DULUTH, Minn. — By the numbers, this year’s pheasant prospects sound good. And they are — in some places.
Roadside counts conducted in August by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources indicated a 33 percent increase in the pheasant population index from last year.
But weather events across the heart of Minnesota’s pheasant range reveal inconsistencies in the way the pheasant population is distributed.
In the Marshall area, for instance, pheasant hunters probably will be happy when the season opens at 9 a.m. Saturday.
“We’re optimistic, I’ll tell you that much,” said Wendy Krueger, DNR area wildlife manager at Marshall. “Our local counts were up or similar to last year. We can safely say it should be a better hunt than last year.”
However, north and east of there near Appleton, DNR area wildlife manager Curt Vacek tells a different story. Big rains in June probably took a toll on pheasant broods, Vacek said.
“We’ve been stuck in a rut since 2010,” Vacek said of his work area. “Before that, we had really high numbers. Every year since then, I’ve tried to be optimistic. This year seems to be another in a string of bad luck with the weather — and habitat loss, too.”
June rains were near average for the month, he said.
“But they all came in two or three rains,” Vacek said. “I think we had some flooding issues.”
Flooding issues are bad for baby pheasants trying to stay warm and dry.
John Wollenberg, at the DNR’s Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area, said pheasant counts there were “way down” and that that size of young pheasants in broods was smaller than normal for August.
Still, Wollenberg is looking for the bright side. He recently spoke to a farmer who was harvesting his soybeans.
“He was harvesting beans in the (Lac qui Parle) wildlife refuge and he said there were a lot of birds in the beans,” Wollenberg said. “I guess that’s a positive.”
In the Marshall area, Krueger said she has seen some younger broods lately as well. A couple of weeks ago, she saw some pheasants that appeared to be just two weeks old.
“They won’t be colored up by opener,” Krueger said.
While Minnesota’s roadside counts were up from last year, the pheasant index remains 39 percent below the 10-year average and 59 percent below the long-term average. That’s primarily due to a loss of grassland and wetland habitat as farmers have converted grasslands to corn or soybean cropland. Crop prices had been relatively high until recently, and farmers were putting more land into production to take advantage of good markets.
Numbers aside, of course, a hunter’s pheasant-hunting fortunes always are driven by gaining permission to hunt private land, being willing to cover a lot of ground and hunting with a well-trained dog.
Minnesota’s soybean and corn harvest also can affect hunter success. As crops come out of the fields, pheasants are pushed into grasslands and wetlands, where they’re more accessible to hunters.
As of this past Monday, 34 percent of the state’s soybeans had been harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some corn had been harvested for silage, but most corn remained in the field.
The state’s Walk-In Access program will provide additional opportunities for hunters this fall. Under that program, farmers are paid by the state to allow hunters access to private lands. The areas are designated by yellow-green signs in the field, and a Walk-In Access atlas is available from the DNR.
This fall, hunters in western and south-central Minnesota can access a total of 22,800 acres through the Walk-In Access program, an increase of 1,700 acres this year.
Maps of all sites are available for viewing at mndnr.gov/walkin. Printed atlases of Walk-In Access sites are being distributed across western and south-central Minnesota to DNR license agents, area wildlife offices and county soil and water conservation district offices. The atlases also will be available by calling the DNR Information Center at (888) 646-6367.
Most Walk-In Access land also is enrolled in conservation programs or has natural cover.
Hunters must have a Walk-In Access Validation ($3) on their hunting license to legally access Walk-In Access land.
Minnesota’s pheasant season opens Saturday and continues through Jan. 3. The daily limit is two roosters through Nov. 30, and three from Dec. 1 to Jan. 3. The possession limit is six roosters through Nov. 30 and nine after Dec. 1.