When Minnesota pheasant hunters begin the 2012 season on Saturday, they will see one of the most unusual openers in history.
Pushed by an early spring and drought, harvest of virtually all the state's crops likely will be completed, leaving ringnecks more vulnerable to hunters and their dogs. And with the pheasant population up 68 percent from last year, that could mean excellent early-season hunting.
"A lot of times pheasant hunting is really difficult on the opener because roosters get into the corn and stay there all day,'' said Matt Holland of New London, Minn., an avid ringneck hunter and senior field coordinator with Pheasant Forever.
"This year, the harvest is way earlier than usual, which will tip the advantage to hunters.''
As of last week, more than 53 percent of the corn had been harvested, the earliest that has happened in at least 50 years -- and maybe ever.
"We're about three weeks ahead of normal,'' said Doug Hartwig, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service in St. Paul. "It's been pretty amazing.''
His office tracks crop harvests, but records only go back to 1964. None showed a more advanced corn harvest than has occurred this fall.
Bert Enestvedt, 92, has been farming near Sacred Heart, Minn., for most of his life. He's already done with his harvest, and he can't recall an earlier one. "Maybe in the 1930s,'' he said, during the Dust Bowl drought. "It's been an unusual year. We need water, that's for sure.''
Dave Trauba, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager at Lac qui Parle, said farmers were harvesting vast swaths of dry cornfields last week.
"I think by the opener all the crops will be harvested in our area,'' he said. "That should mean good hunting.'' And he's seeing pheasants.
But more birds taken at the outset could mean fewer to hunt in November and December.
"Personally, I like to see a little standing corn on the opener, because it evens out the harvest,'' Trauba said. "Then as corn comes down, it makes a new batch of birds available.''
Still, Kurt Haroldson, DNR regional wildlife manager for southwestern Minnesota, said it won't necessarily be a slam-dunk for hunters.
"The birds aren't going to be that vulnerable,'' he said. "They can certainly use corn stubble fields.''
And weather could be a factor.
"The grass is dry -- it snaps and cracks when you walk through it,'' said Randy Markl, DNR area wildlife manager at Windom. Without moisture, hunting dogs will have difficulty scenting birds, he said. And grasslands could be vulnerable to fires.
Said Trauba: "I will warn hunters about the cattails: You will literally choke on the fluff. They are bone dry.''
Besides drought and harvested fields, hunters also could find some other changes to the landscape. Some grasslands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program were cut for hay this summer. And contracts on nearly 300,000 acres in Minnesota expired Sept. 30, meaning some of those lands already could be plowed by Saturday to prepare for spring planting.
"Your favorite CRP field may be hayed or expired and converted to cropland,'' said Holland.
Hunters also could find up to 1,200 acres of the new Walk-In Access (WIA) program lands hayed or grazed, allowed because of the drought. Under that program, landowners are paid to provide public hunting access. The good news is that 6,000 acres have been added to the program, bringing the total this fall to 15,000 acres.
The parcels are scattered on 158 sites in 21 counties.
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dougsmithstrib