My dog’s quivering tail screamed that she was hot on the trail of a pheasant.
She tracked the scent through thick prairie grass to a clump of shrubs and trees next to a small pond. Then a rooster exploded from cover with a raucous cackle.
I shouldered my .12-gauge and fired once through a tangle of branches — a desperate, ruffed grouse-type shot. To my surprise, some pellets found their mark and the bird fell.
Bailey, my 8-year-old Lab, proudly toted the ringneck to me.
It was just 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 1, and the bird already was the second I had bagged on a pretty piece of public hunting land in southwestern Minnesota.
Despite bleak forecasts for pheasants in Minnesota and neighboring South Dakota this fall, some pheasant hunters — myself included — found surprisingly decent hunting. But thousands of hunters didn’t show up at all this fall, apparently scared off by the dire forecasts.
Minnesota’s ringneck population was down 26 percent from 2016 and 62 percent off the long-term average. South Dakota was worse: down 45 percent from 2016 and off 65 percent from the 10-year average.
Hunters took note.
In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources has sold about 71,121 pheasant stamps this year, down about 5,800, or about 8 percent, from 2016. And in mid-Decemaber in South Dakota, nonresident small-game license sales were down by more than 15,000, or about 18 percent, to 69,600. (Resident small-game license sales there were down about 6 percent to 86,000.)
Now, as the season ends Monday in Minnesota and next Sunday in South Dakota, the question is: How bad was the 2017 pheasant hunting season?
We won’t really know until state wildlife officials estimate the harvest next year based on hunter surveys. But from my perspective as an avid, longtime ringneck chaser, hunters who skipped the season or didn’t hunt much missed some great experiences, unusually welcoming weather and decent ringneck hunting.
I’m among those who hunt no matter the forecast. I hunted pheasants 21 days in Minnesota and South Dakota this fall. Here are some observations:
• I hunted many public areas in Minnesota where in previous years I flushed or shot birds, and this fall I saw very few there. There’s no doubt bird numbers were down, and significantly. I hunted hard one weekday and bagged the only bird I shot at. Another day, I hunted from morning to sunset, saw very few birds and never got a shot.
• That said, I also shot limits twice in Minnesota, including a three-bird limit on Dec. 1. (Though it took me six hours and 11 miles of walking between bird No. 2 and bird No. 3.)
• South Dakota’s habitat was ravaged by drought, and by a move last summer allowing landowners emergency haying and grazing of grasslands, including some open to public hunting. Those normally good hunting spots were bare this fall.
• Three days, in different areas of South Dakota, my hunting buddies and I were skunked. Zero birds. And it wasn’t because we missed shots. We never got shots. How rare is that for us? In 35 years of hunting there, I can’t recall us ever being skunked one day, let alone three.
• But hold on. That doesn’t mean we didn’t find good hunting. Friends and I also shot three-bird limits in South Dakota on several occasions. And one day in December, I bagged three birds in 35 minutes on public land in eastern South Dakota — an area not known for high bird numbers even in good years. Yet the next day, a friend and I hunted hard in the same area and never got a bird. Go figure.
• Normally in South Dakota, it’s common to spot pheasants along roads, shelter belts and in farmyards, especially in morning and late afternoons. We saw almost none.
• In both states, there were areas where I flushed many hens, meaning with proper weather and habitat, bird numbers there could quickly rebound. But there were other areas where I walked miles without putting up any birds. A population rebound there could be a long-term process.
• There was little room for missed shots this fall, because opportunities were few.
• The weather was remarkable, but it wasn’t helpful for late-season pheasant hunters. Open water or thin ice remained on many sloughs and wetlands late into the season. I hunted Dec. 18 when it was 47 degrees in southwestern Minnesota. There was virtually no snow, meaning birds were still scattered across the landscape and not concentrated in heavy cover as they normally would be.
Now, my observations may not reflect overall reality. Other hunters may have done worse or better than me. There’s a reason wildlife agencies don’t base hunting regulations on anecdotal reports from hunters.
There are simply too many variables, including shooting ability and the ability of hunting dogs.
But because both the bird population and hunter numbers were down this fall, I expect the harvest in Minnesota and South Dakota to be down, too.
My advice: If you enjoy ringneck hunting, if you love seeing a dog work a pheasant or make a great retrieve, if you enjoy getting together with friends, don’t let the harvest numbers or next year’s bird forecast stop you from going afield.
I’m hoping bird numbers hit rock-bottom this year and will rebound in 2018.
Meanwhile, my season is brimming with memories of shots made and missed, wonderful flushes and retrieves, great moments with friends, and exhilarating hikes across breathtaking landscapes.
I can’t wait until next fall.
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoor writer. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.