WILLMAR, Minn. — Expect to see a lot more hunters taking to the fields this weekend for the 2020 Minnesota pheasant opener than in previous years.

Expectations for this year’s opener are high. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported last month that its annual roadside counts showed a 42% increase in the state pheasant index from 2019 and a 37% increase over the 10-year average. The report included what the agency described as an “eyebrow-raising 146% increase over last year in southwestern Minnesota.”

Adding to the enthusiasm for this weekend is the early and rapid progress on harvesting corn and soybeans, along with a forecast for sunny skies and warm temperatures.

With participation in outdoor activities already at elevated levels in this year of the pandemic, area wildlife managers with the DNR are expecting larger numbers of hunters than on openers in recent years.

On public lands, hunters better be ready to claim a spot early come Saturday morning, advises Cory Netland, wildlife manager in the New London office.

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Those who do will be rewarded. Roadside counts of pheasants in the area managed by his office are up, with 97 birds per 100 miles driven in Kandiyohi County and up to 126 birds per 100 miles in Chippewa County. That compares to a statewide index this year of 53.5 birds.

RELATED: See more pheasant opener information

There’s plenty of options, too. Netland noted that bird numbers definitely increase to the west, but that Kandiyohi County has much to offer. The southern half of the county and the Atwater area in particular should be very productive. Hunters traversing the rolling hills of northern Kandiyohi County should find plenty of success too.

Plenty of hunters will be starting the season in western Minnesota. Curt Vacek, wildlife manager in the Appleton area, said he expects public lands in the area to be “very busy and even crowded.” He recommends that some hunters consider starting with a late afternoon hunt on Saturday after the “traffic has cleared out, and the pheasants are moving back to grasslands to roost.”

The pheasant population in the Upper Minnesota River area has been increasing since the severe winter of 2011-12.

While the prospects are good, the wildlife managers also pointed out that the numbers of birds this year are no match for what was experienced in the years 2005-2007. In the Appleton area those years, Vacek said the pheasant count was over two birds per mile. This year the count is just under one bird per mile.