JUST EAST OF THE BLACK HILLS, S.D. — I couldn't complain about the dog work.
Rub, my English setter, gave me 11 points the first afternoon we spent exploring the grasslands of America's top pheasant hunting state. The first 10 birds he pointed, however, were hens.
The 11th was a hen, too, but when the bird took wing, she subsequently flushed a rooster, maybe 15 yards ahead of her in the grass. It was a long — though makeable — shot that I totally failed to execute.
My partners that day — veteran Department of Natural Resources upland bird specialist Al Stewart and his son, Chris — had similar experiences. Ty, Stewart's setter, pointed 12 birds — 11 of which were hens. But Ty did manage to pin down a rooster, too, and Stewart was the only one of the three of us to put a bird in his bag that afternoon.
So we'd driven 16 hours and missed a night's sleep for this?
For the third year in a row, Stewart and I by-passed our usual stomping grounds on the east side of the state for the even more promised land of western South Dakota. But we'd been forewarned; the hatch this year was small, so the bulk of the birds were wise (the truth is, by the time we get out there in mid-December, even the young-of-the year roosters are pretty well educated) to the game. On top of which, the habitat was worse than I'd ever seen it; last summer's weather was so dry that farmers were allowed to graze or mow their Conservation Reserve Program fields because of a hay shortage. Many took advantage. And even where there wasn't grazing or haying, the grass was short and sparse by typical standards.
We could tell as much before we even started hunting; as we drove to our first place, a rooster ran across the road and into the grass. We watched it for 25 yards or so until it disappeared. In years past it would have disappeared within three steps.
Still, two hours into the hunt the following morning, I had three roosters in my game bag.
That's why we come, eh?
Despite less than robust recruitment this year — probably because the drought knocked down the insect production and the young-of-the-year didn't have a lot to feed on this summer — there were plenty of birds. Driving around the countryside from place to place — we hunted a combination of private land, state game areas and federal land — it was not unusual to see hundreds of pheasants in the short grass fields. The haying/grazing left them few places to hide in a lot of areas.
But seeing them and shooting them are two entirely different things. Using an app on Stewart's smart phone that identified the state-leased walk-in areas open to public hunting, we drove past hundreds of acres where we could have taken a stroll across the grounds, if we pleased, but there was no way we'd be able to get anywhere close to the birds before they were in the next county.
Our best hunting over the course of our stay came from cattail stands, along lake or stream edges or in the low-lying swales of what was otherwise agricultural ground. It was hard hunting — difficult to get through and hard on the dogs, as well — but the cattails were among the few places where the roosters would hold long enough for us to get close enough to shoot. In more open grass lands, the birds were almost invariably up and on wing well beyond the range of a 12 gauge. (Why is it that hens hold so much better? Do they realize their mottled brown color makes them that much less visible? Have they somehow learned that we won't shoot them? Are roosters just that much more wary? Who knows?) We spent one afternoon chasing around sharp-tailed grouse with another group of guys who included the director (or secretary in South Dakota parlance) of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. It was typical of late-season sharptails: getting within shooting range of those birds is nigh unto impossible. Still we managed a few — including a nifty double that Stewart shot that made the plainsmen take notice of Michigan bird hunters — but it was after the hunt, when we were kicking the dirt and solving the world's problems that Jeff Vonk (the aforementioned secretary) allowed that, because of high commodity prices and federal agriculture policy, South Dakota pheasant hunting had some significant challenges ahead.
If there are problems in paradise, what does that hold for the future of the game in our humble environs?
You do not need a ton of birds to have a good time. And just the spectacle of prairie wildlife — from the ducks and geese to the coyotes to the eye-popping bucks — is enough to make a hunting trip to the plains enjoyable.
Still, given the shape of the habitat, one wonders what will happen if a harsh winter sweeps across the Plains this year. Winter habitat is often the limiting factor for pheasant populations and there looks to be a lot less of it this year than in the recent past. And, after last summer's drought, will there be enough nesting habitat available this spring?
One worries about the future of pheasant hunting. Everywhere in America.
JUST EAST OF THE BLACK HILLS, S.D. — I couldn't complain about the dog work.
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