PINE CITY, MINN.
It could have been a late-season pheasant hunt in any of the usual haunts: Stevens County out west or — to the southwest — Lyon, Pipestone or Jackson counties. These are some of Minnesota’s traditional ringneck hot spots, places where pheasant hunters have hiked for generations, hoping to find roosters that will hold tight enough even now in December to offer a shot.
Instead I was in Pine County, a little over an hour north of the Twin Cities. This was Tuesday, and out ahead of me, tumbling through more than a foot of snow, were two Labradors, Mick and Allie, both turning themselves inside out to find birds.
What made this outing different from more traditional hunts was my knowledge that somewhere in the 80 acres we tromped, pheasants lurked.
Welcome to hunting on one of Minnesota’s 63 commercially licensed shooting preserves, in this case Wings North, under the cheerful management of Chad Hughes, 38.
“We opened in September 1998,’’ Hughes said. “There was a lot of interest at the time among hunters for a club that offered the amenities private clubs offered — a bar and restaurant, for instance — with more reasonable annual membership fees. Or no annual membership requirements at all.’’
The son of Jeff Hughes, longtime manager of Wild Wings of Oneka, the fabled hunt club near Hugo, just north of St. Paul, he grew up in the shooting preserve business.
When Wings North opened, well-known metro shooting preserves such as the Horse and Hunt Club in Prior Lake and Marsh Lake in Victoria were full or nearly full, with waiting lists of people and corporations wanting memberships.
In the years since, many state shooting preserves have had their ups and downs.
In 2001, for example, the DNR licensed 41 commercial shooting preserves. By 2006, that number had grown to 82, only to fall to 70 in 2009.
“Right now there are 63,’’ said Mike Tenney, who oversees preserve licensing for the DNR.
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Minnesota commercial shooting preserves are required by the DNR to release at least 1,000 birds a year, whether pheasants, chukar partridge or quail.
Private shooting preserves, by contrast, are allowed to release no more than 300 birds.
Some commercial clubs purchase adult birds for release, managing their inventory carefully, week by week. Others, like Gold Meadows Hunting Preserve near Richmond, Minn., 18 miles west of St. Cloud, raise pheasants from day-old chicks.
“We’re known for big pheasants,’’ said Joe Doubek, the second-generation operator of Gold Meadows. “Our pheasants begin as eggs laid in Pennsylvania. They’re hatched in Wisconsin. Then we get them as day-old chicks — about 15,000 of them — and raise them ourselves.’’
Though dismissed by some purists as “canned hunts,’’ shooting preserves have long been popular in Minnesota, in large part because the state has thousands of uplanders who want to continue hunting after the state’s fall wild-bird seasons end.
Additionally, clubs that offer released birds can be great training grounds for young dogs, while offering veteran canines opportunities to stay fresh.
Increasingly, some shooting preserves — among them Wings North, Wild Wings, and the Horse and Hunt Club — also offer sporting clays or trap ranges.
And some are used by wildlife groups such as Pheasants Forever to offer mentored, daylong youth hunts, which might include gun and safety instruction, lessons in conservation and opportunities in the field to target a bird or two. Often a meal is also involved.
So in some ways shooting preserves help sustain wild bird hunters and wild bird hunting. And vice versa.
“Shooting preserves need hunters, and to sustain hunters, wild birds and wild-bird hunting are also needed,’’ Chad Hughes said.
By contrast, in Britain and throughout much of Europe, very little wild bird “hunting’’ exists as it’s commonly practiced here.
Instead, “shooting’’ on large, private estates — some as sprawling as 20,000 acres — is the way the sport is undertaken. Sometimes this involves “walk-ups’’ through row crops such as beet fields, often by a half-dozen guns or more. But the preferred method is driven bird shooting, in which men (“beaters’’) with spaniels and similar dogs push through a woods and drive birds over waiting shooters (“guns’’).
Whether large numbers of U.S. hunters could, or would, shift to something similar if wild birds declined significantly here is an open question.
Doubek, of Gold Meadows, worries less about the future of wild birds — they will always be around, he says — than about access to good hunting ground.
“The average guy gets frustrated when he goes to a wildlife management area and sees 20 trucks there,’’ he said. “That’s what helps our business. Everyone today has a fast-paced life, and when hunters come here, they and their dogs can head out knowing they’ll have the ground to themselves and that they’ll see birds.’’
As the economy has improved, phones at the state’s shooting preserves have rung more often, said Bette Bensch, who with her husband, Les, owns Viking Valley Hunt Club near Ashby, Minn.
“During the recession, we didn’t suffer as much as a lot of businesses did because hunters and fishermen will find a way to hunt and fish, no matter what,’’ Bensch said. “Still, we’re definitely seeing an uptick this year.’’
The increase might be due in part to the dramatic falloff of pheasants in South Dakota, where ringnecks were down 64 percent this year.
“We have clients come from all over the country,’’ Bensch said. “They stay for two or three days and get much the same experience they would in South Dakota.’’
Hughes, Doubek and Bensch say their immediate concern is the weather. Some snow is nice for their business, but not deep drifts of it. And they don’t want temperatures so low hunters choose to stay inside.
Such was not the case Tuesday, when Allie, Mick and I were happy enough in the elements, trudging through thick willows and stripped crops, looking for the 10 birds that had been released where we hunted.
A few hours passed. But we put all the pheasants to wing and took home a bag full.
Afterward, in the cozy confines of the comfortable Wings North Lodge, Hughes put a pheasant Alfredo pizza in the oven, and we talked birds and bird hunting — wild and otherwise.
This was Tuesday, Dec. 17, and Allie, Mick and I were happy enough to pass the day the way we did.