All's good in South Dakota for fall pheasant


On a recent Monday, all the world suddenly felt right.

The lawn work was done. The bank didn't call about another overdraft. The truck was packed with a Lab and a shotgun — and I was heading west.

Indeed, little is better than a Monday when you're South Dakota bound to go pheasant hunting.

It's the stuff that makes October a memorable month. There's a ringneck-rich pheasant forecast in the wind. The cornstalks are dried and rattling. And the prairie grasses wave with a hint of autumn gold.

After five hours of riding, Raven, the Lab, whines in her car kennel. It's no potty call. She knows. She's in pheasant country.

It was October 1966 when I first experienced pheasant hunting, South Dakota style. My Lab's name was Pej. He was a big and tall male dog who'd run to North Dakota if there was a bird to retrieve. As I recall, I think Pej did, in fact, spend most of his hunting time at the opposite end of any field I walked.

At the noontime start of hunting (a South Dakota tradition), I joined a party of fellas from Missouri who themselves had a long tradition of South Dakota pheasant hunting.

By 3 p.m. someone counted the dead birds and announced we were done; we had limited out. Ten hunters, 30 birds. The Missouri boys were disappointed. The year before it only took 90 minutes to get their limits.

Me? I'd never seen so many pheasants in the air. The 1966 pheasant forecast was pretty bleak, state officials had warned. At that moment I learned a bleak pheasant forecast in South Dakota is apt to be utopian by any other standards.

That is still true today, although more of South Dakota's famed pheasant hunting no longer relies on a natural hatch of birds. Today, tens of thousands of hatchery-raised ringnecks are released every fall by the roughly 235 pheasant-hunting operations scattered around the state. Three decades ago, commercial pheasant-hunting business numbered only a few.

While I prefer to pursue wild birds, I must admit Raven doesn't make the same distinction. It's probably also true that most visiting hunters don't know or even care who hatched the rooster now cackling over the cornstalks.

Also recently, I walked a corn and milo strip with Scott Barton, a 17-year-old pheasant hunter from New York and a guest of Scattergun Lodge in Pierre, S.D.

Scott was toting his youth-model 20 gauge and anxiously awaiting the next flurry of pheasant wings. Wild wings or released wings, it didn't matter.

Four years ago, Scott was fighting a serious case of cancer that was attacking his young body. A youth organization, Hunt of a Lifetime, offered Scott a chance to fulfill a life's dream: South Dakota pheasant hunting.

Last week, Scott and his father, Jon, returned for one more memorable October where Octobers are best.

Ron Schara may be reached at ron@mnbound.com.

Schara's 250-page book, "Ron Schara's Minnesota Fishing Guide" (Tristan Outdoors; $19.95) is available by clicking here or by calling 888-755-3155.