Gov. Mark Dayton has no illusions about his chances of bagging a rooster pheasant Saturday at the first-ever Governor's Pheasant Opener near Montevideo in western Minnesota.

"I'll be a little rusty, but we'll see what happens,'' Dayton said Friday. "I don't pretend to be the best shot in the state. But any day out there walking around is a good day. It's a great rite of fall passage in Minnesota.''

Dayton grew up hunting ducks and pheasants but said a pheasant hunt last fall with Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., at an annual Montevideo-area event was his first hunt in years. He said he decided to launch a Governor's Pheasant Opener at Peterson's suggestion.

The pheasant season opens at 9 a.m. Saturday, and Dayton said the purpose of his event is similar to the annual governor's fishing and deer hunting openers: "It highlights some of the wonderful outdoor activities in Minnesota. It will be an annual event for as long as I'm governor.''

Dayton also hopes his hunt in western Minnesota will encourage other hunters to come to the area.

"We've sort of conceded the tourism aspects of pheasant hunting to our neighbors in South Dakota,'' he said. "But the birds don't know state lines. There's no reason why people shouldn't hunt in western Minnesota instead of South Dakota.''

Steve Jones, Montevideo city manager, said his city has held a pheasant or goose hunting event for the past nine years to promote the area, but the governor's opener will be a highlight.

"There's some awfully good hunting here, and there's a lot of public land in the area,'' Jones said.

But the inaugural event comes during a tough time for Minnesota pheasants. The birds may be scarce not only for Dayton and his group but for other hunters this fall. Battered by a brutal winter and a cold, wet spring, the state's ringneck population has dropped to record-low levels -- declining 64 percent from last year. (South Dakota's is down 46 percent.)

Still, DNR officials say there will be pheasants to hunt this fall. And Dayton said he's excited for the opener. He's scheduled to start the day on public land, hunt for a few hours, then return to the Watson Hunting Camp near Lac qui Parle for a noon news conference. Peterson and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr are among the officials expected to hunt, too.

Dayton said he's unsure whether he'll hunt Saturday afternoon before attending a 6 p.m. dinner at the local American Legion Club.

"I'm certainly willing,'' Dayton said. "But I'm 64. We'll play the afternoon by ear.''

Dayton said some of his best memories growing up were of duck and pheasant hunting with his father and brother at Heron Lake near Windom in southwestern Minnesota.

"I remember getting up at 5 a.m. and eating a good farm breakfast and going out in a duck blind,'' Dayton said. "Back then, we used to wrap newspapers around our legs as a wind-block. I had a lot of cold toes.

"Then we'd go pheasant hunting, and then turn on WCCO radio and listen to the Gopher football games. I have great, great memories of those fall weekends.''

He said he enjoyed duck hunting, "but I like pheasant hunting best of all because you're walking and moving and the dogs are out there working. There's always activity, even if you don't get a bird.''

Doug Smith•