PINE CITY, MINN.
It could have been a late-season pheasant hunt in any of the usual haunts: Stevens County out west or — to the southwest — Lyon, Pipestone or Jackson counties. These are some of Minnesota’s traditional ringneck hot spots, places where pheasant hunters have hiked for generations, hoping to find roosters that will hold tight enough even now in December to offer a shot.
Instead I was in Pine County, a little over an hour north of the Twin Cities. This was Tuesday, and out ahead of me, tumbling through more than a foot of snow, were two Labradors, Mick and Allie, both turning themselves inside out to find birds.
What made this outing different from more traditional hunts was my knowledge that somewhere in the 80 acres we tromped, pheasants lurked.
Welcome to hunting on one of Minnesota’s 63 commercially licensed shooting preserves, in this case Wings North, under the cheerful management of Chad Hughes, 38.
“We opened in September 1998,’’ Hughes said. “There was a lot of interest at the time among hunters for a club that offered the amenities private clubs offered — a bar and restaurant, for instance — with more reasonable annual membership fees. Or no annual membership requirements at all.’’
The son of Jeff Hughes, longtime manager of Wild Wings of Oneka, the fabled hunt club near Hugo, just north of St. Paul, he grew up in the shooting preserve business.
When Wings North opened, well-known metro shooting preserves such as the Horse and Hunt Club in Prior Lake and Marsh Lake in Victoria were full or nearly full, with waiting lists of people and corporations wanting memberships.
In the years since, many state shooting preserves have had their ups and downs.
In 2001, for example, the DNR licensed 41 commercial shooting preserves. By 2006, that number had grown to 82, only to fall to 70 in 2009.
“Right now there are 63,’’ said Mike Tenney, who oversees preserve licensing for the DNR.
• • •
Minnesota commercial shooting preserves are required by the DNR to release at least 1,000 birds a year, whether pheasants, chukar partridge or quail.
Private shooting preserves, by contrast, are allowed to release no more than 300 birds.
Some commercial clubs purchase adult birds for release, managing their inventory carefully, week by week. Others, like Gold Meadows Hunting Preserve near Richmond, Minn., 18 miles west of St. Cloud, raise pheasants from day-old chicks.
“We’re known for big pheasants,’’ said Joe Doubek, the second-generation operator of Gold Meadows. “Our pheasants begin as eggs laid in Pennsylvania. They’re hatched in Wisconsin. Then we get them as day-old chicks — about 15,000 of them — and raise them ourselves.’’
Though dismissed by some purists as “canned hunts,’’ shooting preserves have long been popular in Minnesota, in large part because the state has thousands of uplanders who want to continue hunting after the state’s fall wild-bird seasons end.