Quality hunting isn't only about limits

The conundrum of having more of anything is the likelihood you will be asked to share. Sometimes those you share with are worthy; other times not.

Few people think of this quite so frequently, or intensely, as bird hunters when bird populations are high.

It wasn't always thus.

In the good old days, when, say, pheasants were plentiful, the bounty was fairly easily accessed by all hunters who wanted to go afield.

This was particularly true in the 1950s and early 1960s, when relatively small parcels of farmland were still in the hands of the thousands of people who actually lived on the property.

Also, in those times, mobility among hunters who lived in cities was far less than it is today.

This season, for example, in South Dakota on opening day, a hunter from South Dakota will be almost as likely to see and talk to hunters from New York or Texas or Minnesota, as from his home state.

If you're a South Dakota business owner, this is a good thing.

But if the currency by which you measure riches has less to do with profits than with the prospect of passing a long day trailing a good dog across a lonesome prairie, then you might find yourself poorer for hunting South Dakota on the pheasant opener.

The subject arises because South Dakota announced recently that statewide pheasant counts have risen about 120 percent from a year ago.

That's a fabulous increase — and one that probably already has sent many of the nation's uplanders scurrying for the closet in search of the old Model 12.

So it appears certain that the third Saturday of October in the nation's best pheasant state will be a very busy place indeed.

To a lesser degree, the same will be true in Minnesota, when that state's ringneck season begins.

But do higher pheasant populations necessarily translate into better hunting?

Sometimes yes.

But sometimes no.

In Minnesota, where recently released roadside counts showed pheasant numbers about 62 percent higher this year than last, hunter numbers — as in South Dakota — will surely rise.

History bears the proof:

In 1987, when Minnesota ringneck numbers were comparatively low, the state's pheasant hunters stayed home in droves, with only 80,000 bothering to lace up their boots.

By 1991, the last time Minnesota had an estimated pheasant population comparable to this year's, about 122,000 hunters went afield.

In the years since, that number has again declined. By 2001, 85,000 Minnesota hunters chased pheasants.

The state's ruffed grouse hunters make the point even more dramatically.

In 1989, when ruffed grouse were at or near their cyclic peak in the state, some 163,000 Minnesotans sought them. Last year, with ol' ruff's numbers in a trough, hunters in the woods fell to 101,000.

People who care about such increases and decreases generally fall into three categories:

Business owners who cater to hunters. Budget managers in state wildlife agencies, which sell licenses to hunters. And serious hunters — the ones who hunt each fall regardless of the abundance of quarry.

It is this last bunch that will feel the pinch this fall if news of higher bird populations brings out the sport's fringe element.

This from an e-mail I received from a reader recently:

"I guarantee you that anytime news is this positive about birds, the increase in guys who shouldn't even be issued a license to begin with increases dramatically.

"We end up all having to pound the same ground. But guys who hunt roosters with the attitude that, 'Limits at all costs,' take a lot away from us. In addition, I'm fed up being in close calls in my vehicle because guys have to race around the countryside to get to a spot, and I'm ticked off about getting into somewhat dangerous shooting situations.''

Alternatives exist, of course, to opening the hunting season in the best available habitat — places that invariably will draw the most hunters.

I've always advised hunting places that others shun. Your chance of bagging your limit won't be as good. But the chance that you'll be alone, or alone with your dog, is much better.

And solitude — the opportunity to work things out for yourself — is as important to a good day's hunting as a gun and shells.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.