YELLOW MEDICINE COUNTY -- Odd how things turn out sometimes, no less so for pheasant hunters who a few months back observed with dread the snow, rain and cold that persisted into early June.
It’s then that most of the state’s hen pheasants hatch their young, and the concern was that nests would be washed out by the unseasonable elements or that chicks that did hatch would die soon thereafter.
At least that’s what our party of six worried about Saturday, the pheasant season’s first day, and we worried also that the vast amounts of corn still standing in state fields — also an outcome of the late spring — would hide birds from our efforts.
Hunting with me were Will Smith of Willmar; his sons Matthew, 19, and Harrison, 17; Denny Lien of Lake Elmo; my son Cole, 18, and me.
Aiding us were the Smiths’ golden retriever, Rufus, and my two Labs, Allie and Mick.
“With this much corn still standing in the fields, hunting’s going to be tough,” Denny said as we drove Friday from the Twin Cities to Granite Falls, where we headquartered.
Figuring the southwest part of the state might give us a fighting chance to bag a bird or two, we had shifted from our traditional opening-day base of operations in Willmar to Granite Falls.
On a Big Deal scale of 1 to 10, this registered about an 8, because in the Willmar, Benson, Morris region (we will cover a lot of miles on the opener, as needed), we know nearly every small-town café still open for business. It’s in these establishments that we meet our kith and kin, as Robert Service said, the down-home types who favor bib overalls over other clothing options, except on Sundays, when Sansabelt pants might get the nod.
So, anyway, 9 a.m. Saturday arrived, and our expectations were low. Nonetheless, we stepped off energetically onto a state wildlife management area that we’ve hunted previously on the opener, and done well. So highly regarded was this choice by our bunch that we arrived a full two hours ahead of the opening bell to ensure dibs on the property.
Did I mention the howling winds? Only brisk earlier in the morning, the breeze had morphed to something much stronger than that by legal shooting time, and beneath heavy gray skies, hanging low, we marched into the teeth of the winds.
There was room for optimism. A detailed look at the state roadside counts issued by the Department of Natural Resources this fall show that, while ringnecks were down statewide by 29 percent, rooster numbers were actually up. It was hens that were significantly down from a year ago, and largely responsible for the reported 29 percent decline.
But hens likely had not died by that percentage. Instead, because of the late spring and resulting late hatch, they likely were reclusive during the August counts, and thus underrepresented in the survey.
“Some of the very young roosters might be hard to identify when they flush,” Will said.
A fair warning. But we, each of us, wanted a chance to do just that, make the distinction, and wanted also if possible a crack at an adult rooster, its wings thundering in an attempted escape.
But alas, our first hike, lasting perhaps 90 minutes, yielded not a single flush, prompting us a short while later to seek a report from four hunters who had scoured a wildlife management area not far away.
“Nothing,” said Dave Doerr of Afton, who hunted with his son, Joel, of Savage, and Sid Pederson of Roseville and Jerry Wohnoutka of Richfield. Also in their group were Heidi, a German shorthaired pointer, and Coco, a chocolate Labrador.
The late morning advanced, and our outing took an unexpected turn when at the invitation of a woman we met serendipitously in Granite Falls we hiked a grove on her farm that she exalted as a pheasant haven.
But the grove held no birds, and by then, in early afternoon, the strong winds carried rain, at times a lot of it, and we felt the day slipping away.
Perhaps we should have cut our losses after we sought shelter from the downpours in a Danube, Minn., café, only to learn the establishment had been shuttered and was for sale.
Should have, but didn’t, and our efforts ended with a hike through another 80 acres …
With no birds flushed.
“Corn’s the problem,” Willy said. “The harvest is late this year. When the corn is out of the fields, hunting will improve.”
So it will.