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Morken: One final lesson as another season slips away

Five-year old yellow lab, Ole, makes a retrieve of a rooster on a hunt in southwestern Minnesota on Jan. 1. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)1 / 2
Eric Morken (left) and Marv Kremin of Cottonwood with six roosters shot on the final day of the Minnesota pheasant hunting season. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

Each hunting season is filled with lessons. Oftentimes, the lesson is that we don't always know what we think we know.

We read all about how to take the biggest buck each year to the point where we believe the deer on our property should follow the script. Hunt funnels and pinch points during rut, food sources post-rut. For late-season pheasants, focus on thick cover like cattail sloughs.

That's often good advice, but deer and pheasants don't always follow the rules. I was reminded of that on the final pheasant hunt of the 2016 season.

A good friend of mine, Marv Kremin of Cottonwood, and I met up in southwestern Minnesota like we normally do on Jan. 1. We started out hunting that traditional cover of willows and cattails around a couple small lakes. It resulted in one rooster after an hour and a half.

Now we had a decision to make. Head back a half a mile to the truck or walk across the plowed field to the next piece of land we were hunting. The destination was a large thicket of overgrown willows that we were hoping to come at from different directions.

Getting the truck would eventually mean a shorter route to that thicket. Walking would allow us to cover some snowed-in CRP. We had all but ignored this grass cover once the snow came, but it was the last hunt of the season. We decided to cover all our bases.

I set out to a low area with my yellow lab, Ole, where the grass was a little thicker. Marv and his black lab, Maggie, made their way to a fence line.

I was on a side slope of a small hill when a rooster flushed right in front of me. Startled, I gathered myself and folded him on the second shot. Ole made the retrieve and started hunting again. We walked 50 feet when he locked up on point. I got in position, another rooster flushed and fell.

The cover we were working was packed in with hardened snow, but the small tufts of golden grass that showed were holding birds. Marv joined me now to push the area. We flushed a couple more hens before returning to our original plan of hitting the willows.

There was still CRP to pass to reach that point. Fifty yards from the thicket, Ole held his point again. A cackle broke the silence on a calm, cold morning as the rooster took flight. I shouldered my Citori and downed him on the second shot.

A six-bird limit wasn't on our minds when the day began, but it was a real possibility now. That thicket of willows that had held large numbers of birds this winter was empty, so we made our way into a small cattail slough to see if we could pick up the final two.

A couple more hens flushed from the rushes as we neared a gravel road. I was walking toward the ditch to drop the birds off in an attempt to lighten the load in my vest when another rooster flushed. Five down, one to go.

It wasn't another 20 yards before a rooster busted from in front of Marv. I watched as he raised his Benelli and folded our final bird.

What a hunt. It was by luck as much as anything that things turned out so well.

Normally, we would have never hunted the grassland on this property so late in the season. The birds happened to be there, proving again that sometimes the best rule to follow is to simply hunt. Don't take shortcuts. Busting through ice-covered snow isn't ideal walking conditions, but it led to one of the more enjoyable pheasant hunts I've had in years.

The memory of that is a good way to go into the off-season. DNR roadside counts in August said the pheasant population was going to be up this season. In my experiences, I felt like it was. We saw birds almost every time out in areas of good habitat.

That gives me hope for next year. That's what the days after hunting season are all about — hope.

Maybe a third straight warm spring will lead to even better pheasant numbers. Maybe that big buck will find its way past my stand or all the toms I saw in the deer stand this fall will still be around in the spring.

That's the next adventure to look forward to. Turkey hunting is less than four months away.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

(320) 763-1229
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