WHITE LAKE — Despite the cooler weather and brief afternoon rain shower on Saturday, Brett Cosand and his crew of pheasant hunters had a successful opening day.

As Cosand trudged through corn fields around the White Lake area on Saturday morning, he could hear the pheasants cackling. With the dry year and mild winter that South Dakota experienced in 2020, many hunters were anticipating to see an above-average increase in pheasants this year since the upland birds didn’t have to fend off harsh conditions.

While he and the group of hunters who joined him were expecting to start shooting down pheasants in the first hour of opening day that kicked off at 10 a.m., the cold morning seemed to have kept the pheasants burrowed to their nests. But that all changed later on in the day around 3 p.m. when Cosand’s group began scaring up pheasants all over the fields, unloading on the roosters that flew across their reach.

“I’m optimistic about this year,” said Cosand, while he walked through a field of thick grassland brush. “It was a little cold and really windy right away this morning, keeping the pheasants from coming out. But we knew there were plenty of them just waiting for the weather to calm and get out of their nests.”

South Dakota’s opening day started off a bit different for pheasant hunters this year, as they were able to begin hunting at 10 a.m., two hours earlier than the previous years noon start time. The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks implemented the change for this year’s pheasant hunting season to help increase hunting participation. The season also was extended by three weeks, which will conclude on Jan. 31, 2021.

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After spending most of the day hunting in fields roughly 30 miles west of Mitchell, Cosand notched enough pheasants to reach his daily limit of three, achieving his goal.

Cosand, a Sioux Falls native, is an avid pheasant hunter who travels to White Lake each year to hunt the area he always has success at. He’s typically joined by some of his cousins and family members, along with his Sioux Falls friends.

“It’s great pheasant hunting out here, and I usually see a lot of birds every year,” Cosand said.

Crop harvest impacting state pheasant population

Austin Havlik is one of Cosand’s cousins who walks the fields with him every year in October. Together, the two share a strong bond over pheasant hunting, which gives them an opportunity to connect each year in the fall.

While weaving through the tall rows of corn, Havlik said he expects to see an even larger number of pheasants in the next couple of weeks after many area farmers begin harvesting their corn crops.

“Once the farmers get most of their corn harvested, you’ll start seeing a bunch more pheasants because they won’t have all that cover to hide out,” Havlik said. “I expected to see a little less pheasants the first week or two of this season, but I still saw more than I thought I would. I think it shows this year will be a great year for pheasant hunting.”

Back east in the Mitchell area, Wade Moody saw success in the fields as well. Moody, a Mitchell hunter, shot down two roosters in the first hour he walked through a field of public land in the Letcher area.

Considering many area farmers were unable to harvest all of their crops they had planted last year during the fall due to the record amount of rain that the area experienced, Moody said it gave pheasants plenty of food to eat throughout the winter months.

“It was unfortunate that the farmers weren’t able to harvest all of their crops last year with the extremely wet year we had, but I think it actually helped the pheasants since it gave them more food to eat all through the year,” Moody said.

Moody pointed to the state’s Nest Predator Bounty Program that was created by Gov. Kristi Noem in 2018 — which aimed to reduce populations of nest predators to enhance pheasant and duck breeding success — as another factor that likely contributed to the steady number of roosters he saw in the fields on opening day. The program paid trappers $5 to $10 for submitting the tail of every mammal they legally trapped and removed that’s defined as a pheasant nest predator, including striped skunks, raccoons, opossums, badgers and red foxes.

“There are a lot of raccoons and badgers out here, so anytime you get rid of nest predators that go after pheasant nesting areas it helps keep the population strong,” Moody said.

Joining Moody on his hunt this year was his grandson Kolt Hotz, who took part in his first pheasant hunt. The 10-year-old is learning the ropes of hunting ringnecks through the youth mentorship program.

Hotz’s dad and grandpa have been teaching him how to perfect shooting a shotgun, which he said has been “really fun.” As his grandson grows up, Moody is proud to keep the family pheasant hunting tradition alive for years to come.