Unexpected as it was, the news last week that Minnesota’s statewide pheasant count was up 19 percent this year from 2017 should have brightened the faces of ringneck hunters from Farmington to Fergus Falls.
This is especially true given the late spring this year that delayed nesting throughout the state’s pheasant range (the median hatch date was a week later than normal), and considering that heavy and frequent rains inundated the region this summer.
Yet some wingshooters remained glum after results from the most recent Department of Natural Resources August roadside counts were released, arguing that the 19 percent pheasant population jump this year should be considered in context of last year’s 26 percent decline relative to 2016.
Fair enough. But drill down in the current DNR roadside survey report and you’ll find enough good news to get you afield when the Minnesota pheasant season opens Oct. 13 — and keep you afield in November and December.
• The range-wide index of 45.5 pheasants counted per 100 miles driven during the survey is almost exactly the same as the count’s 10-year average.
• Minnesota grassland habitat on private, state and federal lands increased by 82,519 acres statewide since 2017. The DNR said the boost might have helped mitigate the late spring and heavy summer rains that plagued Minnesota pheasants this year.
• The range-wide pheasant brood index (7.3 broods/100 miles) increased 28 percent from 2017 (5.7 broods/100 miles.)
• The hen-to-rooster ratio improved more than 20 percent this year from last.
It’s true Minnesota has a long way to go before the state’s pheasant numbers can be considered bountiful, or even fairly abundant. Too much grassland has been lost in the past 15 years for that to be the case. And nearly 300,000 acres of additional Conservation Reserve Program lands are expected to expire a year from now.
But — again, on the bright side — it’s possible Congress sometime soon will pass a Farm Bill that contains conservation provisions that in coming years will help boost Minnesota pheasant production.
Until that happens, Minnesota ringneck hunters would do well to move beyond “the good old days’’ of pheasant hunting, when opening day was a glorious outing for family and friends, with many birds taken.
Better nowadays to hunt later in fall, when crops have been harvested and birds are more concentrated. It’s also then that many of the summer’s late hatching birds will be more identifiable on the wing.
Last year (when, recall, birds were down 26 percent from 2016) during November and December, many Minnesota uplanders took limits of pheasants — on public land as well as private.
Upshot: Oil your boots and exercise the dogs. Pheasant season — with pheasants — will be here soon enough.