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Hunters take last shot at pheasants

Christian Gawin, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, stands next to his dog, Molly, during a pheasant hunt Thursday near Plano, about 8 miles northeast of Mitchell. (Jake Shama/Republic)1 / 5
Emanuel Troyer, of Plains, Montana, speaks with his grandchildren, Cameron and Nicolas Strain, of Emery, after walking a field during a pheasant hunt Thursday near Plano, about 8 miles northeast of Mitchell. (Jake Shama/Republic)2 / 5
C.T. Schulz, 6, of Fulton, carries two pheasants after a pheasant hunt Thursday near Plano, about 8 miles northeast of Mitchell. (Jake Shama/Republic)3 / 5
Cameron Strain, 4, of Emery, walks through a field while pheasant hunting Thursday near Plano, about 8 miles northeast of Mitchell. (Jake Shama/Republic)4 / 5
Cameron Strain, 4, of Emery, avoids tall grasses during a pheasant hunt Thursday near Plano, about 8 miles northeast of Mitchell. (Jake Shama/Republic)5 / 5

PLANO — A recent string of warm weather has provided hunters with one last chance to hit the field before pheasant season ends.

South Dakota's most popular hunting season comes to a close on Sunday, Jan. 1, and residents and nonresidents alike are making their way to the Mitchell area for a last shot to bag some birds.

"I'm enjoying the melt off. It makes it easier to walk, and a little easier on the birds, too, I think," said Christian Gawin, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. "We're not having to deal with a foot-and-a-half of snow walking around."

Gawin and his sons, Andrew, 14, Benjamin, 13, and Josiah, 11, came to South Dakota to visit relatives and hunt pheasants near Plano, about 8 miles northeast of Mitchell. They were hunting Thursday with Tom Schulz, of Fulton, and Emanuel Troyer, of Plains, Montana.

Troyer comes to South Dakota annually to see family and friends during Thanksgiving or Christmas. His arrival comes well past the season opener, which falls on the third Saturday of October, but he's happy to try his luck late in the season.

"I'm here with my two grandsons enjoying the outdoors, introducing them to the great outdoors that South Dakota has to offer, and hopefully we get a couple birds, but that's not the main thing. The main thing is spending time with family," Troyer said.

Still, there is plenty of opportunity to harvest pheasants. Upon their arrival on private land near Plano, the hunting party completed a 20 minute hunt on roughly 20 acres of land and flushed more than 50 pheasants, Troyer said.

The group came up empty handed in that field but shot down two birds in the next one.

The experience holds true for many hunters in South Dakota, according to Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist for the Game, Fish and Parks Department. Runia said hunters have been finding success late in the season now that the bulk of the corn has been harvested.

"It seems like the folks who are still operating in the cold are doing pretty good," Runia said.

Late-season hunting provides a different experience than on opening weekend. By late December, pheasants cluster together to keep warm, Runia said, so hunters may flush large groups from cattails or trees instead of finding one or two across a grass field.

It can also be difficult to get close to the birds since many have already been hunted hard since October and become jumpy at the site of people, but Schulz said it is less stressful than in the opening weeks.

"It's just more relaxing. Less hunter pressure, less road-hunting people sitting around waiting for you to flush them out so they can shoot them off the road," Schulz said.

Of course, there are fewer roosters in the state than early season, but Runia said there are still plenty available since hunters kill about half of the state's roosters each year.

Runia didn't know how many pheasants have been harvested so far this year, and GF&P won't release its total harvest estimate until about May, after it has sent hunter surveys. However, there were fewer licenses sold this year. Resident licenses dropped by about 2 percent in 2016, and nonresident licenses fell even further, dropping about 4.5 percent, Runia said.

Those numbers are mostly unchanged since the season opener, and Runia said anyone planning on hunting pheasants has usually bought a license by October.

"Most of our residents, if they're going to hunt during the year, they're going to have bought their license by the first month of the season," Runia said. "Same thing for nonresidents. A majority of those licenses are in first half of the season, so not a lot is going to change toward the end of the season as far as license sales."

Pheasant season always ends on the first Sunday in January, and since 2004, the season has lasted 79 days. That hasn't always been the case. South Dakota has allowed the season to last as long as 162 days in 1944 and as short as one day in 1919, the first year for which statistics were available.

Pheasant season lasted 51 days from 1981 to 1990, and it was 65 days from 1991 to 1999, but Runia doesn't expect the length to change any time soon.

"It's been a bit of a hot topic in past years," Runia said. "There are some folks that would like to see a little less pressure on the birds later in the year, while there are some people that would like to see opportunity into January. Where the season ends now is kind of a middle ground between people who want a longer season and a shorter season."

For anyone interested in hunting before Sunday, Runia recommends scouting birds in the morning or evening so they're easier to find.

"There's not as many people that tend to take advantage of the late season hunting," Runia said. "Some people maybe don't care to hunt in the deep snow or the cold temperature, but for folks that do, it's a tremendous opportunity."