MARSHALL, MINN. – The institute of higher learning in this town, Southwest Minnesota State University, offers a major in hospitality management, and the belief Saturday afternoon at the conclusion of the Governor’s Pheasant Opener here was that all of the community’s residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree in the field, graduating with honors.
Hosted by its founder, Gov. Mark Dayton, the two-day event, now in its seventh year, is intended to shine a spotlight on a city in the state’s ringneck range while also celebrating the pheasant and the many good times this wildly colored bird has engendered in Minnesota since its arrival in 1916.
This year, Marshall was chosen to host 153 hunters from near and far who, accompanied by some 50 guides, on Saturday morning scattered into the hinterlands surrounding Lyon County’s largest city, population 13,664.
Ostensibly the point was to put roosters to wing. But the gathering was as much an observance of the importance of rural pursuits and of civic engagement, with an occasional tip of an orange cap to Dayton, who is considered a conservation champion among the scattergun and sporting-dog set.
Other officeholders on hand included Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who bagged her first pheasant at the same event last year, as well as U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The latter two, although in the minority as DFLers in Washington, will be major players in development of the next federal Farm Bill, a fact not lost on the 384 sportsmen and sportswomen who attended a banquet Friday evening to kick off the governor’s party.
Putting so many hunters in the field Saturday morning might also help inventory the area’s pheasant population. Or so the thinking went. But so many corn and soybean fields remain unharvested in Minnesota that attempting to gauge the abundance of birds so early in the fall this season would be imprecise, at best.
Hobbled a bit by a bad hip, Dayton at legal shooting time opted to post for a phalanx of hunters and dogs that approached him from a few hundred yards away.
This was on a state wildlife management area east of Marshall, and the governor, a lefthanded shooter, seemed comfortable enough cradling a 12-gauge over-and-under and awaiting a bird in flight. Comfortable, that is, if someone in that position could be so while being watched by a bevy of aides-de-camp, DNR conservation officers, wildlife managers and a handful of reporters.
My five-member squad of nimrods, meanwhile, had been assigned a quarter-section of Conservation Reserve Program land to tromp west of Marshall, in Lincoln County.
Home during white settlement to Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Polish communities, Lincoln County, according to one historical summary, greeted the new arrivals with “cold winters and blizzards, summer hail and drought, insect pests, crop failures, and poverty.’’
“My grandparents farmed right over there,’’ said Denny Lien, a longtime hunting buddy of mine, as we approached our assigned hunting ground. A Marshall native, Denny was on his home turf and was well familiar with the back roads and byways of both Lyon and Lincoln counties.
Also in our group were Stan Holmberg of Marshall and Todd Haubrick of Anoka, both guides assigned by the host committee, along with another friend of mine, Will Smith of Willmar.
As we entered the field, Holmberg and Haubrick loosed yellow Labradors each, while I sent ahead of me two of the same breed, one black and one yellow, Jet and Allie.
“Rooster!’’ is what we wanted to shout, announced among us, one or several.
Instead we walked a good while in tall, thick grass before a plainer bird got up and someone bellowed, “Hen!’
This would happen again and again and again over the course of an hour before a Rooster! declaration was hollered, followed by the muffled reports of scatterguns aimed toward the fast-departing bird by Stan and Denny.
DNR roadside counts in August found that pheasant numbers fell 26 percent statewide from a year ago, which in itself was not a banner season. How accurate the 2017 index proves to be won’t be known until the state’s corn and soybeans are cut, forcing whatever birds Minnesota has into remaining cover, and revealing their true abundance.
Regardless of the population’s exact status, boot leather will be worn out by uplanders hoping to put birds in the bag this season, as happens every year. Which is how it should be. Pheasants are trophies, and the process of bringing one to hand inexorably validates the old-time truism that you get what you work for.
Stan and Denny’s aims were true on the fleeing rooster, the beginning and end of our morning’s harvest. The good news, however, was that in all we saw more than 20 birds, mostly hens with a spattering of roosters.
Which in general describes reports from many of the other 153 hunters afield. Some, such as Minnesota Rep. Joe Hoppe of Chaska, fired two shots and took two roosters. Similarly, the party that included Doug Grann of the group Wildlife Forever returned to Marshall at noon, grinning, with five birds to their credit.
Drones bearing cameras are popular these days, and had there been one high above the Red Baron Arena and Expo in Marshall at noon Saturday, its projected images would have shown a tent set up to receive and clean 28 birds the collective hunters bagged Saturday morning.
This while inside the arena, scores of orange-clad hunters ended the Governor’s Pheasant Opener eating lunch, rejuvenated.
Among these were Marshall’s best and most accommodating, experts in hospitality each.
February’s Super Bowl planners can only hope to be as well organized.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org