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.
- Poll: Should officials set policy for how county employees can use social media?
Letters to the Editor: 07/18/2014
A lifetime of service; No guns in schools.Continued ...
Editorial: Social media rules can help prevent missteps
First it was handwritten notes and letters, then telegrams, faxes and emails, Facebook postings and tweets, and who knows what else.Continued ...
Night Life Calendar: 07/18/2014
What's happening after dark in northern Michigan:Continued ...
Movie Capsules: 07/18/2014
New this week — Begin Again: A chance encounter between a disgraced music-business executive and a young singer-songwriter new to Manhattan turns into a promising collaboration between the two talents. Rated R for language. (HOR)Continued ...
Community in Brief: 07/18/2014
Sleeping Bear tours; Garden club open house.Continued ...
Arts & Entertainment in Brief: 07/18/2014
TSO at Commons; Art exhibition opening; Mulebone at Music Fest. (Plus more)Continued ...
The Record: 07/18/2014
Assumed names filed in Grand Traverse County:Continued ...
Building Permits: 07/18/2014
Building permits issued in Grand Traverse County:Continued ...
E. coli levels rise at Sayler Park beach
Swimmers should do no more than wade into the water at Sayler Park beach on East Grand Traverse Bay.Continued ...
Trustee intervenes on his company's behalf
A Blair Township trustee's intervention in a $21,000 fee dispute between his firm and township water and sewer officials raised allegations of a conflict of interest.Continued ...
Benzie County officials say death is 'suspicious'
Benzie County authorities are awaiting final autopsy results to pin down the cause of an Interlochen woman's death.Continued ...
Clearing the Record: 07/18/2014
Because of a copy editor's error, Betsy Coffia's name was misspelled in a sub-headline Thursday's Record-Eagle.Continued ...
UPDATE: Lawyer to defend Gomery in murder solicitation case
Local lawyer Paul Jarboe will take over the defense of Clarence Gomery, the Traverse City attorney charged with solicitation of murder.Continued ...
Business equipment tax to appear on August ballot
Terry Berden estimates he spends about $20,000 for personal property taxes on his company’s equipment, some of which dates to the 1970s.Continued ...
UPDATE: Man charged in homeless death
A Traverse City homeless man who's charged in the death of another homeless man said he "beat the brakes" off the victim, according to court documents.Continued ...
Man charged in homeless man's death
Grand Traverse County prosecutors authorized a second-degree murder charge against a homeless man accused in the beating death of another homeless man.Continued ...
Local attorney files to lead Gomery defense
Local lawyer Paul Jarboe filed a request to take over the defense of Clarence Gomery, the Traverse City attorney charged with solicitation of murder.Continued ...
Four arrested in Antrim County; suspected of break-ins, transporting drugs
Antrim County sheriff’s deputies arrested four people suspected of numerous break-ins in the area.Continued ...
Film Fest ticket sales 'ahead of last year'
Bob and Eleanor Miller got their Traverse City Film Festival tickets early this year as sponsors of one of the films.Continued ...
Singing in 'Land of Delight': Lelanders gather for century-old tradition
Andy Palmer may have “the world’s worst voice” but for eight hours each summer he raises it in song alongside generations of Lelanders.Continued ...
Sick Puppies hit TC stage
A kind gesture turned into just the break Sick Puppies needed. The three-piece band formed in 1997 and achieved some success at home in Australia. But nearly a decade later, they had no record deal and were working odd jobs to stay afloat.Continued ...
Stars — present and future — align at Interlochen
Jack Schneider, 17, loaded up on big-name concert tickets during his session at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. He'd heard that the school's Kresge Auditorium is an "intimate, great place" to see the world's best musicians.Continued ...
Beach Bums pitchers perfect in All-Star outings
The West, despite just four hits in the game, pushed across two runs in the fifth to beat the East 2-0 in the Frontier League All-Star game Wednesday night.Continued ...
Editorial: No time for the DNR to back off launch plan
Back in March of 2013 Grand Traverse-area boaters got a present — or a promise of a present, anyway — from the state Department of Natural Resources. Now it looks like a last-minute change could sink the whole thing.Continued ...