Two sessions of heavy snowstorms across our best pheasant belt has covered up available food. Holiday travelers across southern Minnesota reported that they saw pheasants, hens and roosters standing in groups in harvested farm fields. The cattail swamps, which generally provide cover, but not much food, have been choked by the snowfalls. Good winter cover is at a premium and food isn't readily available. The birds have had to scratch for grain and weed seeds, where the snows in less depth.
Some birds seek shelter in farm groves, and sometimes they find a bit of food there too, but these groves can harbor both ground and avian predators. They are also a hunting area for owls. When snows cover their Canadian range, owls will move south in startling numbers. The pheasants are easy prey for owls. There are few unharvested farm fields available across the pheasant belt.
The DNR does limited monitoring of the pheasants in the winter, but seeing numbers of them out in the open indicates that they're in trouble, for food and cover. All of this is happening just when things were looking up for a good hunting season next fall. The DNR reports that over 110,000 pheasant stamps were sold this past fall. A year ago this was better than 125,000. About 10 percent fewer hunters were in the fields this year. The season ended on Jan. 3. Those few hunters who were hunting then reported that snow depths were hip deep. Feeding wild birds isn't generally looked upon as a solution.
Hunting ducks on Cotton Lake was familiar to me. Dr. John Arouni and I often left his dock with bags of decoys, a retriever, and shotguns. An island less than a mile from Cotton's west shore would be our destination. The hunting was usually good. Teal, wood ducks, gadwall, widgeon, and an occasional drake mallard fell to our guns. There was just enough shore cover to make a hide, and we had a camp stove with coffee, fish or burgers to make life enjoyable. We were often out there for a full day of daylight.
It wasn't until we'd been doing this for a few years that we were even thinking of fishing Cotton. We crossed the lake and set to some sunfish or crappie angling on the northeast shore. We did take a lot of sunfish, only occasionally crappies or small walleyes. We branched out and we tried the west shore of the natural, larger island in the center of the lake. It was privately owned until about 1997, when there was a partial purchase with a partial gift to the DNR. Fishing activity on Cotton was on the rise. Anglers from Detroit Lakes and the Fargo area had found the large numbers of sunfish in the shallow lake. Name of the island is Shelly Island. Lake depth on the average is 20 feet, with the maximum depth about 28 or 30 feet. Crappies, when you can find them, will be about ten inches long. The blue gills will be six to eight inches long. When you have a dozen of them, they clean up nicely, using just a kitchen spoon to scale them. The fillets are small when you're done, but they are a real delight to eat, whether caught in summer or winter. Most of the wintertime fishing is for bluegills and other panfish.
Gary Huberty is the fisheries specialist at the Detroit Lakes headquarters of the Minnesota DNR. He has supervised walleye stocking in Cotton for some years, and test netting has indicated that there are some walleyes in these waters.
Fewer ice fishing shanties appear on the ice of Cotton Lake than on Little Detroit, but those who do slide a fish house out there are pretty well satisfied with wintertime angling. Summer sees the big boats from Fargo-Moorhead anglers set afloat from the excellent public water access on the northeast shore. Cotton Lake is about 6 1/2 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes, just right for a try for you ice fishermen.
There are tackle dealers on County Road 29, along with a tavern that offers meals, sandwiches, and refreshments. Most anglers from Detroit Lakes have given Cotton a trial run and haven't been disappointed. Just one of the many fine fishing lakes available to us in this great fishing area of west central Minnesota.
Detroit Lakes native Bob Sauer, now of Bloomington, writes about the annual decoy collector's show to be held at the Ramada Mall of America in Bloomington. This is always a big show, with valuable blocks of cedar that have been shaped to fool a duck, painted in realistic colors. These usually handcrafted decoys bring big money, and enthusiasts are eager to buy old timers, as well as the newly crafted items. The show is open to the public, and exhibits from Feb. 3 to 6. You can buy, sell, or trade antique decoys and sporting goods, carvings or contemporary art. Rent a table if you have such items to sell, or just come and look. The decoy fanciers have parent organizations and qualified judges make appraisals of it as offered for sale.
Most hunters and gun owners are aware of the tax raising Pittman-Robertson law, which collects an 11 percent excise tax on firearms made and sold in America.
On Sept. 2, 1937, President Roosevelt signed the Federal Aid In Wildlife Restoration Act. This was the start of the PR act that has put $5 1/2 billion to use for habitat restoration. About this same time, a group of Illinois hunters organized Ducks Unlimited. It was only rifles and shotguns at first, than broadened to handguns, which were beginning to appear in the hunting fields. Pittman-Robertson funds have been responsible for the purchase of millions of acres of land, provides hunter education for young hunters and law enforcement.
Hunters have eagerly supported this self-induced tax. But you don't pay this tax directly when you buy a gun. The 11 percent has been paid to the Federal government by Ruger, Winchester, Marlin, Savage, Remington, Smith & Wesson and all the rest who make sporting or hunting firearms for sale in the U.S.A. The taxes are reflected in the manufacturers' suggested sale price, so you're not actually aware of the tax. One hundred members of Congress eagerly support the continuance of the PR bill. The tax money collected is given directly to the state's conservation agencies. Ours is our Division of Natural Resources in St. Paul. Wildlife would be in much poorer shape were it not for the annual arrival of Pittman-Robertson money.
Whitetail deer, pronghorn antelope, waterfowl and upland birds, songbirds and non-hunted species have all benefited. How much money is raised? About $122 million every three months.