Minnesota's pheasant hunters had the best season in 43 years last fall, but duck, Canada goose and ruffed grouse hunters had a tougher time, according to 2007 harvest estimates.

Pheasant hunters bagged an estimated 655,000 ringnecks -- the highest since 1964 and the fourth year in the past five that harvest exceeded a half million.

Good habitat, dry spring weather and yet another mild winter all contributed to a high pheasant population, said Kurt Haroldson, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.

"It's a big number,'' Haroldson said. "It's a little higher than I expected.''

Hunters have had five consecutive high harvests, and Haroldson said this fall could be good, too -- though probably not as good as last fall -- because of some cool, wet spring weather.

Surprisingly, the estimated number of pheasant hunters dropped to 118,000, down 1,000 from 2006.

Duck harvest down

Meanwhile, both state and federal duck harvest data indicate hunters shot fewer ducks last fall than in 2006. The DNR survey showed hunters killed 708,000 ducks, down from the 731,000 killed in 2006.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service numbers were worse: They indicated hunters bagged about 564,000 ducks, down 77,000 ducks from 2006. The surveys collect data differently, and the numbers almost always differ.

Duck hunter numbers remained the same in the state survey -- about 87,000. But the feds tallied only about 70,000 active duck hunters, a drop of nearly 4,000 from 2006 and down about 21,000 since 2001.

Minnesota hunters averaged eight ducks apiece last fall in both the state and federal surveys, down a bit from 2006. They harvested 179,000 mallards, about 36,000 fewer than 2006.

Goose, grouse decline

The state's Canada goose harvest dropped from 324,000 in 2006 to 244,000 last fall, under the state survey. The federal numbers showed fewer geese harvested (203,000 last year), but a smaller decline from 2006, when hunters bagged 241,000.

Ruffed grouse harvest also dropped, from 417,000 in 2006 to 294,000 last year. Some hunters had expressed concern about a lack of birds last fall.

Meanwhile, hunters bagged 101,000 doves last fall, the highest total since dove hunting was reinstated in 2004. And woodcock harvest fell from 43,000 in 2006 to 28,000 last fall.

Youth pheasant hunts

The DNR and Pheasants Forever is launching an ambitious first-ever mentored youth pheasant hunt this fall for kids 12 to 17. They're hoping hundreds will participate. Guides from Pheasant Forever chapters in Minnesota will be paired with youth hunters and their non-hunting guardians for the Oct. 25 hunt.

"Obviously the need is huge; hunting numbers are headed in the wrong direction,'' said Mike Kurre, DNR mentoring program coordinator. "Many kids don't have an understanding how to pheasant hunt.''

The hunt is patterned after successful youth wild turkey hunts. Officials might have to hold a lottery to select participants, but Kurre hopes there will be enough volunteer guides for every youth who applies. The kids will hunt only private lands, Kurre said.

Youths must apply by Aug. 15. Applications are available on the DNR website at mndnr.gov/youthhunts or by contacting the DNR information center at 888-646-6367. The lottery will be Sept. 15.

Did you know?

Conservation officer Jeff Halverson of Staples recently investigated three separate wolf depredation complaints. Two involved dogs, one of which was killed, and the third involved a 300-pound calf, also killed. Witnesses observed all three incidents.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com