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Wiltz: A rattlesnake eatin' turkey?

On Thursday morning, Oct. 19, I received a phone call from a man who said he called me because I seemed to have a sense of what's going on with our pheasants. After mentioning that he had a degree in wildlife management, he said he realized that habitat was of paramount importance, but that something more was going on out there.

He talked about weather, predators, farming practices, herbicides, insecticides, and the genetics of pen-raised birds that are released into our wild bird population by hunting preserves. He asked me why the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks Department is spending more money on a handful of wild sheep than a bird that drives our economy. This gentleman certainly got me to thinking.

Some business brought me to Burke Friday morning and I returned home by way of Platte. My journey took me through some excellent habitat, but I didn't see a single pheasant. My caller was right. Something is going on out there.

Pheasant Opening Day found me on the John and Erdene Uecker farm north of Wagner. John trades pheasant hunting for elk hunting with a group of Colorado gentleman, who have come to the Uecker farm on opening weekend for the past 28 years. For me, it is a privilege to be a part of it, and I have periodically taken part in the elk hunt.

In spite of the fact that John farms for the pheasants, waters them, and works hard at controlling coyote and coon numbers, we had the poorest hunt — in terms of bird numbers — we have had in those 28 years. Typically, we limit out by 3 p.m.. On Saturday, 14 hunters took 16 birds. On Sunday, 10 of our hunters took eight birds. We shot well, and we had excellent dogs. Even though the corn was still in the field, the wind howled, and the cover was incredibly thick, bird numbers were down ... way down.

I realize that we had a very dry early summer. If pheasant chicks are totally dependent on dew drops from leaves during the early to midsummer, they didn't get the moisture. This may explain the low bird numbers, but I believe that there is more to it than that.

On the lighter side, we pheasant hunters sat around the Uecker kitchen table Saturday night as we feasted on a great supper. The conversation got around to Erdene dressing most of the pheasants, as well as preparing the meal with the help of daughters and friends. A modest Erdene then talked of the good old days when she and her daughters dressed 2,500 to 2,800 chickens a summer. The "chicken money" was then spent on a Sioux Falls motel and shopping spree.

Erdene told us that she will continue to do the pheasants, but that she will never dress another wild turkey. I asked her why, as I could almost smell some good column material.

Some years ago, Erdene had just removed the viscera from a wild gobbler John had bagged in Gregory County, when she noticed movement in the turkey's large intestine. Cutting the intestine open revealed a live rattlesnake! Apparently Erdene draws the line at snakes ... rattlers in particular. I'm amazed that digestive juices hadn't taken its toll on the snake in the time it took for John to drive home.

Among the great labs, spaniels, shorthairs, and wirehairs we hunted over this past weekend was an exceedingly talented cross pup owned by Dustin Drews, a former GF&P professional coyote hunter. Dustin's short-haired black and brown "coyote" dog somewhat resembled a dachshund. A fearless dynamo of energy with an awesome nose, he was a German jagdterrier — airdale terrier cross that had been bred to perfection by a Colorado trapper. The little guy became endeared to me when he found a rooster I had downed in heavy cattails that the other dogs failed to locate.

I'd like you to think about my book, A Dakota Rod and Nimrod, as a possible Christmas gift. In a very touching letter from a Le Mars, Iowa reader, the writer told me of reading the book to his wife who is blind.

"I read, she listens," he told me. "She loves the book."

You can pick up a copy at Palace City Coin Shop on Mitchell's Main Street. See you next week.