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Buffalo Ridge roosters: Late season, small ball pheasant hunt proves successful in southwestern Minnesota

IVANHOE, Minn. -- Jeff Davis, who lives across the highway from the land we were about to hunt on, said he noticed the farmer pick the last corn standing around a cattail wetland just a few days earlier.

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Jeff Davis of Ivanhoe, Minn., walks through a field of tall grass on a recent pheasant hunt in Lincoln County, Minn. The farmer who owns the land enrolled it in the federal Conservation Reserve Program which pays farmers not to plant crops on marginal or erodible land. The CRP acres make great habitat for pheasants and other wildlife. John Myers / Forum News Service

IVANHOE, Minn. - Jeff Davis, who lives across the highway from the land we were about to hunt on, said he noticed the farmer pick the last corn standing around a cattail wetland just a few days earlier.

“With that corn just out it should be pretty good down there,’’ said Davis, an avid pheasant hunter.

It turned out to be the understatement of the hunting season.

We let the dogs out of the kennels, loaded our guns, zipped our jackets up to our chins and pulled down our ear flaps. We were bracing against a 20 mph northwest wind that, with the temperature at 11 degrees, was nasty cold and right in our faces. And yet we were still almost as enthusiastic as the dogs.

As the morning played out, however, we were puzzled. Berta, a 9-month-old German wirehaired pointer, and Blue, a 2-year-old chocolate Lab, had rousted a few hens. And we bagged one rooster along a small drainage ditch that meandered through a picked cornfield.

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A fresh couple inches of snow that fell 48 hours earlier told us the pheasants were here recently.  Lots of them. There were hundreds of tracks in the picked cornfield on the edge of wetlands and tall grass. It looked like someone had released a flock of chickens.

“There are tracks everywere in here, too,’’ Davis said from inside a grassy slough where he was walking.

Still, we had only seen a few birds in the first hour of hunting. That finally changed as we started heading back toward the truck, by then a half-mile away, walking up a ravine with a tiny ribbon of cattails in the crook. The cattails were only 6 to 7 feet wide. But this was where all those birds that made the tracks were holding. Tight.

First the dogs rustled up a lone hen. Then another. And another. Then 10 more. Suddenly pheasants were flushing wildly in every direction out of a 50-yard stretch of cattails. It was a South Dakota-in-the-heyday kind of scene for a few moments. Roosters at the far end were flushing just out of range. And while it was an amazing site, rarely seen in Minnesota these days, it was frustrating not to see a rooster close by.

Unitil there was one. Then another.

Wind, corn and pheasants They call this country the Buffalo Ridge, a long hog’s back of land - once native prairie loaded with bison - that swipes down southwestern Minnesota, roughly north to south. It’s an endless horizon of corn and soybean fields, now mostly harvested and laid bare to black dirt, with a few cattail swamps pockmarking the lowlands.

Mostly what you notice now, though, are the wind turbines. For miles and miles, hundreds of wind turbines reach for the almost constant breeze on Minnesota's prairie, generating pollution-free electricity in the windiest place in the state. Except for a few broken ones, I’ve never seen them not spinning.

There are still a few pheasants here. Not like the grand old days of the 1940s and 50s, back when there were miles of uninterrupted grass and oceans of wetlands, cornfields “dirty’’ with weeds and wide ditches and fence rows blooming with cover. Habitat aplenty.

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It’s not even as good now as the 2000s when the federal Conservation Reserve Program was  popular and farmers set aside their least productive and most erodible land and let it grow grass and weeds. That grass became home for a relatively booming pheasant population (deer and other wildlife thrived, too.) As corn got more valuable, the program got less popular. Farmers pulled out of the program en masse, and hundreds of thousands of acres went back to sellable crops. Pheasants paid the price.

Even worse, (at least for pheasants and those who like to chase them) many farmers invested in a labyrinth of underground pipe, called tile, to drain the few remaining low spots on their land, to squeeze more bushels of corn, and cash, off their fields Those were parcels that had mostly avoided the plow since the first settlers arrived. The plastic pipe drained the low spots into nearby ditches and rivers, allowing farmers to plant crops and eliminating thousands more acres of wildlife habitat across the countryside.

Still, there are some birds, thanks in large part to folks like Davis, who serves as president of the Buffalo Ridge chapter of Pheasants Forever, who are working to stem the tide of habitat loss. Part of the reason our hunt was so successful last week is that the land we were walking on, both public access areas and private CRP fields, was often the only quality habitat for miles around. The pheasants were hiding in the last places left to hide. Good for us, not good in the long run for them.

Two guys, two dogs, lots of birds There are two kinds of pheasant hunting. The first is the bawdy, boisterous early season group of hunters that form long lines in cornfields and post shooters at the far end, maybe a dozen or walkers and multiple dogs, with pandemonium erupting with every bird flushed. Home run, go-for-the-fence style rooster hunting. Fun for sure, and often effective.

Then there’s small ball pheasant hunting. Two guys, walking behind the incredible noses of one or two dogs, wandering through giant fields of standing grass, picking around cattail sloughs and letting the dogs go where the freshest scent takes them.  Sometimes the hunters are close together, sometimes they drift, usually not more than a hollar away.

In late season, when the dumb roosters are already dead and every bagged bird is a trophy, when most pheasant hunters are home watching reruns or football, small-ball hunting is often the trick.

It sure was for us last week as we found pockets of birds that held tight for both pointing and flushing dogs. Our aim was true and the dogs’ work was top-notch and it was about as fun as it gets in this endeavor called rooster hunting.

As we continued walking slowly up the ravine that morning the birds just kept flushing, definitely more than 20, maybe more than 30. Who knows? Our eyes were looking past the dull brown hens looking for for those gaudy red-headed roosters with white rings around their necks and long tails.

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Finally, one rooster popped-up close by and, with three shots from me and one from Davis, it finally crumpled to the ground for the brown dog to retrieve. I managed to get one new shell in my gun just in time as the next rooster flushed and it fell, too.

There were other shots we might have taken but didn’t. It was fun just to watch the flushing bird's fast pumping wings switch to a glide as they faded off for safety of distant cattails.

A few minutes later Blue stopped dead with his nose in a clump of grass. He looked up at me, apparently puzzled.

“Get him up!” I yelled as I readied to shoot.

Blue stuck his nose back in, deep under the snow-covered grass, and pulled out a rooster pheasant and brought it to me, it’s head still up, untouched before the dog found it. The bird had made the wrong decision when it came time to hide or flee. Score one unassisted rooster for Blue, and we had reached our four-pheasant limit without firing another shot.

A grand morning of rooster hunting on Buffalo Ridge, Davis and I agreed. Just like the old days. And maybe, if there's enough habitat, more days to come.

 

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Blue, a 2-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, holds a rooster he retrieved on a recent pheasant hunt near Ivanhoe, Minn. John Myers / Forum News Service

Related Topics: HUNTING
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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