(Illustrations by Anthony Hary, Special to the Star Tribune)
Like savvy consumers, hunters each fall gauge prospects for success against the time and cost required to put a bird — or venison steak — in hand. Minnesota, for instance, didn’t always have 500,000 deer hunters. Only since the state’s whitetail population exploded did so many blaze-orange-clad residents go afield. Similarly, last year, when pheasant numbers were depressed, a paltry 47,000 ringneck seekers tromped the uplands — compared to some 300,000 in 1958, when florid roosters abounded. Here, then, is the species-by-species calculus that hunters will consider this fall before lacing up their boots.
Whitetail deer Expense/reward
Joining Minnesota’s biggest hunt of the year can be daunting for a newcomer. Last year alone, more than 637,000 men, women and children lived out the tradition in a statewide harvest of nearly 200,000 whitetails.
More than other fall hunts, the deer season is ritualistic, often communal, and not lightly taken up by oneself. The benefits are unique and intangible. Who can measure the value of returning every year to that shack or camp where so many sensations come alive and so many glories are recalled?
It’s priceless personal time with family and friends built around a shared outdoor experience. Hunters are isolated in woods and on field edges for hours on end. They sit in silence and wait for a heart-pounding encounter with a deer. Later, they tell the story.
It’s a pastime that requires considerable time, money and access to land. Big-ticket items include acquisition and preservation of your camp, travel, hunting stands, safety harnesses, ground blinds, firearms, scopes, camouflage, cold-weather solutions, carcass transport solutions, venison processing equipment and/or cash for your favorite butcher.
Fortunately, the gear accrues and individual outlays are reduced by sharing. But hunters’ backpacks themselves are formidable, equipped as many are with nontoxic ammo, deer-calling devices, lures, binoculars, a range finder, headlamp, flashlight, maps and a compass. Also, expect to need hand-warmers, scent killer, rope, string, zip ties, a hand saw, a fully charged cellphone, first aid kit, plastic gloves for field dressing, fire starters, water, snacks, knife and deer tags. A resident archery or firearms license is $34.
There’s not a bird under every tree in Minnesota, but our state provides some of the best ruffed grouse hunting in the country. For a fall hunting experience, the needed investment is rock bottom. Pull on a pair of boots, find a trail, wear an orange cap and vest, and carry a light shotgun. Minnesota offers 528 designated hunting areas in its ruffed grouse range with more than 40 of those designated for ruffed grouse management. Moreover, the state has 600 miles of designated hunter walking trails.
Grouse hunters will tell you all day long that no upland bird is tastier. But the joy of hiking through the crisp autumn woods in solitude or with a hunting partner is all the incentive you need. Even when all the leaves have dropped and the colors have faded, the walks are exhilarating. A good bird dog isn’t required, but the highs are higher when a retriever is at work with you.
Grouse hunting is an extreme test of a hunter’s agility, quickness and aim. But for outdoors lovers who have an urge to try hunting, it’s a perfect gateway for a beginner to join the fall harvest of wild game.
On the flip side, success will vary from year to year based on highs and lows in the collective grouse population. Grouse numbers cycle and the abundance of birds is difficult to predict each fall. Last year in Minnesota, for instance, experts predicted great shooting opportunities based on high spring drumming counts. But as the season unfolded, the opposite came true. This year — as wildlife biologists ponder whether West Nile virus is causing grouse mortality — early reports on the hunt are positive. A resident small game license for grouse is $22.
Hunting ringnecks in Minnesota is like panning prairies for gold. With their psychedelic plumage, each rooster is a trophy. Bagging one requires strategy, labor and luck. As the decades have gone by, the birds have dwindled. Not from over-hunting but from severe loss of habitat.
So, where to go? Under Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota has attempted to revitalize pheasant habitat and hunting. But finding good pieces of land or paying to hunt on private land is today’s biggest challenge for pheasant hunters.
Hundreds of wildlife management areas and waterfowl production areas provide opportunity, including expansive areas at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area, Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area and Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. You can also order a map from the state’s Walk-in Access program for access to designated private lands.
Gear is uncomplicated, but layers of performance-minded clothing and field-tested footwear are a must. Pheasant hunts often are daylong affairs in changing weather. It’s important to plan food provisions and for each hunter to carry water for the dogs.
A good pheasant outing can be solitary, but the broad landscapes where they reside beg for the union of family and friends. In conquest or failure, the festivity is the payoff. It takes mindwork and teamwork to attack every field and, when roosters rise and cackle, hunters whoop it up and make noise right along. Some of the fields are dry. Others are flush. You never know until you step through miles and miles of grass, brush, cattails, tree rows, field edges, ditches and food plots.
For the dinner table, pheasant can be a delicacy. And despite year to year variations in abundance, hunters can be assured that it’s virtually impossible to overharvest roosters. More than three-fourths of each year’s total rooster kills occur during the first half of the season. After that, the remaining ringnecks are harder to find and weather conditions toughen. Today’s pheasant hunters can take pride in a keeping a tradition that requires eco-friendly land management. A resident small game license with a pheasant stamp is $29.50.
Wild turkey Expense/reward
A hunting blind can help (and a decoy or two can’t hurt), but the beauty of fall turkey hunting is its ease and simplicity. Minnesota has done away with lottery license sales for the fall turkey season — the number of permits is unlimited — and no stamps are required. Just pick the area you want to hunt and buy a license over the counter.
Moreover, abundance of eastern wild turkeys in Minnesota is stable or growing depending on the region. Since being reintroduced to Minnesota in the early 1970s, they’ve expanded well past their native range in the southeast.
Fall turkey hunting can be as easy as walking the woods and field edges in the late afternoon to identify where they’ll be spending the night. Get up early, set up near the roost and wait. There’s no blaze orange requirements for clothing. The biggest gear requirement is for concealment — something as minimal as good head-to-toe camouflage. Grab a shotgun and a couple of turkey calls and you’re good to go.
Use a loud box call to stir the birds’ curiosity. If there’s a taker, switch to a mouth call to bring them within range. Even to a novice hunter, the calls and responses can feel like personal conversations. Building the skill through practice is a reward in itself.
Success rates are generally higher in the spring, but fall hunting is more kicked-back. Fewer hunters are afield. It can be enjoyed as a somewhat sedentary pursuit with your back up against the same tree for half a day. But plenty of hunters approach it as a run-and-gun endeavor — guessing about bird movements and shifting to new positions to intercept them.
Meat is a fringe benefit of all hunting pursuits, but in the case of turkeys, the harvest can exceed 10 or 12 pounds of fine, organic table fare. A resident license is $26.
Waterfowl hunting is an investment in both time and money — but how much is up to you. Aside from mandatory licensing requirements, newcomers don’t have to break the bank on gear, apparel and other necessities. In fact, some fellow hunters are more than willing to help you get started.
Like any new hobby, the more personal investment you make, the more rewarding it becomes. If you crave an intimate, thrilling and completely unpredictable experience in nature, waterfowling is for you.
Self-taught waterfowlers are a rare breed. If you’re serious about becoming one, find a mentor or join a waterfowling-related group such as Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited or the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. All of them have Minnesota chapters. An experienced hunter-mentor can simplify and expedite the learning process, assuage fears and help you get outfitted. The conservation groups mentioned above also have hunter-training programs that offer a comprehensive immersion into waterfowling’s rich, diverse heritage. A broad range of skills are taught: wing-shooting, decoy placement, calling, duck identification, safety and more. All culminate with a mentored hunt, after which you’ll learn to handle, clean and cook your birds. If that sounds like a lot, it is. But don’t get lost in the details of the big picture. Start small, pay attention and enjoy the journey. Hunters 16 and older need a federal duck stamp ($25) to hunt migratory waterfowl. A Minnesota state waterfowl stamp ($7.50) also is required.