“There he goes, shoot!” Scott Rall hollered.

Nineteen-year-old Julia Giefer swung her 12-gauge and fired once, dropping the rooster pheasant in a tangle of chest-high prairie grass and head-high horsetail weeds.

“No way!” she said in surprise.

Giefer was among about 50 hunters invited to the fifth annual Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener on Saturday near Mankato. They found summerlike temperatures, a stiff south breeze, thick habitat — and ringnecks.

By noon, when the hunters, guides and other volunteers and officials met for lunch at a state wildlife management area, they had tallied 15 birds in the bag. Not great hunting, perhaps, but many said it was a promising start to the season.

“We saw more birds than I expected,” said Eran Sandquist, Pheasants Forever state coordinator, who guided Giefer and four others in the group: her dad, Brett, Scott Anderson of Lake Crystal, treasurer of Minnesota Pheasants Inc., state Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, and his son, Michael.

Rall, of Worthington, president of the Nobles County Pheasants Forever chapter and former member of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, also guided with his three black Labs. Rall and Sandquist didn’t hunt.

The five hunters, following five hunting dogs, flushed about 20 birds in 175 acres of prime habitat that Pheasants Forever bought recently. It will become a federal waterfowl production area, open to public hunting.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the number of young birds we saw,” Sandquist said later. The group flushed several young birds that, after they flew away, were determined to be young males.

“Another brown rooster,” Sandquist said after bird flew off. “We should come back in a few weeks.”

Young guns

Julia Giefer became a mini-celebrity at the event. She began trapshooting at 15 with the Nicollet High School Trapshooting Team. As a junior, she placed sixth out of 76 girls at the state championship, and as a senior she was the top female gun for her team.

She was invited to speak about trapshooting before a youth trap demonstration at the Nicollet Conservation Club on Friday, and again before 300 people at the governor’s banquet Friday night in Mankato.

She sat at Dayton’s table, and he autographed her hunting cap and took photos with her.

Giefer deer hunts and hasn’t done much pheasant hunting, but she hopes to do more.

Her first-ever rooster couldn’t be found by Rall’s three black Labs in the thick brush.

“That one gave us the slip,” Rall said after a lengthy search.

But Michael Hoppe dropped and recovered an adult rooster — the only bird the five hunters bagged.

But no one was complaining.

“It’s fun,” Julia said. “You get multiple adrenaline rushes.”

Said Joe Hoppe: “It was a great day.”

A celebration

The Governor’s Pheasant Opener has become a celebration of pheasant hunting, embraced by local communities as a way to highlight their outdoor opportunities.

Mankato officials acknowledged that when Minnesota pheasant hunters think of hunting destinations, their city might not come to mind. Including North Mankato, the city claims about 90,000 residents, easily the largest to host a governor’s opener.

But more than 9,000 acres of public lands are located within 20 miles of Mankato, and the famed 10,000-acre Swan Lake is just 12 miles away.

“From my office downtown, any direction I drive, within seven minutes I could be hunting,” said Chris Willaert, a Visit Mankato official.

Dayton honored

The Nicollet Conservation Club presented Dayton with the club’s 2015 Conservationist of the Year Award for the governor’s buffer initiative, which will require buffer strips on waterways around the state. The banquet crowd Friday night gave Dayton a standing ovation.

“Everyone is going to have to pitch in if we’re going to have clean water,” Dayton said. “It’s about the legacy we leave for the next generation.”

Dayton, who has had hip issues, didn’t hunt Saturday. “Old age has caught up with me,” he told reporters. But, he added, “I’m doing my part to make sure pheasants are forever.”

Next year’s opener

Montevideo will host the 2016 Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener, the second time it has done so. It was site of the first event, launched by Dayton in 2011.

 

Doug Smith

doug.smith@startribune.com