Pheasant hunting season opens this weekend, and from what I read about counts and conditions, it could be a little tough out there.
That isn’t to say there won’t be hunters in the fields and the shelterbelts. It sure isn’t to say they won’t be having good times. After all, we’re talking about the opening of pheasant season in a state that year after year has some of the best hunting in the country. If a hunting party is in the right place — if the party can get to the right place with all of the standing water and rain-soaked rural roads — hunters should find some success. If nothing else, the weather forecast suggests that today (Saturday) is a lovely day to be out walking in South Dakota’s marvelous countryside. Sunday? Well, you can’t have everything.
Besides, even if the weather turns gloomy and the birds don’t cooperate, it beats chores around the house, right? I know a guy who quit drinking alcohol many years ago, and he always says, “My worst day sober is better than my best day drunk.’’ That’s kind of how it can be with a pheasant hunt. The worst day out hunting is better than a whole bunch of other things a person could be doing.
But how would I still know? I’m not a guy who gets out in the fields much, not to do any kind of hunting. I used to be pretty fired up about pheasant hunting. That was back on the farm when I was a kid. My dad grabbed every opportunity or excuse to take a pause in the work and grab his shotgun. Back then, the land we walked was ours to hunt — either because we held the deed or because our neighbors welcomed us as if we all owned the same piece of ground.
Even then, I thought it wasn’t so much that the land belonged to us as that we belonged to it. It was where we were meant to be, and there just happened to be pheasants out there. A kid doesn’t know until he grows up and leaves the land just how good he had it in those early years.
I mentioned “counts’’ earlier. I’m talking about the annual pheasant survey the state Game, Fish and Parks Department takes each year. Sometime last month, I saw a piece in the newspaper that said this year’s count showed a 17 percent drop from last year in the number of birds per mile. The count was 2.04 pheasants per mile this year compared with 2.47 a year ago. Last year hunters took 951,000 birds, the story said. I thought that sounded like a lot of pheasants until the story went on to say it was the second straight year of taking fewer than 1 million pheasants during the hunt.
Back when I was hunting, we didn’t know much about brood counts and birds-per-mile surveys. The Lyman County pheasant survey involved two farmers meeting on a dirt road and stopping to exchange greetings. “Not seeing many birds out there. How about you?’’ one would say to the other. “Well, in the cane down by the home place there are quite a few, but I’ve only spotted a couple in that Soil Bank section.’’ The two farmers ponder that information, nod, say, “Well,’’ and put their pickups in gear.
For me, hearing that a bird count was high or low wouldn’t have meant much. It was kind of like fishing the stock dam in the north pasture in the summer. I’d go down there in the evenings with a cane pole and a soup can full of worms. Sometimes I’d come back with a few fish, sometimes I wouldn’t. One summer evening, I caught seven good-sized bullheads in a couple of hours before sunset. I never caught another one all summer. I didn’t stop going, though.
Pheasant season was the same. Pretty regularly, I’d be slogging through cattails and tree belts, whether I’d been able to kick up any birds for five days in a row or not. It was what we did back then, and it really wasn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon.