BELLINGHAM, Minn. — The constant, soft-tinkling bell hanging from the collar of Kota, a well-mannered female German shorthaired pointer, stopped tinkling, which tends to get your attention if you are anywhere nearby.
The silence often means the dog’s nose is just a few feet, or maybe just a few inches, from a pheasant that has made the decision to hold tight rather than run or fly away — the wrong choice between flight or flee.
Kota was on point.
The scene, as I watched and listened from 80 yards away, played out in textbook perfection. The sounds of cackling and wings erupted out of waist-high grass. Jerry Kuklis of Hermantown raised his humpbacked Browning 12 gauge and fired, dropping the bird stone-cold about 40 yards out. Kota fetched the bird and retrieved it back to her owner in a scenario that will play out dozens of times this autumn.
Welcome to Big Jim’s Rooster Flats Hunting Club: Jerry Kuklis, proprietor and master ringneck hunter.
Kuklis, 70, is a pheasant hunting fanatic, and has been for nearly 60 years, since his dad started taking him on trips south and west in the early 1960s. He describes a passion, a life’s love for the open spaces in farm country that pheasants call home, for the big, orange sunsets that inspired Terry Redlin paintings, for the cackle of a rooster as it rises out of a patch of cattails and the iridescent gleam of ringneck feathers when the sun catches them just right.
For a guy who was born and raised and has always lived within a few miles of Duluth, in the north woods, Kuklis is obsessed with the prairie.
“I shot my first pheasant when I was 12 years old with a single-shot shotgun. My dad worked for the railroad and he would go with guys from work. When I got old enough to go with, that was such a great time,’’ Kuklis said. “That same feeling I got then with that first pheasant, I still get every time I shoot a rooster today. I love doing it. I love everything about it. I’ll bet I’ve shot 1,000s of pheasants in my lifetime but that feeling never goes away.”
His first trip to South Dakota, often a pheasant hunting mecca, was in 1970, with his whole family. He saw more birds in a day than he had seen in years of Minnesota hunting.
“I don’t know how many shells I had in my pockets but I shot so much I ran out a quarter-mile from the truck,’’ he said, noting there was some excited missing going on. “I’d never seen so many birds.”
Do the math, and Kuklis has indeed shot a ton of ringnecks. Each year he makes a half-dozen trips west, including several to South Dakota, where the birds tend to be more numerous than western Minnesota. He probably puts close to 5,000 miles on his truck each year chasing pheasants from his home just outside Hermantown. His Chevy Avalanche pickup seems to know the route by memory — aim southwest on Minnesota Highway 23 and then west into pheasant country.
In 2018 Kuklis did something he’d always dreamed about. He purchased a chunk of the prairie to call his own in Bellingham, just across the border from Milbank, S.D. It’s about as far west as you can get in Minnesota, and it’s as good of pheasant country as Minnesota can claim in most years.
Kuklis named the 240 acres here Big Jim’s Rooster Flats in honor of his father, Jim, a dad who always took his kids along, who passed on his passion for bird hunting.
Kuklis owns the land, but it came with a state of Minnesota conservation easement on it, purchased with Reinvest In Minnesota dollars, that legally prohibits the acres from ever being plowed or farmed. It’s permanent wildlife habitat now, a mix of tall grasses, cattails, phragmites and willows. Exactly the way Kuklis wants it.
“We’d have a lot more birds in Minnesota if we just had more habitat like this,’’ he noted, lamenting the nearby black dirt fields that had once been grass or swamp.
There are still some old, slowly deteriorating farm buildings on a hilltop overlooking Rooster Flats, with a shelterbelt of old trees surrounding them, but the farmhouse is long gone. There are deer here, and coyotes, and hawks and other critters. But most importantly for us, there are pheasants that come into the thick grass and brush to roost at night and to hide at certain times each day between feeding binges in nearby fields.
“I think it was a good deal at $800 an acre ... I did it for my grandchildren, so they can have a place to hunt if they want to hunt,’’ said Kuklis, who allowed two of his son’s buddies to buy in as minority partners.
Kuklis dream now is to build some sort of hunting cabin here.
“I would be out here even more if that happens.’’ he said. “If that’s possible.”
A quick trip farther west
After a half-day hunting on his own land, where we each had taken a rooster and missed several more, Kuklis wasn’t satisfied with the number of birds around. He said last year was better than this season, probably because the crops neighboring farmers planted were mostly soybeans this year. Pheasants will eat beans but favor corn, and they are most often found this time of year close to picked corn fields where they can find enough kernels to eat.
So Kuklis made the executive decision for the two of us to head even farther west, to Hazel, S.D., (population 91) where he knows a few farmers with lots of land, thousands of acres, that usually hold pheasants.
They did. And we spent the next day alternately shooting, missing, cussing (me mostly), laughing and hitting a few birds. It was a joy to watch the dogs work and see that many pheasants, even if we weren’t stacking them up. It was a classic November day in South Dakota; sunny but breezy and cool until all the walking warmed you up. Huge flocks of migrating snow and blue geese were feeding in fields nearby, with endless skeins in the air looking for places to land.
“Isn’t this something? I love being out here,’’ Kuklis said. He had stopped his pickup to watch a flock of thousands of geese land in a field not 100 yards away.
Kuklis has hunted pheasants literally all over western Minnesota and North and South Dakota. Name any town with any kind of pheasant reputation and he’s hunted there. He most likely will have a funny story about something that happened there, too.
Kuklis has made friends with landowners across pheasant country, and now simply has to pick up his phone and make a call to get free access to thousands of acres of prime habitat. He started doing it by simply knocking on doors. He eventually got so good at it that more farmers said yes than no. Now, he has made so many farmer friends over the years that he can pick and choose what part of the states he wants to hunt.
“I used to hunt on public land when I first came out here. But even back then, you’d look at the book (public land hunting atlas) and spend too much time every day driving between places that looked good on the map but didn’t hold birds when you got to see them in person, or where there were already four trucks parked when you got there,’’ Kuklis said. “So I started knocking on doors.”
Back to Rooster Flats
After spending Saturday hunting in South Dakota we headed back east to spend a few hours on Kuklis’ Minnesota land again before heading home. The birds were there, but spooky, and were flushing well out in front of the dogs. I missed an easy shot just 20 minutes into the first hunt of the day. Kuklis missed a long shot through a dense stand of trees.
Eventually, though, the ballet between dog, bird and hunter worked out as it’s supposed to and the brown Labrador retriever flushed a rooster just 30 feet away from me. Somehow, miraculously, it folded and fell, and the dog brought it back to me, tail wagging.
There were a couple more misses that Sunday morning. And Kuklis misjudged the depth of a drainage ditch, fell through thin ice and into the standing water over his boots. But he kept hunting, a bit wet and cold, but too happy, or too stubborn, to stop.
Thanks to good dog work we had built a decent pile of weekend roosters in the bed of the pickup by then. Not limits, thanks to a lot of missing. But not bad, either. Kuklis aimed his truck north and east and settled in for the long, five-hour drive home. But he’s so used to the drive between the north woods and the prairie that it doesn’t bother him at all. He was already talking about his next hunt.
“I’ve got a couple trips left this season, at least,’’ Kuklis said. “South Dakota this year extended their season until the end of January. I’ll be out there at least once in January, weather permitting.”
Kuklis was driving somewhere in Lac qui Parle County when we topped a knoll that provided a panoramic view of the landscape — an endless sea of brown picked fields and black plowed fields with just enough golden cattail sloughs for a few pheasants to call home.
“I can’t get enough of this,’’ Kuklis said, smiling.
Minnesota's pheasant season runs through Jan. 3; South Dakota's through Jan. 31.
Jerry Kuklis was about to start the morning’s pheasant hunt when he pulled something out of his dog trailer. It looked like a cross between a scarecrow and a Kindergarten art project.
“This is Bert. There’s Ernie, too,’’ Kuklis said.
Known for his wry sense of humor and a penchant for practical jokes, I at first thought it was a Jerry Kuklis special. But he was dead serious. He placed the human-like decoys where he expected our first hunt of the day to end, a point where he hoped any pheasants running fast in front of our dogs would freeze when they saw Bert and Ernie and allow us to catch up, flushing only when we were within shooting range rather than running on into the next county.
Most pheasant hunters have heard of “posters,” or blockers, members of larger hunting groups that are deployed at the ends of fields to shoot any birds that fly out ahead of the main group “driving’’ or walking through the field. But Bert and Ernie don’t have guns. They do have blaze orange jackets and hats and a stupid smile painted on that makes them seem, well, ridiculous.
“That's what everyone says until they see how well it works,’’ Kuklis said.
Kuklis got the idea when he saw, from afar, pheasants keenly avoiding live field blockers clad in blaze orange coats. The birds clearly saw the hunters at the end of the field and changed their escape route accordingly. Kuklis has been using variations of Bert and Ernie for 20 years and swears by their success. He likes to hunt pheasants in small groups of 2-3 hunters and a couple dogs — not the big groups often seen in some fields — and the fake blockers have worked more times than not, he said.
“If it gets the birds to hold a few extra seconds rather than run out the end of the field, it’s a success,’’ Kuklis said.
Jerry Kuklis’ tips on getting permission to hunt
Jerry Kuklis is the kind of salesman who could sell ice cubes to Eskimos, as my dad used to say. Kuklis is a master of the art of conversation aimed at getting what you want. Whether it’s selling bags or boxes — he owns his own packaging sales company — or getting permission to hunt on a farmer’s land, Kuklis knows how to get to “yes.”
“Most people hate making the cold-call’’ sales call, Kuklis said. “I love it.”
Kuklis tells story after story about his persistence, patience and perseverance when it comes to sales. (Actually, bring up just about any subject and he says ‘I have a story about that.’) That includes a story from a few years back when Kuklis was driving down a rural Dakota road and saw hundreds of pheasants in one spot. But the farm had signs posted every 100 yards: No hunting! No Trespassing! Stay out! That means you!
So, of course, Kuklis drove up the driveway and knocked on the door.
“The first thing he says is ‘didn’t you see the signs’?” Kuklis said with a laugh. “I said 'what signs?’ And he just scowls at me and says ‘the No Hunting signs’… So I said “well I don't think those pertain to me'.”
The farmer was speechless. Eventually his scowl turned to a grin. A few minutes later he was showing Kuklis where to hunt. “I’m probably the first person and the only person he ever let hunt there,’’ Kuklis said with a sense of pride after a seemingly impossible victory.
Kuklis is a big guy, 6-foot-4 and upwards of 230 pounds, with a booming voice and commanding presence that gets your attention fast. But he’s honed a soft-touch pitch. honed from 50 years in sales, whether it’s selling products to customers or selling himself to a farmer with prime pheasant habitat. He's made a pretty good living matching companies that need boxes and bags with the factories that make boxes and bags. He’s still doing it at age 70, still making sales, still a master conversationalist — more because he loves the deal, the connection with people, than he needs the money.
Here are some tips gleaned from Kuklis after riding shotgun in his truck for many hours last weekend:
Don't give up. “Every no is one step closer to yes,’’ Kuklis said of his sales motto.
Be subtle. Don’t show up with three truckloads of hunters. Two guys in one vehicle are far more likely to get permission than a big group. A father and son or daughter rarely get turned down, Kuklis noted.
Forget opening weekend. That’s when farmers often reserve their land for family and friends. Wait until the next week and later in the season and the odds of a “yes” go way up.
Engage in the farmer’s life. Before you ask for anything, talk about his cattle, his crops, his equipment. Oftentimes Kuklis holds off on any ask for as long as he can. “Eventually, if you talk long enough, you get them to bring it up,’’ Kuklis said. “I can’t tell you how many farmers eventually say “so I suppose you’re looking for a place to hunt?”
Mix with the locals, at gas stations, bars and restaurants. Once Kuklis took his daughter to a rural church on a Sunday morning, both wearing their blaze orange hunting clothes. At the end of the service a gaggle of farmers had gathered in back of the church “arguing over whose land was best for us to hunt on that day. We had our pick.”
Be generous. Kuklis often shows up during the summer to say hi, to take the farm couple out to dinner, or maybe bring them a little gift. He calls to talk about farming or weather or grandchildren and he almost always gets the farmer to offer an unsolicited report on the local pheasant population.
Be persistent. Don’t give up after the first no. Or the 34th. “I called on Arco Coffee for 35 years before they finally said yes, before I made a sale to them,’’ Kuklis said. “Eventually the investment (of time and effort) paid off.”
Be respectful. Don’t litter. Close every gate you open. Don’t drive where it causes any damage to the land. “One guy asked me why he should let me hunt,’’ Kuklis said. “I said ‘because I will respect your land more than you do.’ That impressed him... He said yes.”