, before the wind rose too much, Larson and I were two minutes into a field of chest-high switchgrass when one of the dogs picked up a scent trail. A brief chase resulted in a rooster climbing toward the sky, and Larson dropped him with a single shot.

Just that quickly, it all seemed easy again.