An odd year, this one, in that the duck season opened too late and the pheasant season too early.

A week ago Saturday, on Oct. 4, the Minnesota waterfowl season began after a cold snap that saw temperatures dip into the teens in north-central Minnesota. As a result, wood ducks and teal were in short supply. Many of these early migrators had already flown south.

Typically, Minnesota duck and goose hunting begin a few days closer to Oct. 1. But the calendar this year pushed the date back, and the season's first day was the latest possible.

Conversely, Saturday's first day of pheasant hunting was too early. Virtually none of the state's corn has been harvested, giving the birds too many places to hide. Even some beans and sugar beets remain in the fields, though farmers Saturday were fast at work moving these closer to market.

The result:

The same spot that last year yielded our bunch a 10-bird limit by about noon, on Saturday offered up only a single rooster to our bag during the same time allotment.

We moved other birds Saturday morning -- two additional roosters and three hens -- but by noon, too many miles had been walked with too few birds in the air to give us much satisfaction.

The temperature by then was 74 degrees.

Hunting with me were Will Smith of Willmar, his son, Harrison, 12, Denny Lien of Lake Elmo, and my sons, Trevor, 15, and Cole, 13.

Helping us were five dogs: Brit, Denny's black Lab, Rufus, Willy's golden retriever, and Sage and Ben, both black Labs of mine, and Winnie, a springer spaniel I also own.

"This could be tough,'' Will said as we assessed the farmlands surrounding our hunting spot at about 8:30 Saturday morning. Shooting would begin at 9.

On three sides of our plot were standing crops -- corn to the north and east and sugar beets to the west.

Hunting about 40 miles west of us, Bill Marchel of Brainerd and a friend experienced entirely different weather when the season began. Rather than a warm sun and hazy sky, above them were lightning and rain clouds.

"We probably shouldn't have been hunting,'' Bill would say later by phone.

The Department of Natural Resources had reported a 24 percent drop in the state's ringneck population from a year ago, based on August roadside counts. Cool, wet weather during the bird's spring nesting season was to blame.

Last year, 655,000 roosters were killed by Minnesota hunters, the most since 1964. This year's harvest doubtless will be lower, perhaps considerably so. Fewer birds is one reason. The late corn harvest is another.

Still, we were hopeful when we put the dogs on the ground Saturday morning. The country we hunted was certainly thick enough to hold birds. But with so much corn standing nearby, it somehow didn't have the right feel.

We did move a big white-tail buck, a 10-pointer, on our first march. And an owl similarly arose from beneath our feet, perhaps himself -- or herself -- feeding on an unlucky pheasant.

The bird we did kill, appropriately, was credited to most of us, because most of us -- Harrison and I being the exception -- fired a round or two before the rooster cartwheeled to the ground.

At noon we broke for lunch, then decided to wait until late afternoon to hunt again. The temperature by then had cooled, giving the dogs a break. And birds at that hour, we figured, might also begin returning from the corn to roost for the night in thicker cover.

Putting the dogs ahead of us again about an hour before sundown, we hoped to outsmart just a few more ringnecks, supplementing our bag.

The plan -- such as it was -- worked. The temperature had fallen into the 50s, the dogs seem to have a renewed spring to their step, and we saw in that last hour of daylight more birds than we had seen the entire morning. Two of those were roosters that fell to our guns, rescuing the outing a bit, and suggestive of better things to come once the corn and other crops are harvested.

Dennis Anderson •