As the pheasant hunters gathered, Jason Bleich pulled up a video of migrating monarch butterflies swarming goldenrod and milkweed on the family farm.

“It looked like it was snowing,” he said.

Habitat. Habitat. Habitat. It’s what makes opening day special. Upland game seasons opened Saturday in Illinois.

“What is good for the monarchs is good for the pheasants and quail,” Bleich said.

Bleich, a conservation specialist with Pheasants Forever, invited me along on the family opening-day hunt, a great honor, especially on a family farm of six generations in east-central Illinois.

Another honor was being along as Jason’s father, Mike, took Sadie, a 10-month-old Brittany, on her first hunt.

“I think we will see pheasants today,” he said.

He remembers when they put in the first deliberate habitat, a shelter belt on the north end. Since then, the whole farm has been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Birds returned quickly.

“Early on, we only shot one or two a year,” Mike Bleich said.

It took us awhile to assemble as he and his brother-in-law, Jim Sorensen, organized. Sorensen’s sons, Chris and Ross, joined later.

The initial group included Martin Shepherd (a southern storyteller) and Hanns Meyer and his son Hunter. A nearby farmer, Keith McTaggart, stopped off and drove the 1930s John Deere with a classic putt-putt sound. Bob Watson soon arrived.

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A 1930s John Deere with the classic putt-putt sound was part of the ambiance Saturday on opening day for pheasant hunting.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Early on, we flushed a few, but other birds flew into an area saved until the end. That hilltop was recently seeded in a mix including native flowers. That draws insects, which fed the poults this summer. Now, the birds naturally returned there.

When we pushed that out late morning, birds exploded. I was flanking when the line reached the edge of a wetlands area and eight pheasants (seven cockbirds) flushed in a stunningly beautiful sight.

Habitat. Habitat. Habitat. That will be a major theme when the National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic comes to Illinois for the first time Feb. 22-24 at the Schaumburg Convention Center.

Mike Bleich figured we flushed 40 birds in the morning. Chris Sorensen left early to make a late breakfast of sausage omelet, homemade sausage gravy and biscuits. Venison chili heated on the side with a pan of home-baked sweet rolls.

In the afternoon, Ross Fogle, PF northern Illinois regional representative, joined us and we hunted Watson’s farm, seeded two years ago with PF’s Illinois Pollinator Plus mix. For somebody my age, used to wading through switchgrass on CRP, it was wonderfully different.

The birds were already there in only a couple years. As were deer and woodcock. We jumped two dozen pheasants. Three went into the bag to make six on the day.

More importantly, Sadie found several downed birds and by the day’s end pointed her first three birds, one of which I missed clean.

“Good to see the birds are back,” Jim Sorensen summed up midday.

The two farms we hunted were relatively new CRP projects (CP23 Wetland Restorations and CP42 Pollinator Habitat). Habitat. Habitat. Habitat.

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Little bluestem, Canada wildrye, evening primrose, black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower are among the variety in the Pheasants Forever Illinois Pollinator Plus seed mix.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

DEER: The rut is going across Illinois. Through Sunday, bowhunters harvested 26,530 deer, compared to 25,848 for the same period in 2017. Males made up 61 percent of the harvest last week. Click here for a full breakdown.

STRAY CAST: Time for Mitchell Trubisky to grow his kype.