Doug Smith

Even if the fish aren’t biting, the ducks aren’t flying and the pheasants aren’t flushing, Doug Smith says any day spent outdoors is a good day. A Minnesota native, he’s been covering the outdoors for the Star Tribune since 1995. He considers walleyes fried over a campfire to be gourmet cuisine.

Lake sturgeon to be reintroduced into Big Stone Lake

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: September 17, 2014 - 10:21 AM

Lake sturgeon are being reintroduced into Big Stone Lake, which straddles the Minnesota-South Dakota border.

Some 4,000 lake sturgeon fingerlings will be dumped into the lake Thursday in a joint effort by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Historically, Big Stone Lake had a wild lake sturgeon population, but the last known fish washed up on shore in 1946. The large prehistoric fish is native to the Minnesota River drainage and the Missouri River in South Dakota.

The two state agencies are coordinating a project to release 4,000 tagged lake sturgeon fingerlings into the 12,610 acre lake. The project plan calls for repeated stockings of 4,000 fish per year for up to 20 years.

While only 5 inches long at the time of stocking, lake sturgeon can exceed 100 years in age and 300 pounds in weight. Lake sturgeon feed on a variety of insect larvae, crayfish and mollusks.

The fingerlings are from the Genoa National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources obtained the eggs from fish in the Wisconsin River. Minnesota and South Dakota along with the Citizens for Big Stone Lake partnered on the cost of the fish.

“This is like planting a tree for future generations,” concluded John Lott, chief of aquatic resources in South Dakota. “The fisheries biologists working on this project may never see one of these huge fish that result from this effort, but hopefully future generations of South Dakotans and Minnesotans will be able to enjoy these prehistoric fish. The ultimate goal in this stocking it to restore a historic fishery and a potential angling season could be established in the future. ”

The stocking is taking place at 5 p.m. Thursday at Hartford Beach State Park, about 15 miles north of Milbank, S.D. The public is welcome to watch.

Minnesota pheasant index up slightly, but still way below long-term averages

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: September 8, 2014 - 11:16 AM

Minnesota's pheasant index is up 6 percent from last year, despite a severe winter, a cool spring and heavy rains in June.

This year’s statewide pheasant index was 28.7 birds per 100 miles of roadside driven, the Department of Natural Resources announced Monday.

While the slight increase is welcome to the state's pheasant hunters, the picture isn't rosy. The pheasant index remains 58 percent below the 10-year average and 71 percent below the long-term average. And officials said habitat loss continues to be the primary factor in the long-term decline of the state’s pheasant population.

This year, the highest pheasant counts were in the southwest, south-central and west-central regions, where observers reported 28 to 62 birds per 100 miles driven. Hunters will find good harvest opportunities in these areas, the DNR said.

The DNR said weather and habitat are the two main factors that drive pheasant population trends. Weather causes annual fluctuations in roadside indices. Available grassland habitat for nesting and brood-rearing drives the longer-term pattern.

Like other Midwestern states, the loss of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres is the primary reason there’s been a steady decline in Minnesota’s pheasant harvest since 2006.

“We expect the decline in the rooster harvest to continue because of more anticipated losses in grassland habitat in the next few years as CRP contracts continue to expire and more grassland is converted to cropland,” said Nicole Davros, the DNR research scientist who oversees the August roadside survey.

Pheasant hunters are expected to harvest about 224,000 roosters this fall, which is less than half the number of pheasants taken during the 2005-2008 seasons.

Davros cautioned that direct comparisons between survey results from this year and last year may not accurately reflect population trends.

“The 2014 pheasant roadside counts do show improvement over last year’s numbers but we believe there were more birds in the field last year than what we counted because of the late hatch,” Davros said. “This year’s results suggest the survey did not undercount birds so hunting conditions should be comparable to last fall.”

Here's more from the DNR news release:

Although many regions in Minnesota experienced a tough winter, conditions within the core of the pheasant range were not as severe. This likely led to higher winter survival for hens as evidenced by an 18 percent increase in the hen index from 2013. Higher winter hen survival leads to more pheasant nests in the spring.

Reproductive indices showed increases from 2013 despite having cooler spring temperatures and substantial rainfalls in June. The number of broods observed per 100 miles driven increased 28 percent and the number of broods per 100 hens increased three percent.

The average number of chicks per brood was down 15 percent compared to 2013, which may be related to below normal survival rates of very young birds during heavy rains in June. The median hatch date of nests was June 16, which was five days later than the 10-year average. Warmer temperatures in June may have helped young chicks survive the rains and drier conditions in July were beneficial for re-nesting birds.

Monitoring pheasant population trends is part of the DNR’s annual August roadside wildlife survey, which began in 1955. DNR wildlife managers and conservation officers in the farmland region of Minnesota conduct the survey during the first half of August. This year's survey consisted of 171 routes, each 25 miles long, with 152 routes located in the ring-necked pheasant range.

Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number and species of wildlife they see. The data provide an index of relative abundance and are used to monitor annual changes and long-term population trends of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, mourning doves and other wildlife. 

Also recorded in the survey:

  • The cottontail rabbit index increased 11 percent from 2013 but remained below the 10-year average and long-term averages.
  • The gray partridge index decreased 13 percent, well below its 10-year and long-term average.
  • The mourning dove index decreased five percent, well below its 10-year and long-term average.
  • The white-tailed jackrabbit index was similar to last year but remains at a historic low.
  • The white-tailed deer index was similar to 2013, at 20.8 deer per 100 miles, which is 34 percent above the 10-year average, and 109 percent above the long-term average.

The 2014 August Roadside Survey report and a map of pheasant hunting prospects can be viewed and downloaded from

Minnesota’s 2014 pheasant season runs Saturday, Oct. 11, through Sunday, Jan. 4. The daily bag limit is two roosters through November. It increases to three roosters from Monday, Dec. 1, through Sunday, Jan. 4. The possession limit is six roosters (increasing to nine roosters on Dec. 1). Shooting hours are 9 a.m. to sunset. Additional details are available on the DNR website at

Basswood is latest BWCA lake infested with invasive spiny waterfleas

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: September 4, 2014 - 12:43 PM



Spiny waterflea, an invasive species accidentally imported from Europe and Asia, continues to spread in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Officials Thursday confirmed its presence in Basswood Lake, which straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border near Ely.

The discovery was confirmed in zooplankton samples taken by the University of St. Thomas in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries staff. In addition, DNR fisheries staff found spiny waterflea in the stomach contents of Basswood Lake cisco.

The lake will be added to the list of infested waters, along Crooked Lake, Iron Lake and Bottle Lake, which are downstream. The Basswood and Bottle rivers will also be designated as infested waters due to connectivity and the likelihood of infestation spread.

 Lac La Croix, which also straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border, was designated as infested when spiny waterflea was discovered there in 2008.

“The DNR is coordinating with Canadian officials at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to alert boaters and other recreationists about the risk of spreading the invasive species,” said Rich Rezanka, DNR aquatic biologist.

Spiny waterflea is a small planktonic crustacean that disrupts the food web and competes with small fish as it forages on microscopic animal plankton such as daphnia. Because of its long tail spike, the spiny waterflea is not eaten by small fish.

Their impact on fisheries is uncertain. But when populations are high, anglers can experience frustration with masses of spiny waterfleas clogging fishing and downrigging lines, and other water equipment.

Spiny waterfleas were introduced into the Great Lakes by ballast water discharged from ocean-going ships. They were  discovered in  Lake Superior in 1987.

The DNR reminded anglers, boaters and other recreationists to remove all aquatic plants, zebra mussels, and other prohibited invasive species, drain water from all water equipment including portable bait containers, and drain bilges and livewells by removing the drain plug before leaving the boat landing.

More information about spiny waterfleas, how to inspect boats and other water-related equipment, and a current list of designated infested waters is available on the DNR website at

Minnesota's world record 8-point antlers now on permanent display at DNR

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: September 2, 2014 - 5:30 PM



The world-record rack from an 8-point Minnesota whitetail killed by a poacher in 2009 has attracted many gawkers since the Department of Natural Resources started displaying it at special events around the state.

The antlers are so special, the DNR made seven replicas last year to show off to the public.

But now people can view the actual antlers anytime they want – at DNR headquarters in St. Paul.

"They have been displayed at the State Fair, Game Fair, the Deer Classic and at Turn in Poacher (TIP) and Deer Hunters Association banquets,'' said Rod Smith, DNR assistant enforcement director. "We wanted a place where people could see them any time of the year.''

The DNR had a display case built for the massive antlers in the lobby of its building at 500 Lafayette Road in downtown St. Paul. The lobby, which is near the DNR license center, is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

A guard's desk is nearby. The antlers are estimated to be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

The rack is said to be the largest 8-point typical in the world. The inside of the rack measured 28 3/8 inches, and under Boone and Crockett’s scoring system, its gross score was 190 5/8 and its net was 181 — unheard of for an 8-point North American whitetail.

The DNR unveiled the display on Tuesday.

South Dakota pheasant index increases 76 percent

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: August 26, 2014 - 2:48 PM

Finally, a bit of good news for pheasant hunters: South Dakota's annual pheasant survey shows a 76 percent increase in the ringneck index.

The 2014 statewide pheasants-per-mile index of 2.68 is up from 1.52 in 2013. The index is similar to 2002 when hunters harvested 1.26 million roosters.

 “With favorable weather conditions this past winter and spring, along with the availability of quality nesting habitat across the state, we are going to see an increase in this year’s pheasant population,” stated Jeff Vonk, Game Fish and Parks secretary.

 “Survey results show pheasant numbers rebounded the strongest in central South Dakota; especially in the Pierre, Chamberlain, Mobridge and Winner areas. Results also indicate that pheasant numbers are substantially higher than 2013 throughout much of eastern South Dakota.”

Here's more from a news release:

From late July through mid-August, GFP surveyed 109, 30 mile-routes across the state to estimate pheasant production and calculate the pheasants-per-mile index.

 The survey is not a population estimate, but compares the number of pheasants observed on the routes and establishes trend information. Survey routes are grouped into 13 areas, based on a local city, and the index value of each local city area is then compared to index values of the previous year and the 10-year average.

“Habitat is at the forefront of the conversation right now and is a crucial factor in pheasant numbers,” stated Vonk. “Bird numbers are higher this year due to excellent reproduction in parts of the state where quality habitat conditions still exist, primarily on grasslands including those enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program as well as fields of cereal crops such as winter wheat. We continue to work in cooperation with the Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Workgroup, partner organizations and agencies, and landowners to provide an improved future for habitat in our state.”

Public hunting opportunities are abundant in South Dakota. Over 1 million acres of publicly owned and private land leased through GFP’s Walk-In Area Program and the James River Watershed Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is available in the primary pheasant range of South Dakota. The 2014 public hunting atlas and a web-based interactive map of public lands and private lands leased for public hunting can be found online at

“The results of this survey are highly anticipated by many who have a strong interest in South Dakota’s hunting heritage. The availability of pheasants and pheasant hunting opportunities in our state this fall should serve to enhance that heritage,” concluded Vonk.  

South Dakota’s traditional statewide pheasant hunting season opens on Saturday, Oct. 18, and runs through Jan. 4, 2015.


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