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Morken: Best Minnesota pheasant season I've seen in years

Seven-year-old Olivia Schafer with some roosters she helped her dad, Josh, get during a hunt in Douglas County earlier this season. Their 13.5-year-old lab, Stella, also had a big hand in the success. (Submitted photo)

It was 8:30 in the morning when I noticed a handful of roosters milling around on the gravel road as I drove to my in-laws house on Nov. 23.

I had stayed out of the deer stand that morning with the intention of getting my dogs out on some birds, so this was a welcome sight. By 9, I was back at that field I had permission to hunt. My yellow-lab, Ole, and his 6-month-old pup, Gus, were running a short distance in front of me as we made our way to the south side of a drainage ditch.

Gus is mostly just along for the ride this year. He spends half the time trying to catch up to his dad and half the time on my heels. Ole doesn't seem to notice him. He's all business at this point in his life, and there was scent to get him excited the second I let him out of the kennel.

Ole had not even gotten into the thin, knee-high grass along that ditch when birds started erupting out of range. Rooster after rooster flew from the field edge where they had been feeding and into a larger grass field that was in the Conservation Reserve Program to the north.

We caught up to our two-bird limit that morning, but it was the sight of those birds flushing wildly that got me so excited. Simply put, it's been a while since I have seen so many take flight together in Minnesota.

Pheasant numbers year to year are largely dependent on the success of the hatch the previous spring due to habitat and weather. Populations can fluctuate in different regions of the state, but everything I saw this past weekend indicates that numbers are definitely up from prior years.

I hunt predominantly in the southwestern portion of the state because this is where I have the most access to. It's an area that has always produced decent bird numbers, but it hasn't been immune to the lower population counts that have hit Minnesota in recent years.

I had been able to find a few birds on most of my hunts, but it was often by coming across single roosters. This past weekend, I flushed more groups of birds—five to 10 at a time.

My dad and a buddy of mine went back to that same CRP field the very next evening. A big group of roosters flushed wildly right when they got into the grass. Ole was hot from the get-go, and they ended up with three quick roosters to finish with their limit after shooting one on a different field in the morning.

If you have not bought a pheasant stamp in recent years, this might be a good fall and winter to get back in the field. I don't see many pheasant hunters anymore. Knock on doors for permission, hunt a public piece. Everything I am seeing myself and hearing from others indicates there are pretty good bird numbers around.

Still trying to fill that deer tag

After taking a little more than week off to focus on my shot mechanics with my bow, I decided to get back in the stand in mid-November.

This can be a hit-and-miss time in Minnesota. Pressure from gun season always has the potential to play a role in how bucks are moving during daylight, but what I saw this season is that it was definitely worthwhile being in the stand around Nov. 15-20.

One guy in our hunting party had a doe lead a big buck right out into a plowed bean field on the morning of Nov. 17. The very next morning, I had one of the most entertaining sits I have ever had while watching a doe and a buck for nearly five hours.

This was a buck I was going to take if given the chance, and they ran right up a ridge at me at about 8 a.m. The buck cut in front of the doe when they were almost 30 yards from me, began to wheeze as if he sensed danger but then bedded down with her right there.

I needed that buck to come about 15 yards to my left to enter a shooting lane. They stayed bedded for about 45 minutes as the buck kept a close watch, giving out a few deep grunts for good measure. She eventually got up and led him down into a creek bottom 100 yards away.

I could still clearly see them as their brown coats stood out against the snow-covered ridge. Twice over the next few hours, the buck chased the doe out of sight before returning to get my hopes up that they might filter through the funnel I was overlooking. It didn't happen.

That means I'm still looking to fill my archery tag in Minnesota as we get close to December. I will start focusing more on food here shortly—mainly areas of natural forage and cut corn fields where large doe groups are targeting.

Do not give up on the idea that there might still be bucks on does. In areas of lopsided doe-to-buck ratios, I have watched bucks chasing until the end of the season on December 31. A buddy of mine missed the biggest buck he has ever seen with his bow almost five years ago when it came through fast on the tail of a yearling in late December.

Now is the time I'm willing to pull out a few more stops. Be a little more aggressive. Be smart about it with the wind, but get tight to bedding between food in the evenings, even if that means setting up on the ground. Scout as slowly and quietly as you can and keep an eye out for scrapes or rubs opening back up.

It's so easy to feel like the season is over after November. But whether it's with archery equipment or a muzzleloader, there is still plenty of opportunity left.

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.

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