MADELIA, Minn. — Mike Ward's German shorthaired pointer, Jax, rammed back and forth in a field of tall Indian grass before crashing into a fresh scent.
The dog stood still with intensity, nose to the ground, as two of us circled close behind. The grass fluttered, Jax pounced and a rabbit squirted away.
Fun, right? This year's opening day of pheasant hunting 30 miles southwest of Mankato provided an abundance of laughs. With four of us and Jax pacing through the pale grass in bright sunshine, we saw at least nine roosters take flight along with just as many hens. Our harvest of five ringnecks by noon gave us a new appreciation for Madelia's self-proclaimed but partly whimsical nickname of "Pheasant Capital of Minnesota.''
Hunting in the same area last year, we came across more hunters and fewer birds than we did on Saturday. The opportunities here are on a patchwork of public or publicly accessible lands tightly surrounded by a sea of crop fields and scattered and sometime odorous livestock operations.
Our pheasant expectations had been tempered by an official statewide survey that showed a possible population decline this season. But as we waited for shooting hours to open at 9 a.m., our hopes were lifted by the sight of a lone rooster gliding effortlessly into the field we were about to hunt, from across the road.
Soon we were walking and Jax was scampering neatly in front of our line that consisted of Mike, from Woodbury; his friend Nikko Mikacevich of Eagan; and Mike's dad, Scott Ward of Inver Grove Heights, a lifelong friend.
The rabbit incident happened more than an hour into our hunt. Before we could finish chuckling about it, five birds — all roosters — flushed into the air from a nearby sun-drenched knoll. We had accidentally intruded on their warm morning nap. Scott was the first to react. He connected just as he did on his two previous chances while the rest of us were left with longer shots that missed.
The parcel we hunted was about 80 acres in size, with lower landscapes covered in cattails and coarse shrubbery. But the tall grass was plentiful and easy to maneuver. We walked certain swaths more than once, and with results.
Near the end of our morning hunt, we passed through the same field twice. The second time, Jax locked up a scent that came from the weedy base of a rock outcropping. Mike called me closer, in time to shoot squarely at the rooster's hind end as it lifted away. The big bird folded and crashed near the field's edge. But despite finding a clutch of bloody feathers in the short grass, we couldn't locate it after a long search.
Clearly there is pheasant habitat in Minnesota as good or better than what's available around Madelia in the northeast corner or Watonwan County. Before the trip, Dan Madsen, the former city administrator in Madelia, said the city trademarked the nickname partly in jest. There's still a billboard on the edge of town, viewable from Hwy. 60, that proudly displays a long-tailed rooster flying above the motto.
"We knew there's other places in southern Minnesota with more birds … so it's tongue in cheek,'' he said. But Madsen's marketing ploy — which reinvigorated hunting in the area and helped the city attract the Minnesota Governor's Pheasant Hunting Opener in 2013 — wasn't a joke.
Since the 1950s, the state wildlife research center in Madelia has directed the Minnesota August Roadside Survey, a standardized counting of ringnecks, deer, jackrabbits and other species on established driving routes touching 74 farmland counties. Year in and year out, the survey produces a key map of the state's best pheasant hunting prospects.
Now known as the Farmland Wildlife Populations and Research Center, Madelia's DNR outpost once raised pheasants for stocking in the wild. The hatchery produced 100,000 birds a year at its peak before the DNR wisely shifted to natural reproduction of pheasants by investing in habitat. Minnesota purchased the 160-acre Madelia area plot in 1929 and DNR still manages the land around the research center for pheasants, other wildlife and hunting.
As the state's nerve center for ringneck watching, Madelia also has produced a number of star biologists. Those who have championed the birds include Al Berner, who headed operations in 1986 when the staff produced a signature booklet on the natural history of ring-necked pheasants in the state.
More recently, pheasant biologist, hunter and Deutsch Drahthaar dog trainer Kurt Haroldson worked at the Madelia research center for 25 years before donating 80 acres of his land in Watonwan County for the good of wildlife and hunters. He died two months ago, at age 64, from complications of early-onset dementia. He was active in the Izaak Walton League, formerly presided over the Minnesota Chapter of the Wildlife Society and belonged to Pheasants Forever.
"Anyone will tell you he was an amazing guy,'' said Nicole Davros, who currently leads the Madelia research group.
DNR's Brian Nyborg, the area wildlife manager in the four-county area that includes Madelia, said pheasant habitat complexes in his territory are enjoying a mild upswing even though intensive agriculture surrounds every oasis for ringnecks and white-tailed deer.
At least four existing Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in close range to Madelia have been expanded or are undergoing expansions, Nyborg said. There's also been growth in nearby Martin County, where hog farming is king.
Nyborg said the agency is on the lookout for more acquisitions, especially when a parcel adds to an existing WMA.
Madelia native Will Davis, a member of the local sportsmen's club, said the city's embrace of rooster hunting has cooled since Madsen left. The former city administrator was an avid upland bird hunter who also established Madelia's Pheasant Phest.
The annual fall celebration was dropped three years ago, but pheasants in the area are still making a comeback, Davis said. Besides WMA expansions, landowners in the county have stepped up by enrolling prairie parcels in the DNR's Walk-in Access program while others have added grassland habitat under farmland conservation programs.
As a youngster in the early- to mid-80s, Davis said he rarely saw pheasants. Now he finds himself driving with caution in areas where he has seen broods crossing the road.
"A lot of people around here grew up hunting pheasants and it's just getting better,'' Davis said. "You have to put in your miles, but it's fun.''