By: Chuck Smick
The cackling flush of a big rooster pheasant got me fired up! After fumbling with the safety on the borrowed Browning pump shotgun Paul had lent me, I managed to get off two quick shots at the fast-flying bird and missed! DANG!
Thus started our Opening Day hunt for Minnesota ring necks.
I was hunting with a friend, Paul Peterson, who was also the site superintendent on the Solar Projects we were building for an alternative energy company, in Western Minnesota. Paul and I had gotten acquainted on two solar projects in southeastern Minnesota, back in the summer. Paul had invited me to hunt with him, and the unexpected transfer to the northwestern solar sites gave me a great opportunity to hunt pheasants again.
I had planned to fish while I was in Minnesota and got in some great fishing in southeastern Minnesota on the lakes near Mankato, but wasn’t planning on hunting, so I wasn’t prepared or equipped to hunt. We were working 4-10s, so I rushed to Fleet Farm on a Friday and bought a good orange hunting vest, orange cap, and shotgun shells. Shotgun shells were scarce, and I ended up buying 3” magnum #4 Turkey loads (expensive!) and a box of 7-1/2 trap loads, in case we ran into some cottontails. The 3” magnum loads kicked like a mule. Pheasants are tough birds, so the #4 shot in a magnum load would ensure a clean kill if I hit a fast-flying rooster.
I also bought a non-resident small game license at $103.00, and a Pheasant Stamp (required to hunt pheasants in Minnesota) for $7.50. I wore my work boots to hunt in, as they were well broken in from a lot of walking on the jobsites, and I was ready to chase wild ring necks again.
Having the opportunity to hunt wild pheasants again, was a pleasant surprise! I had not hunted wild pheasants since I was a Captain in the U. S. Army, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1982-83. I had never seen so many pheasants in my life as I did in Kansas! I grew up hunting rabbits, pheasants, quail, and squirrels in Southern New Jersey in the 1960s and early ‘70s as a kid…..but NEVER saw the numbers of pheasants I saw in Kansas!
Minnesota has a good number of birds throughout the state, too, with more birds in Western Minnesota near the South Dakota border, where we were hunting. Opening day started on October 10and runs into January. Minnesota also has a large amount of public hunting land, especially in Western Minnesota. I was truly amazed at the amount of public hunting land here in Minnesota! TAKE NOTE: This land also gets hunted hard, especially during the opening weekend, so be prepared!
Paul and I started out hunting an area about five miles from his farm. It was a tough area to hunt. Heavy, tall grass and cattails covered the field and marsh edges. This made walking tough on my 65-year-old paratrooper legs, and with knee issues, it got to be a bit painful, too. But, being a paratrooper, I charged on (slowly), and I managed to get through the area carefully without falling or getting hurt. Paul’s silver (chocolate) lab Zoe did a fantastic job of finding and flushing the ring necks, along with his Australian Shepard, Joe. Zoe is a young dog, but from good hunting stock in South Dakota, where Paul bought her. Joe hunted too and provided moral support to Zoe.
Zoe found and flushed seven pheasants in the first area of approximately 20-30 acres, despite the warm, dry conditions that made scenting the birds difficult. The number of birds she found is a true testament to the dog and her hunting abilities. A good dog who will locate and flush pheasants is essential if you hope to find and kill many birds. A dog who works close is important also, so that pheasants don’t flush wildly out of range of the hunters.
We both missed our shots at the ring necks, but pushed on and thoroughly hunted the area. A few hens and the fast-flying rooster, which we both missed, completed our hunt in the area. We moved to a different area. This area was a waterfowl production area, so we had to switch to non-toxic steel shot to hunt legally in this area. No lead shot shells on our persons, to stay legal. Zoe, Joe, Paul, and I hunted the area thoroughly, and Zoe flushed a couple of hens, but no roosters in that area.
The warm, dry conditions were taking a toll on the dogs and the hunters, so we went back to Paul’s farm to give the dogs and us a break, and visit with Paul’s Dad a bit and talk. Paul fed the dogs and gave them plenty of water to keep them hydrated. We also drank water. Hydration is especially critical in the warmer weather and with heavy exertion while hunting the heavy cover in these public hunting areas. Frequent breaks are important so the dogs don’t get over-heated and totally worn out and quit hunting. We decide to get some lunch and hunt a third area in the afternoon.
Paul and I were both using 12-gauge pump shotguns. His was a Remington 870, and I was using his son’s Browning, a finely engraved and beautiful gun! It was a bit heavier than my Winchester 1200s at home, and it took a bit of time to get used to the safety location and the weight, but I managed to get well acquainted with the gun and use it proficiently.
After lunch, we traveled to a new area and started our hunt. A short distance through the heavy grass, I experienced a horrendous leg cramp! After massaging my leg and stretching, along with an impromptu break, I finally got the muscles to relax in my leg and got rid of the cramps. We continued to hunt ,and I walked in the lighter cover and had no additional issues with leg cramps, thankfully. That might have ended my hunt!
Zoe worked the heavy cover with Paul, and I saw her get “birdy” a couple of times. She flushed three different hens, but we didn’t saw a rooster…..yet.
We worked our way back to the truck and worked an area where we had started initially, but we came back through it in the opposite direction. Pheasants can be very wily and smart, especially the older, experienced roosters! Paul and Zoe worked on the left side of the heavy cover and brush, while I stayed to the right side in the bean field with easier walking conditions.
A big rooster came out and was running along the edge of the cover in the bean row. I tried to force him to flush, and when he headed back into the heavy cover, he came up cackling! A load of #4s from the Winchester 3-inch magnum shells folded him, and I had my first wild rooster pheasant since 1982! What a great way to end our hunt!
Paul, Zoe, and I worked our way back to the truck to clean the bird and head home. After we cleaned the pheasant, I gave the bird and some feathers to Paul. I had no way to keep it in a small motel refrigerator, and no place to cook it either. I love pheasant to eat, but there was no way to accomplish that on this trip, so far from home (in Kentucky).
Paul and I had a great opening day pheasant hunt and had some success. I got some great photos and had a wonderful hunting experience watching Zoe work those wily ring necks.
If you are interested in hunting Minnesota ring necks, check out the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources web site at www.mndnr.gov/huntingfor more information on hunting in Minnesota.
Chuck Smick is a freelance outdoor writer and photographer, construction safety professional and NRA Certified Firearms and Personal Protection instructor, and he’s an avid hunter, fisherman, trapper and shooter, from Paducah, Kentucky. Chuck served in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves as an Infantry Officer, Paratrooper and Intel. Officer, and is a service connected disabled veteran. Chuck can be reached at [email protected].