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Conditions ripe for hunting

South Dakota will be swelling with hunters today, stomping through fields to chase roughly 8.65 million pheasants.

Based on the crop harvest, hunters should be ecstatic compared to last year.

As of Oct. 10 -- the most recent South Dakota weekly crop report -- the state's grain harvest was well beyond last year's progress. That means the birds have fewer places to hide.

According to Ron Schauer, a regional wildlife manager with the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks' Sioux Falls office, the grain harvest -- most notably corn -- goes hand-in-hand with pheasant hunters' success.

"With the weather and the harvest, you couldn't ask for much better than what it has been," Schauer said. "That's one of the biggest things that has a direct effect with pheasant hunting."

Last year, the weather and ground conditions kept farmers from getting into fields before and during the early parts of pheasant season, which gave a large disadvantage to hunters trying to track down the state bird.

But this year's crop harvest is going much smoother.

At this same time last year, only 2 percent of the state's corn was harvested. This year, 18 percent is out of the fields.

Because of the warmer, drier temperatures -- this weekend's highs are expected to be in the mid-60s -- farmers have been able to get into the fields earlier.

Thursday afternoon, elevators in Presho and Canova estimated 25 percent of the corn was out in their areas, while elevator operators in Winner estimated 60 percent and an elevator in Wessington Springs said about 10 percent of the corn harvest was complete.

"During the day, the pheasants spend their time in the standing corn," said Travis Ruina, a GF&P upland game biologist based in Huron. "I don't know if there was any corn harvested last year by opener. This year, we've had dry, windy weather, and that's helped farmers get more of it out, which should boost the hunting success earlier in the year."

South Dakota's statewide pheasant season opens at noon today and continues through Jan. 2, with a daily limit of three roosters and a possession limit of 15 roosters taken according to the daily limit. Shooting hours are noon through sunset today until Friday, and 10 a.m. to sunset the rest of the season.

Last year, the state's pheasant population was estimated at 8.4 million. According to research done by the GF&P in an annual brood survey, the population increased 3 percent this year, which would mean there are an estimated 8.65 million pheasants statewide.

The harvest problems last year might have contributed to the population increase.

Ruina said approximately 500,000 acres of cropland -- mostly corn -- went unharvested last year, and those crops served as critical food and shelter sources during a severe, snow-packed winter. When the snow melted, flooding didn't overly hurt pheasant numbers, and the spring hatch helped increase numbers.

The GF&P found 6.45 pheasants per mile during its summertime brood survey, which covers 109 routes across the state. Chamberlain (17.00) was found to have the highest pheasants-per-mile rating, while Mitchell (5.84) was up slightly from last year.

Other areas in the state and their pheasants-per-mile count include Winner (8.42), Pierre (13.95), Aberdeen (6.48), Yankton (1.45), Brookings (2.25) and Watertown (2.99).

"I think it's going to be some pretty good conditions," said Mitchell-based Conservation Officer Andy Petersen, who is working his ninth pheasant opener for the GF&P today. "Crops are coming out fast, unlike the last couple of years, where there hasn't been much crops harvested."

Statewide, approximately 167,000 hunters -- both residents and non-residents -- harvested 1.6 million pheasants in 2009. About 97,000 non-resident hunters spent an estimated $181 million in the state last year. The number of out-of-state hunters was down from the previous two seasons, when the state brought in more than 100,000.

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