YELLOW MEDICINE COUNTY - For as long as anyone can remember, the landscape in this part of Minnesota has never resembled the state it was in Saturday, when the pheasant season opened.
Where usually in mid-October rows of corn and sometimes soybeans stretch to the South Dakota border, there were only black tilled soil and crop fields harvested clean. Farmers had planted early and harvested earlier still. So we were optimistic, our bunch, thinking that whatever roosters this part of the state harbored would be confined to state wildlife management areas (WMA) and similar conservation lands.
We had headquartered in Willmar on Friday night, and fanned out from there, driving west early Saturday morning. When my friend Willy Smith and I were younger we stayed farther west still, holing up in any dump that would have us, including one that ultimately kicked us out for hosting a dog that had lost a fight with a skunk. The eventual inclusion of kids in our group forced an upgrade of accommodations, and in time we grew accustomed to luxuriating with them in motel hot tubs after long hikes for pheasants.
At 9 a.m., legal shooting time Saturday, I slid a few loads of heavy birdshot into the old Winchester, a good feeling. With me were Denny Lien of Lake Elmo, along with Harrison Smith, 16, Parker Smith, 13, and my son, Cole, 17. Willy was along, too, father to Parker and Harrison. But he hung back at his truck on a gravel road, on the injured reserve list, awaiting a knee replacement in November.
"Shoot straight,'' I told the boys. And we stepped off, each of us hoping to touch the trigger a time or two.
We hadn't hunted this set-aside area before. Our intention had been to walk a nearby WMA, but we found a couple of carloads of hunters already on site when we arrived a little after 8, a bummer because a few quick birds had fallen to us there on the opener last year. But this time we lost out.
Working ahead of Denny, Harrison, Parker, Cole and me were my two black Labs, Duke and Griz. At less than a year old, Griz was on the first hunt of his young life and seemed surprised that parties like this were open to dogs like him. "Get on, move ahead, find a bird,'' I said. In return he threw me the quizzical look seen most often on the faces of bona fide nut jobs, and romped off, on a lark.
A big gaudy bird trailing a long tail had gotten up in front of Harrison, who went to his safety, pressing it to the "off'' position, as he shouldered his scattergun.
One discharge followed another, and the bird was dead flying. Duke was on the job quickly, grabbing a mouthful of the florid pheasant, and returning it to me.
The appeal here is quite addicting, and the more birds a pheasant hunter sees in the air, the more he or she wants. In that respect any satisfaction gained from bringing a rooster to hand is temporary. The flush, shot and retrieve inspire instead of satisfy, and more miles, not fewer, are usually walked, and more money, not less, is usually spent, attempting to replicate the thrill.
Not far away, three other hunters were finding birds of their own on an adjacent WMA. Virgil Pint of Jordan, Marty Bisek of New Prague and Wayne Volk of Minneapolis were cracking off shots now and again, following their two Labradors, Maya and Samson.
"There are more birds around this year than last year,'' Virgil would say later.
Their first walk of the morning had kicked up a dozen or so birds, some hens and others out of range. Returning to their truck, they had one rooster in hand, while two friends, a father and son, who advanced on the wildlife area from an opposite direction, took three more.
Meanwhile, Willy with his peg leg had driven around to the far end of the wildlife area that Denny, the boys and I were hunting, and had established himself there as a sentry, shotgun in hand.
He was thinking we might kick a couple of birds toward him, and he would drop them even in his debilitated state. Were that to happen, doubtless he would be on the mend that much sooner, if only in his mind. But no birds jumped up between him and us, and no shots were fired.
The day would end happily. The dogs played themselves out, and we did, too, finishing with two roosters in the hand.
This was less than half the number we bagged a year ago. But Willy, Denny, the boys and I agreed with other hunters we talked to Saturday who said pheasants seemed more abundant this year than last.
Whether that's true, or only seems to be true, time will tell. It's possible their population appears inflated because of the early corn and soybean harvest, reducing the number of hiding places available to them.
Either way, flush, shot, retrieve. The thrill endures.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @stribdennis