I’ve hunted pheasant in both North and South Dakota, from New Town to the north to Mitchell to the south and from the Black Hills to the west to the Red River Valley in the east. And I’ve hunted in the warm early season and in the last bitterly cold winter week.
But I’ve never hunted South Dakota’s opening weekend for out-of-state hunters. One Thursday afternoon in mid-October I got a phone call. A friend was heading out to South Dakota to hunt the opener. He had a dog and room in his truck. He was leaving the next morning. Did I want to come?
There are certain advantages to being semi-retired, one of which is a flexible schedule. And it helps to have an understanding wife.
As we headed west through Minnesota the next morning, my friend made me pledge to not disclose the exact destination of our hunt. And he requested anonymity. I agreed. But the German shorthair made no such demands. Her name is Izzy.
There are certain advantages to hunting the opener. The bird population is as good as it’s going to get for the season, and the birds aren’t as spooky as they are after being chased for weeks by wave after wave of out-of-state hunters. And there are no knee- to hip-deep snowdrifts to navigate.
There also are disadvantages. The harvest is going full tilt, but a lot of the corn and soybean crops are still standing, providing mile after mile of unhuntable bird sanctuary on private lands that would be accessible later in the season.
The biggest disadvantage, though, is the hunting rules. That first week shooting hours don’t start until noon, rather than the 10 a.m. start time during the rest of the season. You lose those prime chances to catch birds moving from their roosts into their feeding grounds.
We talked it over and decided to try to turn that disadvantage to our advantage. We would scout the territory.
We didn’t hunt the prime pheasant country down around Mitchell, but further north, near the border with North Dakota. It’s country composed of big farm operations running half-million dollar combines across long stretches of flatland divided every mile by gravel roads or dirt trails and small, hardscrabble towns set along railroad tracks, the easier to process and ship out the grain. It’s land that runs on diesel and hard labor.
Thank the glaciers for both the farm land and the hunting land. They flattened the country, but also left some hilly, boulder-strewn moraines unfit for machinery and hollow kettles that turned to sloughs filled with tall grasses and cattails.
Farmers from years ago had a hand in it, planting shelter belts that still exist as gnarly stands of trees, brush and rock piles. The government has helped set some of the land aside to preserve the soil, although not nearly as much as it once did.
That loss of habitat combined with untimely harsh weather conditions have taken a toll on the pheasant population. Statewide the count is down 41 percent from the 10-year average.
State officials say the total is up nearly 50 percent this year from last year, but in some areas doubling a half-bird per acre still only leaves one bird per acre.
We had our work cut out for us.
Even though we couldn’t hunt until noon, we still got up early, loading up with coffee and breakfast sandwiches at the gas station and hitting the road.
The fields were still wet, many of them too wet to harvest, but the gravel roads were dry. We could see contrails of dust left in the wake of trucks and heavy machinery.
We looked for fields being harvested that were near sloughs or grasslands where birds might gather. We used the state-issued book that has maps of open hunting lands and a gazetteer and sometimes a cellphone to navigate. We followed gravel roads that turned into dirt trails that sometimes turned into, well, nothing whatsoever.
It was on the road that we discovered another advantage to hunting the first weekend. There weren’t a lot of other hunters. Apparently many people don’t want to wait until noon to hunt.
We put on miles and we spotted birds. At one point we topped a small rise to see birds walking, then flying from a harvested soybean field to a grassy knoll that overlooked a large cattail swamp. We marked the spot on our map. We eventually got a bird from that location, dropped into the cattails where Izzy did a nice job of tracking it down.
Late one afternoon we parked near a shelter belt that ran between a picked field and a large tract of grassland and swamp. We watched as pheasants, first one, then several, then nearly a dozen flew from roosts in the trees into the grassy field. Some of them stopped and watched us before disappearing into the tall grass. We got two birds out of that field.
Izzy is a young dog more used to hunting grouse in the woods than pheasants in the fields. But she worked well, quartering in front of both of us, needing only gentle reminders to not wander too far.
In the end we didn’t reach our limit, but we did get into birds. The best part for me, though, was once again walking behind a dog in a pheasant field. I find myself in an almost meditative state. I am completely in the moment, watching the dog, watching where I step, watching the cover ahead lest a bird flush wild. There is no time to concern myself with unfinished chores or paying bills or approaching deadlines.
There is only me and the dog and what may happen with the next step. And that is enough.
Lyksett is a retired journalist and a freelance writer from Eau Claire.