The Rooster Booster: Worthington is ready to host Minnesota Governor's Pheasant Hunting Opener
Worthington's hosting of the Minnesota Governor's Pheasant Hunting Opener on Oct. 15 is anticipated to draw lots of media attention, and hopefully some success in the field for Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.
WORTHINGTON — Dozens of media outlets and hundreds of guests will make their way to Worthington next week for the Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener. This marks the second year Worthington has hosted the event.
In 2014, during Mark Dayton’s time in office, Tim Walz took part in the hunt as U.S. Representative in Congressional District 1 — and he found success among the cornfields and grasslands of Nobles County that year.
Walz is making his return to Worthington just weeks after taking part in the community’s annual King Turkey Day festivities Sept. 17. He will hunt at an undisclosed location with Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and the rest of their hunting party on private lands.
Nobles County Pheasants Forever President Scott Rall assures there will be birds for the governor and his entourage. With any kind of outdoor sport, though, there are many variables in play.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ most recent roadside count of pheasants across the state showed Nobles County in the “poor” category. Rall is somewhat more optimistic. For the past decade, he’s driven the same three 25-mile loops down the county’s blacktop and gravel roads and taken counts for himself.
“I did the route during perfect conditions,” Rall said Monday morning, Oct. 3. “The number of pheasants I see now are much better than the DNR counts would indicate.”
He went a step beyond his windshield count to walk into an area of pheasant habitat.
“I flushed 12 pheasants in 700 yards,” Rall said. “Reports from around the county are very strong.”
Nobles County is home to more than 6,600 acres of state-owned public hunting land — much of it thanks to a Pheasants Forever chapter focused on land acquisition and habitat development since its inception 39 years ago.
Earlier this year, the chapter received the Conservation Excellence Award in recognition of the $14 million it has invested in habitat in Nobles County. The local organization is also a three-time recipient of the Outstanding Chapter award — in 2010, 2014 and 2021.
Those coming to Nobles County to participate in the pheasant opener will get to hunt on any of the public lands acquired by Nobles County Pheasants Forever — or cross the county line into Murray or Jackson counties.
With the exception of the governor’s hunting party, invited guests will be on their own to select a hunting spot — a change from past years when groups were assigned hunting guides.
“Nobles County Pheasants Forever will have information at the Food Truck Flocking (Friday evening) of the public lands in Nobles County,” Rall said. “We’re going to give away maps of Murray, Nobles and Jackson counties, helping people to find a place to go. Those maps are also available to the general public.”
Tours highlight partnerships
While pheasant hunting won’t begin until the season opens on the morning of Oct. 15, the Nobles County Pheasants Forever chapter has planned a selection of tours on Friday, including stops at the Worthington Wells Wildlife Management Area in Bigelow Township, south of Worthington, and the Schwessinger WMA in Bloom Township, north of Worthington.
Both stops will highlight the partners that came together to purchase private lands and make them available for public use.
The Worthington Wells story will be shared by Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain, who is also a member of Nobles County PF. The story highlights the partnership between the local Pheasants Forever chapter, the E.O. Olson Trust, Minnesota DNR, Worthington Public Utilities, Minnesota Build a Wildlife Area and the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District. They, along with private donors, combined to purchase marginal lands along the Ocheyedan River to protect the city of Worthington’s drinking water supply in the Lake Bella wellfield.
“This partnership has achieved both regional and upper Midwest acclaim,” Rall said. “Worthington Public Utilities won an award for groundwater protection as a result of their partnership with us. (And) Hain credits that partnership for having one of the only water supplies that isn’t struggling with the presence of nitrates in the water.”
The success of the partnerships has prompted other Midwest communities to attempt to replicate groundwater protection efforts, Rall said.
Also of note, the Worthington Wells project was dedicated in 2014 with assistance from then-Gov. Mark Dayton as part of that year’s Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener.
The other tour stop is the Schwessinger WMA, which involved partnerships with Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, and funds from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council raised through the state’s Land and Legacy Amendment.
The 645-acre parcel once owned by David B. Jones, was placed by Jones in a trust with the stipulation it be sold for the benefit of conservation. Since it was acquired by the state through the partnerships in 2017, Rall said 18 wetlands have been restored on the parcel and multiple cover seedings were completed to match the topography of the section, located in the upper reaches of the Heron Lake Watershed.
Land dedication planned
Like its last governor’s hunt, Nobles County Pheasants Forever wanted to again dedicate a wildlife management area as part of the two-day event. This time, the program will take place near Rushmore, at the Ransom Ridge WMA.
Rall said this particular WMA is special in that Nobles County Pheasants Forever is partnering with the Worthington FFA Chapter in the Adopt a WMA program developed by the Minnesota DNR.
The dedication begins at 5 p.m. Oct. 14, but FFA members will be there a half-hour before that to hand-seed pollinators at the site. Rall is excited about the connection between conservation and agriculture, and said it’s a partnership they will strive to build on as a chapter.
The dedication will include the Honor Guard and several guest speakers. It is hoped Gov. Walz will attend the event.
The Ransom Ridge WMA consists of 296 acres, acquired three years ago from the Willie Elsing estate.
“It’s a legacy project, meaning that it’s very unique,” Rall said. “It has topography unlike anywhere else in the county.”
The Little Rock Creek runs through the property, and is home to the endangered Topeka Shiner, a small minnow known to inhabit certain waters in this part of the state.
“Extensive work has been done to protect Topeka Shiners on that property and three adjacent properties,” Rall said, adding that Nobles County Pheasants Forever members had volunteered 1,065 hours of work to restore the property as of 2021. Thus far, 40 acres of upland habitat was enhanced, 57 acres are in the process of being restored this year, and another 25 acres is planned for enhancement.
Food and fun
While the Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener has traditionally included a Friday evening banquet, that won’t be the case this year.
Instead, four food trucks have signed on to participate in a Food Truck Flocking, starting at 5 p.m. Oct. 14 at the new downtown pavilion at the intersection of Second Avenue and 10th Street in Worthington. A DJ will provide music, and a beer garden will be open during the evening.
Participating food trucks include Jon-E-1 BBQ, the Long Branch Taco Truck, The Cheese Carriage and Frutissimo.
“We will set up the where to hunt table,” Rall said. “We’re hoping that lots of people come.”
Rall assured that the annual governor’s hunt will return to a full-scale event in 2023 for “whatever community is fortunate to be chosen (as host).”
And, for those who are coming to town but not interested in hunting, rest assured there are plenty of other things to see and do. One of the Friday options is to take a self-guided tour of Worthington’s ethnically diverse downtown business district.
“The Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener produces a heightened awareness of Worthington, its diversity and uniqueness — along with all of the natural resources being developed here,” Rall said, adding that he’s hoping to have about 50 different media outlets in town for the weekend. “The total economic impact for the community is dramatic.”