CLARKFIELD, MINN. – Lying in Yellow Medicine County in southwest Minnesota, this village of 863 residents is surrounded by endless sections of corn and soybeans, sprinkled among which are state wildlife management areas.
Into one of the latter at 9 a.m. Saturday, opening day of the pheasant season, Denny Lien, Willy Smith and I high-stepped, looking for roosters. The temperature was 34 degrees, the sky blue.
Perfect for a morning hike.
I had brought two Labradors, Griz and Rizzo, and as Denny, Willy and I fanned out into the grassy area, the dogs half-frolicked and half-sprinted ahead, uncertain of the occasion. But soon enough the shotguns the three of us toted tipped off the trusty canines that they were working, not playing, and they scoured the ground for scent.
“Watch Griz,’’ I said only minutes later. “He might be on something.’’
The 5-year-old black Lab’s tail had taken on a Roto-Rooter-like action and his step had quickened. Soon, he put one bird to wing, a smallish hen, then another and another and another, each also a diminutive hen.
Then, 10 steps adjacent to these, Willy flushed a bird whose larger size suggested it was a rooster. But its coloring was muted, providing no positive identification until the bird was safely out of range.
“I think that was a young rooster,’’ Willy said. “But I couldn’t be sure.’’
Encouraged by the pheasant sightings, we pushed through the large wildlife area with quickened steps. Occasional shots rang out in the middle distance and these also fueled our positive vibe. Maybe, we figured, the lukewarm ringneck forecast the Department of Natural Resources had issued for the opener underestimated the birds’ abundance.
We would be teased again a half-hour later when another barely plumed cock bird set its wings in our direction. Someone on the other end of the public area apparently had fired at it and missed, and now, as the young rooster angled toward us, we crouched, hoping for easy pickings, driven-bird style.
Juvenile but not dumb, the pheasant spotted Willy, Denny and me in plenty of time to file an alternate flight plan, and diverted safely to a landing area 100 yards distant.
Romping ahead, Griz and Rizzo suggested with their eagerness that they just knew a veritable flock of pheasants lay ahead, waiting to be found.
Downing a large gulp of the same Kool-Aid, in my mind’s eye I played highlight reels from past hunts over and over, seeing in living color chromatic long tails jump into azure skies and hearing them cackle.
If I could envision it, I was certain, I could make it happen. But it wasn’t to be. A couple of hours on that first stroll yielded two more hens but no opportunities to touch a trigger.
The next wildlife management area would be more productive. Or so we hoped. But the recent rains that saturated the southwest part of the state really made a swimming pool out of that parcel, and the most that could be said of our two-hour walk around its soggy center was that no one got hurt.
So it went. Then the dogs started to drag, and we did, too. This was at 3 Saturday afternoon. In total, we had kicked up six hens and three roosters, none of the latter presenting a shot.
Too many crops still in the field. Water everywhere. This time, the pheasants win. We’ll be back.