MONTEVIDEO, MINN. - The first-ever Minnesota Governor's Pheasant Opener here Saturday proved that even political adversaries can find common ground in pursuit of wily ringnecks.

On a brilliant autumn day, Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and Rep. Kurt Zellers, Republican House Speaker, hunted pheasants together to kick off the season.

"We were in the same party today,'' Zellers joked, referring to his hunting party.

Said Dayton: "He was to my right all day.''

When they quit at noon, Zellers had bragging rights: He bagged one bird; Dayton didn't fire a shot.

"I had great fun,'' the governor said. "We had a perfect morning.''

About 85 hunters participated in the event, hunting at various fields in the area. For the day, they shot 65 birds and reported seeing about 350 hens and roosters.

"There's birds out here,'' said Dennis Larson of Montevideo, an avid hunter and one of the event organizers. "But it's definitely down.''

The purpose was to highlight the state's hunting heritage and promote western Minnesota as a hunting destination. It was patterned after the Governor's Fishing Opener and the Governor's Deer Opener.

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Dayton hunted hard for three hours before noon, then another hour afterward. Though he didn't get a bird, he may have edged Zellers on levity.

"We agreed to locate the Vikings stadium in Montevideo,'' Dayton quipped after emerging from a field.

And later, referring to Zellers' black Lab, who had an overamorous encounter with a female dog, Dayton deadpanned: "He behaves better than some of your caucus.''

The pair, who have become friends, hunted public land with Paul Johannes of Willmar, who brought field-trial-trained springer spaniels, and Dave Trauba, Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager at nearby Lac qui Parle. They hiked grasslands with four dogs -- two springers and two Labs.

Johannes also shot a rooster, giving the party of four two birds for the morning. They also flushed two other roosters.

"Two birds for four people -- we did well,'' Trauba said, especially considering the pheasant population is down dramatically this year.

Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr's group of four bagged five roosters by noon. His son, Hunter, 13, shot his two-bird limit.

"I was surprised to see as many birds as we did,'' Tom Landwehr said.

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Dayton credited the idea for the governor's pheasant hunt to Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., a longtime avid hunter. Peterson's group of four also shot five birds, with Peterson getting one.

"I bet we saw 30 or 40 hens, which surprised me," he said.

There was no real political talk but plenty of hunting talk and good-natured ribbing.

"I tried to trade a bird for a bonding bill,'' Dayton quipped after emerging from a field of chest-high prairie grass.

"No matter what happens, I'm going to say 'good shot' to you," Zellers told Dayton before the hunt began. Zellers grew up near Devil's Lake, N.D., and is a longtime hunter.

Said Dayton: "Hit the bird, not the Speaker -- I've got it.''

When Dayton got to the state wildlife management area he would hunt shortly before 9 a.m., conservation officer Lt. Joel Mikle was there to provide security. Dayton whipped out his hunting license, which Mikle dutifully examined with a smile.

Dayton said he grew up hunting ducks and pheasants, though he hasn't hunted much in recent years. He said he intends to make the Governor's Pheasant Opener an annual event.

"The main thing is we're out here to have a good time," Dayton said.

Based on the smiles, mission accomplished.

Doug Smith •