Dakota birds at the bell
by M.D. Johnson
as seen in Family Fish & Game Magazine
Three days to go. Just hours after the coming of the New Year, and the final minutes of the South Dakota pheasant season were fast winding down. Season had been going full tilt for nine weeks, and had included such hunter-heavy days as the Opener, Thanksgiving, and Christmas break. My guess was any surviving roosters were safely huddled inside groundhog holes, where they’d stay until the warming days of spring. Still, it was the final week.
Parking at the far north end of the area, I quietly slipped out of the Chevy. Softly, I called to Jet and clicked a leash to her collar. Our destination was the western edge of a mixed tangle of swamp willows and cattails; but I had to do something first. Rolling down the passenger side window, I turned the key to ACC and hit the ON button of the dashboard radio. Instantly, Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit filled the cab. “That ought to get ‘em going,” I whispered to Jet, my Rocky-clad right foot already tapping in time to Ms. Grace Slick’s vocals.
With Jet at heel, we walked 100 yards to the east before cutting to the south. Once into the cover, I unclipped the lab’s lead. Slowly, we zig-zagged back and forth to the south. A couple hundred yards in, we turned west. Pushed by the slight north/northwest breeze, the radio announcer – “Buy it right now for only $49.95, plus $5 shipping and handling!” – could be plainly heard. Reaching the western boundary where public land turned to private, and with Jet still close, I switched directions once again, this time to the north and east.
Jet found the first bird some 75 yards away from my rig, where even as the hen took wing, Buddy Holly was singing about some gal named P-p-p-p-eggy Sue. “Good girl, Jetter,” I whispered to the hound, her nose nervously vacuuming the grass. Twenty steps further, Jet – a pointing lab, by the way – turned and locked, her shiny black eyes focused on a twisted clump of cattails. “Get it!” I told her; instantly, she sprang. The rooster, his attempt at concealment interrupted by the terrible black beast, opted for flight; it was a poor decision on his part. Swinging past the cockbird’s white neck ring, I punched the trigger on the 12. Thirty-five yards away, the rooster sagged and tumbled. Within seconds, Jet had him in my hand. “He’s a dandy,” I told my helper, my fingers ticking the long ivory-tipped spurs adorning the rooster’s legs. “Let’s find another one.”
The final flush was a pair – rooster, and a hen – not 50 feet from the truck and the still-chiming radio; however, I missed – badly. Recovering, I pushed the twin tubes out ahead of the rooster and slapped the trigger. To my astonishment, he folded cleanly, his trajectory taking him out of sight and into a small clump of swamp willows. “Find ‘im, Jetter,” I hollered, though the dog was already on her way. Shortly I saw her returning, head high, and mouth filled to overflowing with limp rooster. From the truck, the guitar work of the late Duane Allman as he weaved his way through the classic, Melissa, provided a much more than fitting last chapter.
South Dakota Specifics
“Is this heaven? No, it’s South Dakota.” Yes, I realize this line from the popular W.P. Kinsella movie, Field of Dreams, has been altered slightly; however, if you’re a diehard pheasant hunter, there is no nirvana like that offered by South Dakota. It’s the best there is – period.
Depending on your source, approximately 181,000 hunters (78,000 residents/103,000 non-residents) harvested between 1.9 million and 2.1 million roosters during a roughly 65-day season in 2008. The eastern half of the state, or from Highway 83 to the Minnesota line, harbors the majority of South Dakota’s upland habitat, and thus the lion’s share of the opportunity. Combine this with incredible amounts of public land scattered throughout this region – NOTE: The Aberdeen area is a Must-See location for public land enthusiasts – and you have a winner from the opening bell to the final day. Season – Late October through early January; www.sdgfp.info
SIDEBAR – Traveling for roosters
To this writer, anyone traveling from either end of the country with their mind set on the nation’s finest wild pheasant hunting should have but one destination in mind – South Dakota. Yes, Kansas does harbor excellent numbers of wild birds, and the state’s wildly successful Walk-In Hunting Access (WIHA) program that affords public access to private lands does encompass some one million acres. Still, if it’s sheer numbers a hunter seeks, be it birds, public acres, or both, then South Dakota is unrivalled – period.
Airline travelers will find excellent facilities in either Rapid City or Sioux Falls; smaller airports are located in Pierre, Aberdeen, and elsewhere across the state. An initial telephone call to the South Dakota Department of Tourism (800-732-5682) will help decipher travel questions. Tourism personnel, too, can suggest actual hunt locations – Aberdeen, Mitchell, Chamberlain, or Winner are all fantastic choices, and offer lodging, dining, and more public acres than are imaginable. Non-residents will want to make certain they have three very important pieces of documentation prior to arriving in South Dakota. A hunting license ($110 for two five-day periods) is first, followed by Delorme Mapping’s (delorme.com) South Dakota Gazetteer. And finally, the state’s current Hunting Atlas, an invaluable booklet that lists all of the public acres, large and small, across South Dakota. Combine with an eager black lab, good footwear, and plenty of shotshells, and most will be ready to meet the Mount Rushmore State challenge.