For all the reports leading into the season about pheasant numbers being down in Minnesota this year, I was pretty blown away by what I saw over four days of hunting during Thanksgiving.

Nov. 30 was a miserable morning weather wise. Sleet had not quite turned into snow yet in southern Minnesota and the winds were gusting to 30 miles-per-hour. It’s easy to stay home on a day like this, but I have a year-old black lab that I want to get on birds. These conditions would be a great test for him too.

Gus and I got to a filter strip in CRP along a dredge ditch at about 11:30 that morning, and the second we stepped into the grass a rooster flushed out of range. We were walking right into the east wind, and Gus stopped to watch that bird fly off.

His dad, our yellow lab, Ole, is a fantastic hunter, but there was definitely a period of having to rein him in when he was young. I’ve been blown away by Gus’ excited but controlled approach to working ground this year.

Birds continued to flush wild ahead of us, but Gus kept his calm and quartered back and forth 15 yards in front of me. It was obvious he was onto something, and within a 100 yards from the truck, he locked up on point. I took a couple steps in before a rooster erupted from the snow. My second shot found its mark, and Gus was on him to make the retrieve.

With a bird in the pouch, we got back to work. Gus was “birdie” again almost immediately. He moved into the wind near the edge of the bean stubble and stopped on a dime. His eyes fixed on the grass and tail locked, I inched forward as a rooster broke out from under his nose.

Gus, a 1.5-year-old black lab, sits on the tailgate of the truck after pointing and retrieving two roosters on a hunt the morning of Nov. 30. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Gus, a 1.5-year-old black lab, sits on the tailgate of the truck after pointing and retrieving two roosters on a hunt the morning of Nov. 30. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

There was no need for a second shot this time. Gus again made a perfect retrieve to my hand, and 10 minutes into a windy, wet hunt we had our limit.

This time frame of late November into early December is my favorite time to hunt pheasants. The crops are pretty much all out by now. Birds really haven’t been pressured, and they are much more bunched up after the snow falls.

Roadside count numbers are fun to see in August. They can paint a pretty accurate outlook for the upcoming hunting season, but the best indicator of how good bird numbers are in your area is often best seen during this time of year.

The pheasants can be a bit jumpy later into December. We saw some of that over Thanksgiving, but the birds we shot were holding extremely tight. Willow thickets within grasslands all held birds, but don’t ignore fields or strips of CRP that look snowed in. I saw huge numbers of birds in those grasses every day I hunted last week.

It made for some tough walking, but an absolutely perfect scenario for a young dog like Gus. A friend and I hunted a small field that was planted into CRP this spring, and it was full of birds on Nov. 29. Many of those flushed wild, but we combed the area back and forth looking for birds that had held tight. Gus pointed two roosters I shot and a handful of hens.

With every bird that flushed, you could see things start to click with Gus. By the end of the week, he knew what we were out there for. Instead of watching other dogs or hunters in the group, he was consistently working ground. After being somewhat timid with his retrieve early in the season, he was bringing roosters back to hand with no hesitation by Sunday. There’s nothing better in bird hunting than watching a young dog grow up right before your eyes.

I decided to tough out the elements one last time with him after the snow quit on Dec. 1. It was the first day of the season that the daily limit moved to three birds, and that provided a little longer hunt on the same piece of property I had hunted the day before.

Gus again pointed two roosters within the first few hundred yards, and I was able to drop them both. We walked the length of the grass down and back with nothing more to show for it.

Thirty yards from the truck, Gus got that look to him. Ears perked forward, he trotted to the edge of the ditch as two roosters and a hen took flight. I settled my bead on one of the roosters and dropped him over the open field.

The bird hit the ground running as Gus gave chase and caught up to him. Here. Hold. Give. It was the perfect way to end a great long weekend in the pheasant fields.