Pheasant hunting is a South Dakota tradition. With the start of every new season, state residents gather together with friends or family to walk the fields in their effort to bag one of the prized game birds.
Sunday afternoon saw a different kind of family come together to continue the tradition. Seven area veterans, who served in conflicts ranging as far back as the Korean War, converged on land northeast of Mitchell to spend an afternoon hunting with a handful of volunteers from various organizations in and around the community.
The project found its start with Dr. David Malters, who along with his wife Patricia works at the South Dakota Veterans Administration Hospital and whose family had homesteaded on land northeast of Mitchell. The idea came to him after reading about a similar project that took place in Minnesota.
It was an idea he wanted to emulate, he said.
“I saw in the Pheasants Forever quarterly that they had done something like this in Minnesota,” Malters said.
Malters contacted his friend Dan DeBoer, who works as a state biologist with Pheasants Forever. DeBoer said he had worked on other pheasant-related projects with Malters over the years, so he jumped at the opportunity to help get the project off the ground.
“He called me, and I said it sounded like a great idea,” DeBoer said. “One thing we look for as an organization is getting people involved that don’t always have the opportunity to, and we saw this as an opportunity to do that."
DeBoer continued the search for help by contacting Marc Bernard, a board member with Pheasant Country, the local chapter of Pheasants Forever. Along with Dr. Marty Christensen, a former commander of the Mitchell VFW, the volunteers assembled a small group of veterans for their first excursion, which took place Sunday on property Malters uses as a pheasant habitat about 15 miles northeast of the junction of Highway 37 and Highway 34.
It was a chance for a handful of veterans from around the area to get out with like-minded individuals to enjoy an afternoon of stalking South Dakota’s favorite game bird.
Rob Reuland, who is originally from Pierre, was one of the veterans taking part in the hunt Sunday. A veteran of the United States Coast Guard, he tore his ACL during his time in the service and has also battled cancer in recent years. He said any chance one gets a chance to get out and take in the beauty of South Dakota should be taken.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for vets to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Anytime you can get people outdoors hunting and enjoying South Dakota’s nature, it’s a win for everybody,” Reuland said.
He said he was pleased to hear there was an area hunt that was geared specifically for veterans with varying degrees of disabilities. He thinks more veterans would take part if groups like the one that organized Sunday’s hunt would continue to host them.
“Most of the vets I know would be interested in doing something like this,” Reuland said.
Vince Bartmann was another veteran who showed up to take part in the Sunday hunt. He receives treatment for a number of medical reasons at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sioux Falls, including his right leg, which is prosthetic. A South Dakota native originally from Montrose, it had been a long time since he had been out hunting pheasants.
“I used to farm south of Montrose on Lake Vermillion, and that was pretty good deer hunting and pheasant hunting. I just loved it. When I was in good health, I walked that whole west side of the lake pheasant hunting,” Bartmann said.
Bartmann estimated that it had been over 20 years since anyone had asked him to go pheasant hunting. He figures it was likely due to the fact that they assumed he wouldn’t be healthy enough to walk the fields like he used to.
He said the fledgling veterans hunt in Mitchell is a perfect compliment to other programs that are geared toward veterans by the Veterans Administration Hospital, which is where he heard about this hunt.
“Down at the VA they want to know what your interests are, whether it’s hunting, cycling, bow and arrow, everything,” Bartlett said. “They have so much to offer, and they take really, really good care of the veterans.”
DeBoer said it is the efforts and contributions from individuals and local Pheasants Forever chapters like Pheasant Country that make these kinds of events possible. Whether it is taking the time to organize the volunteers and hunters, contributing land or even bringing along a vehicle or spare gun, it all contributes to bringing the joy of pheasant hunting to a group who may not have easy access to it.
“Getting a place to hunt, having guys to help out, lining up the guys who want to come and on top of that, we need to make sure we have everything the guys need,” DeBoer said. “We have all that, and from there it’s getting everyone on the same page, making sure we’re doing it safely and efficiently.”
As the hunters gathered at the Malters property Sunday afternoon, the familiar chatter of a group about to head out on a pheasant hunt floated through the crowd. Eager hunting dogs darted about, ready to scare up some birds. It was much the same scene as any family gathered together before a yearly pheasant hunt.
Christensen said veterans definitely feel a closeness like family having served in the military and working together to keep their fellow countrymen, both next to them on the battlefield and back at home, safe from harm.
Sharing a pheasant hunt is a perfect way to celebrate that camaraderie.
“It’s just kind of comradeship. It’s like a brotherhood. It’s a calling that goes beyond recognition, and it’s the bond of a lifetime,” Christensen said.