– “Rooster!”

Rodney Lowe bellowed it for the first time of the 2018 pheasant season, and it was answered by a blast from Arlyn Gehrke’s shotgun. Lowe’s three yellow Labrador retrievers raced into a cattail slough to fetch it. They returned it to their master, bypassing Gehrke without a second thought.

“Why are you bringing me Arlyn’s bird?” Lowe said with a smirk.

It was a festive start to a fresh-aired morning hunt Saturday on Lowe’s parcel of rolling prairie 11 miles west of downtown Luverne. This southwestern-most Minnesota town was a highly organized host of Gov. Mark Dayton’s eighth and final Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener. Back surgery stopped him from attending.

“The governor’s not here, but we’ve got a rooster,” Gehrke said.

The night before, close to 400 people gathered at Grand Prairie Events center just off Main Street for what event Chairman Rick Peterson said was the largest banquet ever held in association with Dayton’s pheasant season openers.

“I told everyone we would do it, and we knocked it out of the park,” Peterson said in after-dinner remarks to loud applause. Sen. Amy Klobuchar attended the dinner and was one of many speakers who wished the governor well.

Dayton, in an open letter to the banquet crowd that was read by Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, thanked the community for its hard work in staging a $100,000 event to celebrate the state’s once-great pheasant tradition. Among the many highlights of the impeccably staged celebration was an appearance at the banquet by the local high school marching band. Saturday’s hunt was followed by a parade of bird dogs.

Dayton has been heralded by outdoors groups for trying to revive Minnesota’s pheasant hunting tradition. Farming’s consumption of wildlife habitat has taken a toll on the birds’ population, and the continued loss of farmland acreage enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is still reducing habitat.

“Bag a rooster for me this weekend,” Dayton wrote. “Even better, teach a young person to hunt and respect Minnesota’s great outdoors.”

Communities across Minnesota’s pheasant range vie for the opportunity to host the annual event, which will be held next year in Austin.

In Luverne’s opening day hunt, 130 men and women divided into 17 groups and harvested a combined 26 birds before noon. The results were likely tempered by loads of standing crops that gave ringnecks cover away from hunters. A full 85 percent of corn planted in Rock County for grain this year was still standing on Saturday morning.

Gehrke, who works for the Rock County Land Management Office, was one of three people responsible for persuading area property owners to open what little grasslands exist in the area to visiting hunters. Rock County is home to some of the most expensive farmland in the state, and only slivers of property are managed for prairie preservation and wildlife habitat.

“I guess I’d rather help raise wildlife,” said Gehrke, whose family has a tradition of participating in CRP contracts.

The DNR has drawn a close parallel between pheasant abundance and volume of CRP acreage. In 2007, CRP acreage crested and Minnesotans harvested more than 665,000 pheasants in one season. Since then, CRP acres and pheasant harvests have steadily declined. Last year’s statewide ringneck harvest hit a low of 171,883 birds, down 14 percent from 2016.

But DNR’s license center said this week that there has been no decline in interest by hunters. As of Thursday, more than 42,000 hunters had purchased small game licenses with pheasant stamps. That was equal to last year’s level just before the opener.

The optimism might be linked to a DNR survey of pheasant sightings in late summer. The overall result was a 19 percent increase in the state’s pheasant index across the board. Only one region, south-central Minnesota, was down from a year ago.

On Lowe’s 80-acre parcel, a total of nearly 30 birds flushed in a 2½-hour hunt. About two dozen of those were hens, and our party of four hunters bagged two roosters. A third rooster escaped on the ground after getting nicked.

Our group of hunters, including Scott Ward of Inver Grove Heights, was flanked by five dogs. Lowe’s three Labs are Sunny, Lucy and Rosie. Gehrke’s German shorthair is Oakley and Jax, a 1-year-old German shorthair, was on loan from Ward’s son, Mike.

The morning arrived with temperatures in the low 30s and a heavy fog. As we drove west to our hunting field, the sun rallied to burn off every bit of haze. With tall, wet grasses swaying in a light breeze, the conditions were optimal as long as you were wearing waterproof boots. Puddles were in every swale.

No birds showed themselves on our first pass. Lowe hoped they were taking cover in adjacent food plots of corn and sorghum. As we exited those crops, a hen and rooster bolted to the right, over a grove of trees. Less than five minutes later, one of the dogs flushed a rooster that moved from left to right. The ringneck nearly made it to the cattails before Gehrke closed on it.

Lowe’s Labradors were outfitted with 5-foot-long, high-tensile wires secured in body harnesses. The wires were tipped with flags that made the dogs’ movements known even when they were swimming in grass.

Lowe had seen a rooster flush out of a nearby food plot when we were taking a water break at our vehicles. We started the second phase of the hunt with a plan to walk in that direction. As soon as we arrived, the dogs disappeared into the grass with their flags wagging. They circled in a tight formation and out flew the rooster. It crossed 35 feet in front of Lowe, and he didn’t miss. His dogs retrieved their second bird of the day.