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WILTZ: Where have all the pheasants gone?

We learned recently that our own South Dakota is one of the fastest growing states in the nation. I strongly suspect it has to do with Sioux Falls or cities like Brookings and Watertown. Small towns like Faith, Highmore or Tripp have little to do with the growth.

I selfishly wonder if this increase in resident numbers will make it more difficult for me to draw a deer tag. Though some of our new residents may have come to South Dakota for our hunting and fishing, it probably has more to do with job opportunities, better schools and a safer environment.

Is our hunting and fishing a factor when people are contemplating a move to South Dakota? I like to think it is, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a study that says people moved to South Dakota because of our quality hunting, fishing or camping. I know I did. In 1959, when my high school coach asked me if I’d like to go to South Dakota State, I knew about the pheasants.

Of late, the press hasn’t been kind to our hunting. “Pheasant numbers are down” is a typical headline. I’ve done some heavy thinking about our pheasant numbers and as an outdoor columnist, I’d like to contribute something positive regarding their return.

If we can accept my putting a magnifying glass over the places I hunt, and then coming to the conclusion that what I’ve witnessed is a good representation of what is happening over much of South Dakota, I can offer something significant to think about.

I’ve lived in Wagner for 38 years. During those years I’ve enjoyed great pheasant hunting. About half of that hunting was on land owned by close farmer friends who are gone now. To say I miss them is an understatement. There are empty places in my heart and hollow Sunday afternoons when I think about the times we had.

When I hunted with Bob and Don on their land, there were places in most every field with low spots. Those low spots held brush, cattails and all manner of heavy cover. Those same low spots gave life to countless pheasants along with the occasional deer. Today, those fields are farmed by someone who pays cash rent. While the low areas are still there, their habitat is gone. Bean or corn rows run through them. I don’t blame the new farmer for tilling those wetlands. Those areas are putting money in his pocket. Bob and Don gave something of themselves to the wildlife when they spared that habitat.

For those potential natural habitat places now lost to cultivation, farmers will have to be compensated in order to put them back into game production. Who will pay that bill? If taxpayers foot the bill, will taxpayers have access to those plots? In the past, we hunters haven’t had access to CRP acres without first getting permission. Though this subject is good debate material, the farmers might well face litter and open gates if the general public has access.

We need landowner control. Hopefully, the governor’s new pheasant task force will solve the problem.

Getting back to our population growth, Sioux Falls may be where the growth is, but small town South Dakota was once the very essence of rural life itself. It’s something I barely missed the tail end of, something I wish I could have experienced for myself. Though the following isn’t game, guns or ice fishing, hopefully you’ll bear with me.

After Mass on Sunday morning, Betsy and I like to shuffle down to the church basement where breakfast is served. Other than the fresh homemade caramel rolls, bacon, sausage and eggs, we relish sitting among our fellow seniors and listening to them to reminisce. Allow me to go back for a moment to the ’40s and early ’50s. Supper’s done, the dishes are put away and we’re headed to town. After all, it’s Saturday night.

The boys pile into the back seat. Mary’s between mom and dad in the front, and Susan is on mom’s lap. No seat belts to fuss with. Parking spaces along Main Street’s curb are long gone, but Dad finds a parking place where cars are lined in the center of the street. Little hands reach out. Fifteen cents will pay for a seat in the Cozy movie house and leave a nickel for popcorn. The kids are off and running, and they’ll still be running around when the movie lets out.

Dad carries a 30-dozen egg crate to Summer’s Grocery store before heading for the pool hall. There the farm fresh eggs will be “traded out” for next week’s groceries. Mom gives Joe her grocery list before heading to The Spot Café where she’ll meet over coffee with the other ladies.

Young Romaine Kocer works part-time in Summer’s Grocery where he’s busier than a one-armed McDonald’s fry cook with those hundreds of dozens of eggs that come in on Saturday night. Romaine has to “candle” every egg for a tell-tale dark spot in the center of the yolk. And even though the store’s cats are effective mousers, Romaine must also pick the “dark” grains out of the open rice sacks and same with the flour. The meat counter is entertaining.

Mice can frequently be seen as they scamper across the steaks and chops. But you know what? Everyone seems to have lived through it.

The hours seem to fly. No matter that the grocery store closes at 11 p.m. A big box of groceries with your name on it will be sitting on the bench in front of the store. Though his wife doesn’t like it, Joe sprinkles penny candy into the box for the kids. What came of all those eggs? An egg truck pulled up to the store on Monday morning. Joe Summer must have been quite the bookkeeper.

For the towns that were too small to support a movie theater, they might have done something similar to what Claude Green did in Yale. During the summer evenings, Claude ran 16 mm movies on the side of his lumber yard. The winter Yale jackrabbit hunts, led by Green, paid for the movies. Better yet, the hunters used the Yale school buses to surround a section.

When I first came to South Dakota, I was fascinated by a new vocabulary that included “foot-feed” for throttle or gas pedal and “sack” for bag. French fries were “shoestrings.” People didn’t shop in a store; they “traded.” Now I understand the word “traded.” Today’s description of small town life isn’t just Wagner. It was every small town across the Dakotas.

See you next week.