The rooster pheasant exploded from a thick patch of chin-high cattails and rocketed across the frozen slough — a splash of iridescent red and copper in a drab-brown landscape.
I shouldered my 12-gauge shotgun and snapped off a single shot before the bird disappeared from view. With my Labrador retriever leading the way, we crashed through the cattails and spotted the downed bird on the ice 60 yards away.
The dog skidded across the pond, snapped up the prize, and returned with another late-season ringneck to be savored later at the dinner table. Hunting public lands in southwestern Minnesota, I finished the day with my three-bird bag limit — and never saw another hunter.
Such are the joys of late-season pheasant hunting. Though December can offer some of the best ringneck hunting of the season, remarkably few hunters take advantage of it. The number of pheasant hunters generally falls dramatically from the opener in mid-October, meaning many of the state’s 75,000 pheasant hunters miss out on some fine hunting. The season ends Jan. 3.
Yes, the temperatures are lower, and there certainly are fewer birds. And the roosters that remain often are wary and can flush wildly at the sound of a slammed truck door.
But some die-hard ringneck hunters actually prefer this month to October.
“I love every day of hunting, but late season offers hunting opportunities that early season doesn’t,” said Scott Rall of Worthington, an avid ringneck hunter, Pheasants Forever chapter president and former member of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
Sloughs generally are frozen, which allows hunters access to areas that are inaccessible in October and November.
“A rooster busting out of cattails full of snow is the most impressive flush you can experience,” Rall said.
Bob St. Pierre is a bird-hunting addict and vice president of marketing for Pheasants Forever at its White Bear Lake headquarters.
“There’s lots of places, especially with all the rain we got, that are landlocked until it freezes,” St. Pierre said. “Unless hunters used hip-waders to access those spots earlier, nobody probably has hunted those areas. They can be almost like opening day.”
Be wary of unsafe ice
This week’s heavy, wet snow and mild weather could mean unsafe ice conditions.
“Don’t get yourself in a tough situation, and remember your dog,” St. Pierre said. “If you take a shot and drop a bird on soft ice, you just put your best friend in a precarious situation. That’s something I’m really careful about.”
Fewer hunters brave the snow and cold.
“You can hunt public areas in December and have almost no company,” Rall said. But birds are more wary.
“If you don’t pinch the birds to keep them from running, you’re not going to shoot roosters late-season,” Rall said. “You have to force them to an area where they can’t run any more — the edge of a stream, the edge of a field.
“Or use another hunter as the pinch. Have one hunter walk north and one walk south and meet in the middle.”
Added Rall: “Hunt federal waterfowl production areas. People don’t like to shoot nontoxic shot [required on those lands] so they get less pressure.”
Another advantage to December pheasant hunts is the higher bag limits that have been offered since 2008. The daily bag limit increased Tuesday to three roosters (from two) and the possession limit increases to nine birds (from six). The Legislature made the change hoping to encourage late-season hunters, whose spending provides a boost to small-town businesses in the pheasant range.
Also, late-season roosters are bigger and more mature. This year, opening-day hunters encountered some young roosters not fully plumed. By December, those birds are big and beautiful — true trophies.
Still, late-season hunting isn’t everyone’s favorite.
“I’ll be out there until the end [of the season], but I much prefer 35 to 40 degrees and sunshine with no wind,” St. Pierre said.
“It’s comfortable, you can sit down with your dog and have a sandwich in the field, and it’s beautiful.
“When it’s cold out, it’s fun but in a different way.”
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoors writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.