MARSHALL, MINN. - "Rooster!" shouted Ken Kurtz as a gaudy ringneck exploded from a patch of parched brown grass.
Lawrence Rogge spotted the rooster rocketing his way and fired twice through tree branches, cartwheeling the bird.
"Got it!'' he said.
Kurtz, 45, of Morris, and Rogge, 47, of Ghent, were part of Saturday's second annual Governor's Pheasant Opener at Marshall in southwestern Minnesota. It was a celebration of fall, bird dogs, the outdoors -- and ringnecks. About 70 hunters joined Gov. Mark Dayton to launch the 2012 pheasant season.
But as with every opener, some found more to celebrate than others.
"There were tons of birds out there,'' gushed Dave Guzzi of Burnsville, who hunts from a wheelchair and bagged one rooster. His group of six got 11 birds, one shy of their limit.
"It was pretty slow,'' countered Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who hunted with a group of eight. "We got one bird. I guess we weren't in the right spot. That's hunting.''
The forecast for rain fizzled, and hunters found a tinder-dry landscape with high fire danger and crops harvested weeks earlier than normal. Many said the dryness likely hurt hunter success.
"The dogs couldn't pick up scent,'' said Chad Wiffels, a guide from Marshall.
But the opener tradition -- and good weather, the early harvest and promise of a 68 percent increase in birds from last year, based on the August roadside counts -- brought hunters.
"There's definitely a lot of people out,'' said conservation officer Matt Loftness. He checked numerous public lands and said hunter success was low.
"There might have been one bird for every two hunters, if that,'' he said. "I think it was just too dry.''
Dayton starts tradition
Dayton launched the Governor's Pheasant Opener last year at Montevideo to highlight and encourage Minnesota's rich pheasant heritage. Pheasant hunting brings hunters -- and their dollars -- to rural communities across the southern half of the state.
"It's a great Minnesota tradition,'' Dayton told a crowd of 350 people who attended a community banquet Friday night. "It's ridiculous that we let South Dakota one-up us on this.''
While many hunters invited to the governor's event Saturday hunted private lands, Dayton went afield on a state wildlife management area with Nick Simonson, Lyon County Pheasants Forever chapter president, and Adam Prock, a staffer.
"It's a great piece of land,'' said Simonson, and one recently expanded through Pheasants Forever's help.
But a half-hour into his hunt, Dayton, 65, stumbled in thick cover and wrenched his hip, prompting him to cut his hunt short. "Follow my advice: Don't get old,'' he joked later as he chatted with hunters at the event headquarters -- a large tent near Southwest Minnesota State University.
A community event
At Friday's banquet, Dayton credited Peterson for coming up with the idea of a governor's opener.
"This is what I was hoping would happen,'' said Peterson, referring to the large crowd.
"We have tremendous pheasant hunting in western Minnesota, as good as South Dakota in some areas,'' he said. "We need to let people know they can stay right here.''
Event organizers said they relished drawing statewide attention to their region. Simonson said 13,000 acres of public hunting land are within 25 miles of Marshall.
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr told the crowd that grasslands are critical to pheasants and that the state must "redouble our efforts to put more grass out there.''
And he announced that following Montevideo and Marshall, next year's Governor's Pheasant Opener will be in Madelia.
"Just because Madelia got it, your city doesn't have to begin with the letter 'M' to get this,'' Dayton quipped.
He also drew laughter when he said: "I've learned people in Minnesota care more -- a lot more -- about who the DNR commissioner is than who the governor is. If he's for grass, I'm for grass.''
Doug Smith firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dougsmithstrib