Pheasant season: the best yet to come?

St. Paul – By most accounts, the pheasant-hunting season in
Minnesota thus far has been a slow one: thank the weather, and
subsequent standing corn.

While still lagging behind schedule, corn harvest in the state’s
farm belt is slowly progressing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture
this week pegged corn harvest at about 66 percent, compared with 43
percent just a week ago. Last year, about 90 percent of the corn
was “out” at this late date, and the five-year average is corn
harvest of 96 percent.

Those hunters hoping for late-season pheasant-hunting success
also have this going for them: for the second year in a row, the
daily bag limit increases to three birds on Dec. 1 (the possession
limit increases to nine roosters, from six).

Bill Penning, the DNR’s farmland wildlife leader in St. Paul,
said while there might be more roosters available during the late
season this year, there likely were fewer to start with; August
roadside surveys indicated a reduction in the pheasant population
of more than 25 percent. Further, the late-season birds will be
“educated.”

“They won’t be naive,” Penning said.

Skim ice (that supports pheasants, but not hunters) could hinder
success, too.

That said, conditions likely will be favorable for December
pheasant chasers.

“There’s potential to have some very good hunting in December,”
Penning said.

Weather will be the determining factor. Penning said there still
were areas of the state where 50 percent of the corn was still
standing as of earlier this week. “Harvest has been kind of
spotty,” he said. Precipitation could slow combines in cornfields
in the pheasant range.

Anecdotal reports have indicated harvesting pheasants has been
more labor-intensive than in recent years, thus far, Penning said.
“Hunters have walked all day for one bird,” he said.

But veteran hunters knew going in that killing roosters would be
no easy task.

“Hunters are realistic,” Penning said. “Where the corn is still
up, the birds are tough to get.”

The December pheasant bag limit increased last year to three
birds, thanks to state legislation. It was the first time in more
than 40 years the daily limit was greater than two roosters. (The
daily bag also will be three for three days in January this year;
the season closes Jan. 3).

That change was the first noteworthy alteration of the
pheasant-hunting season since 2004, when the hunt was extended from
mid-December through the first weekend in January. During the 1960s
and ’70s, the department experimented with a number of different
seasons, as pheasant habitat diminished, and bird numbers
plummeted. In 1967, a nine-day season resulted in the harvest of
just over 140,000 birds. The past few years, the estimated harvest
has been closer to half a million. Pheasant hunter numbers now
range close to 120,000.

State biologists say the increased bag likely won’t affect the
overall population, as just roosters are taken, and overall hunting
success slides near year’s end.

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