AVON, Minn. (AP) — The 8-month-old English pointer followed the pheasant scent, sometimes ranging in circles, sometimes diving into cover so thick only the tip of its white tail showed through the prairie plants.
Sometimes the dog veered up the bank toward the pheasant enclosure.
Eventually, dogs that come to Sand Pine Pheasants encounter a bird. That’s one reason hunters with young dogs schedule pre-season time at the preserve Keith Sand carved out of his 300-acre, 75-head dairy farm halfway between St. Joseph and Avon, the St. Cloud Times reported.
“I’ve had times where you’ve had half a day and you haven’t seen anything,” said Dan Willenbring, 56, of Oakdale, a Hy-Vee meat-cutter who first visited Sand Pine to celebrate a friend’s birthday. “Part of it is, too, you want to make sure your dogs keep interest. They’ll go and go and go and go for ya, but that’s their thing, to get on that bird and get it up for you.”
Minnesota’s pheasant opener is Saturday. The season runs through Jan. 3.
Pheasants have been scarce the past two years.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ state pheasant index, released in early September, showed a 33 percent increase over last season, with nearly 41 birds per 100 miles of roadside driven. A long, cold winter two years ago was particularly hard on pheasants.
“This year, we’re in a recovery mode,” said Fred Bengtson, the DNR’s Sauk Rapids-based area wildlife manager. “I think that 33 percent figure is probably fairly close for our area.”
A mild winter this year left pheasants in good shape going into the spring. A wet summer made it difficult to speculate about nesting success — some may have flooded — but Bengtson said summer rains were well-spaced. That also produced lush cover, which could have concealed some birds during the count.
“(The cover) is just really rank and lush this year. Some of the prairie stands are over your head,” Bengtson said.
Based his own observations plus those of Stearns, Sherburne and Wright county landowners, Bengtson said he expected this season’s pheasant hunting to be “a little better” than last year’s.
One positive Bengtson sees: Fewer pheasants has meant fewer hunters competing for space on public lands.
The farm-raised pheasant population at the preserve, meanwhile, has only increased since it opened 13 years ago with 1,200 birds released. Last season, Sand released 15,000 birds — some of them for field hunts, some for European hunts including a disabled veterans outing.
On a recent Friday morning, Joe Neumann followed the English pointer, Joey, as she ranged through the grass. Neumann carried a whistle, a GPS and a transmitter for the electronic collar he used in training.
Eventually, Joey turned up a hen — legal to shoot on the preserve. It was her first retrieve, and Neumann seemed pleased by how the dog handled the bird.
Neumann, 27, a welder from Avon, only got Joey three weeks ago. Today, he was training her to use her nose in the field.
“You’re trying to reward that pause before that flush,” Neumann said.
Roosters cackled. Gunshots sounded occasionally. One group was out on a morning hunt; four more were scheduled for the afternoon. Sand’s six sons help out with the preserve. Throughout the morning, his cellphone rang often with customers scheduling hunts.
The preserve is open Sept. 1 through April 30.
This time of year, many are looking to give young dogs some experience — maybe even introduce them to gunshots.
“They’re going to get a lot of feathers in their nose. A lot of scent,” Sand said of young dogs’ experience at the preserve.
Neumann, who last season guided hunters who shot a total of 1,800 pheasants at Sand Pine, added:
“It’s introduction. Positive. When they’re doing something new like that, they can do no wrong. I don’t really care if you want to chase that bird 300 yards. We’ll work on that.”
Sand Pine keeps dogs’ attention.
“A young dog, it’s very important getting birds under their belt. It builds a foundation for down the road. The average dog’s going to hunt at least 10, 11 years,” Sand said. “That first couple, three years, the more birds you get under them, the better dog they’re going to be in the long term.”
Dan Willenbring, who sometimes helps out at Sand Pine, planned to take his young golden retriever, Kenzi, to the preserve this fall.
“I’ve done stuff in the yard, but just throwing the pheasant wing on a dummy, that’s not the same as getting the fresh scent,” Willenbring said.
On this Friday morning at the preserve, Neumann kept close track of Joey, rewarding or focusing the animal with a series of whistles and “Joe, Joe, Joe.”
An escaped hen rose out of the grass. Joey pursued. Captured.
“Well, she’s never retrieved a bird before. It would have been nice if she would have found it again,” Neumann said later.
Overall, he deemed the outing a success.
“She could have got that bird in her mouth and gallivanted around showboating. She wanted to share it. That’s cool. I didn’t take it away from her. I let her hold it. She dropped it. Then it’s mine.”
Next, Neumann readied his 2-year-old German shorthair, Bam-Bam, for the field. Today’s goal: Reinforce steady to wing and shot commands, meaning the dog sits when a bird gets up or a gun is fired. The dog would gain more bird activity.
“Distractions. It’s preparing yourself as much as possible. There’s variables out in the field. You could find a raccoon,” Neumann said.
Bam-Bam and Sand’s black Lab, Cane, would also set an example for Sand’s 16-week-old chocolate Lab, Rio.
The puppy might pick up on quartering or pointing.
This morning served as more of a mock hunt. No birds were planted, but some scratch birds had been sighted early in the morning. A rooster strode along the gravel driveway on the way in.
Dogs and trainers strode through more prairie in an attempt to find the hen that got away. Eventually they continued along treelines, stopped by a pond (one of nine; there’s a pond and a plastic kiddie pool in each of the fields so dogs can cool off), followed rows of cornstalks and pushed through standing corn edged by sorghum.
Rio bounded along, sometimes sticking close to Sand, sometimes following Bam-Bam, sniffing everything along the way with a snort that sounded like a distant lawnmower firing up.
Sand was talking to a volunteer about the other hunt in progress when Bam-Bam spotted a rooster, went on point and froze until everyone caught up. Sand shot. Cane flushed.
Sand lobbed the pheasant out a few times, letting Rio retrieve it. The bird was nearly as big as the puppy.
“That’s half the hunt, watching the dogs,” Sand said. To him, the rest is equal parts camaraderie and shooting. Even though he runs a pheasant preserve, Sand said he still enjoys the cackle of roosters, the hunt.
His vacation: Pheasant hunting in South Dakota.