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Outdoors columnist rates 2021 pheasant season far from excellent

The Outdoors
Lead Summary
Scott Rall, outdoors columnist

The 2021 pheasant hunting season has come to a close, and overall it was a year I would consider only fair.
I keep track of the number of birds I harvest each year. In fact, I have one tail feather from each rooster dating back to 1996 when I got my first trained hunting dog.
This year my harvest total was down about 40 percent. There are several reasons for this, but the lack of roosters in Minnesota was one of the primary causes.
I normally hunt in South Dakota and Nebraska or Kansas every year in addition to Minnesota, but those out-of-state trips to public lands, normally in areas I have never hunted before, don’t normally net me much in the way of harvest numbers. I did not make either trip this season.
Minnesota has been in an unusual place the past five hunting seasons, and as a result, there have been far more people hunting on the public lands late in the season in my area than in years past. I have a hypothesis for that. My reasoning for the higher-than-normal hunter numbers in the late season has to do with ice.
Normally large numbers of hunters will be out on opening weekend and about two more weeks after that. At that time, the firearms deer season starts and the bird hunting shotguns get put away. When the firearms season is over (eleven days in my area), a smaller percentage of those same hunters will try their luck with a muzzle loader. That season lasts about two more weeks, and for all practical purposes the deer season and its opportunities end about the first of December.
What do all of those outdoor enthusiasts do then? They go ice fishing in droves. The attraction of fishing on early ice when the bite is generally better than later in the winter is a very big draw. Thousands of pheasant hunters will oil up the guns, store them in the safe, and grab the ice sled and chase their favorite underwater prey.
This season, like the past three to four seasons, has not allowed this normal transition to happen. When the deer season ended, there was not safe ice in the southern part of the state to actually go ice fishing. So, while they waited, all of those ice fisher wannabes continued pheasant hunting instead.
In a normal year you could drive to a public land spot and give your luck a try. This year on many occasions I had to drive spot to spot, sometimes until I checked the fifth or sixth spot in order to find a place to hunt that did not already have other hunters doing the same.
It is super great to have lots of pheasant hunters utilizing public lands. Hunter numbers equate to more licenses sales and more money for wildlife resource management. It was good to see them taking advantage. Most hunters don’t really shoot all that many roosters.
My reduced success was not so much about other hunters harvesting roosters until their populations were low, but more an outcome of hunting pressure. For the record, pheasant populations did not meet the expectations of many.
Roosters are smart. You flush a rooster a few times and if it survives your marksmanship, it learns to go live in a different neighborhood. I hunted a 640-acre spot in southwest Minnesota and saw almost no birds at all. As I was sitting on the tailgate watching the sun go down, I watched 75 birds exit a harvested crop field nearby and fly into a three-acre wetland about ¼ mile away on private land. They stayed there during the day, went out to feed and then went right back to the spot where they were not being bothered, and no, I could not get permission to hunt in that spot.
When the weather is very mild, pheasants don’t need heavy cover to protect them. They can overnight in groves and weedy fence lines and do just fine. When the big winds and snow come, they have no choice but to return to protective cover even though that is where I might be.
The mild winter we are still having is allowing the birds to pretty much command their locations. The season closed on Jan. 2 so the pressure for this year is off.
This was the year of the rooster and not the year of the rooster chasers. I am seeing many birds, and this looks great going into next spring’s nesting season. I will be out there next year and we can start the battle of wits all over again with my favorite winged opponent. The overall score this season was roosters 10,  average hunter 4.
Scott Rall, Worthington, is a habitat conservationist, avid hunting and fishing enthusiast and is president of Nobles County Pheasants Forever. He can be reached at or on Twitter @habitat champion.

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