The outlook ahead of the 2017 South Dakota pheasant hunting season was a bleak one.
Bird numbers were down 45 percent from 2016, according to the annual survey from the Game, Fish and Parks Department. Habitat loss and drought conditions during the nesting season, when chicks rely on insects and lush cover to survive, were blamed.
I know hunters who cancelled trips to South Dakota because of those reports, but many in South Dakota rallied around the mantra that they still had the most pheasants of anywhere in the country. I agree with that after taking another trip out west of Watertown this past weekend.
A friend of mine, Steve Leitch of Willmar, has permission on some private land out there that we have hunted for years during the late season. It is almost all cattail sloughs, which means we need the cold of winter to come through and ice things up.
That was not a problem this year with temperatures hovering not much above zero on Friday and Saturday. I met up with Steve and his buddy, Dennis Oakland, to walk our first piece before Marv Kremin and Craig Aamodt of Cottonwood caught up with us later in the day. It was Steve’s birthday, and he got us on the board as the first rooster flushed to his right.
There was a time almost 10 years ago when getting a daily limit out there was almost expected the first couple days of a hunt. It had been quite a while since that happened, but we reached our 15 birds for five guys with 45 minutes of light to spare on Friday. We were on our mark by only missing two roosters that we had shots at. The dogs did their best too by not losing a bird.
Light was fading away when we pulled up to a nice public piece in search of our final rooster. By now, our hands were frozen and craving the consistent warmth of the truck. The dogs were showing no signs of slowing down as they got hot the second we stepped into the cattails. A good sign that this might not take long.
We had walked about 200 yards when a rooster busted in front of Craig. He took aim and folded him on his first shot. The dogs gave chase, and our final bird of the day was in the bag as a dozen more hens and roosters flew away without harm.
That is kind of how things seem to go where we hunt in South Dakota these days. Rarely do we see the flocks of 100, 200 birds that were more the norm years ago, but that doesn’t mean it is not worth the trip. Flocks of 40-50 busting from cover in some areas is not uncommon. But instead of huge numbers, we run into more single roosters or smaller groups of 10-12 that tend to flush within range more often. That is a good recipe for success.
Every slough we hunted last weekend produced enough roosters to keep things interesting, even when the weather made things much more tough to handle on Saturday.
The winds howled to more than 30 miles per hour that day. My hands were throbbing as I tried to warm them up on our way across the bean stubble from one slough to another.
“Is this worth it?” I asked Marv with a smile.
We finally reached a small lake that would be my final push of the season before having to head home to get ready for my 5-year-old’s birthday party. Dennis and I went left around the frozen body of water as Marv, Steve and Craig went right.
The wind was whipping us in the face when Ole, my yellow lab, got hot in a narrow strip of thick grass that bordered the field and the cattails. We walked 50 feet and he locked up on point.
I stepped forward. Ole pounced, and a rooster flushed.
My second shot found its mark as Ole made another retrieve to my side with the answer to my question. It was worth it. Another great adventure to end what was a fun hunting season.