Woster: South Dakota pheasant is a tradition and a spectacle

So, yes, the opening weekend of pheasant season was tradition, a time when I expected to be involved. And that was fine.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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If it hadn’t been for tradition, I doubt I’d ever have cared whether I hunted pheasants on the opening day of the season, not even when I really enjoyed the sport.

Opening weekend of pheasant season is a tradition in South Dakota. You’ve heard or read that dozens of times in the days leading up to Saturday's opener. You’ll read and hear it many more times before opening weekend is over, with stories and videos of hunting parties in orange, dogs working through brush and corn stalks, ringnecks’ wings flapping furiously after they’ve been flushed from cover and the shotguns are barking.

I’ve heard a number of ways people have handled this situation, most people I assume just take the bird from the dog and drop it in the field. Rather than being unsure, we pulled up the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks website and then regulations handbook.

It's a tradition, and it’s rather a spectacle. I’ve never been in another state when a big hunting or fishing season opens, so I have nothing to compare with South Dakota and the way it celebrates the pheasant opener. I read a couple of novels in which the author talked about how crazy some folks in Minnesota get when some fishing season opens. The Joe Pickett novels by C. J. Box make it sound as if the first days of deer and elk seasons in Wyoming’s mountains are pretty frenzied. Maybe we’re no different but just have prettier birds. Or maybe there is something unique to the South Dakota experience.

As a kid growing up just west of the Missouri River, I accepted that the Saturday in October marking the pheasant opener would have me out in a field somewhere with a bunch of other folks with guns and sturdy boots. As a kid, my job usually involved kicking through high brush, stands of cattails in dry stock dams and patches of fireweed along fence rows, trying to scare up roosters for the adults. I didn’t mind. It beat pitching hay or repairing a stretch of barbed-wire fence. And I never really cared if I got a shot at a bird. The .410 single shot I was assigned in my early hunting days tended to misfire, anyway.

My dad didn’t mind walking, either. I came to respect that about him. As a grown-up, he could have claimed a spot among the blockers at the end of a field, the hunters who get the best shots. But on opening weekend, we often had guests. Frequently, they were folks from town who’d asked Dad if they could join us. Sometimes they were neighbors whose land lacked the rich pheasant habitat ours often had. Whatever guests we had got first dibs on blocking. Dad was perfectly happy to stride along near me and the other walkers. He’d slog through the brush just as we did. Now and then he’d whisper for us to slow down and stay in line. I learned early on that it wasn’t a good thing to get out ahead of the other walkers.


So, yes, the opening weekend of pheasant season was tradition, a time when I expected to be involved. And that was fine.

Better than the opener, though, were the hunts later in the season. That might not have been tradition, but I enjoyed it a lot. The number of hunters had fallen off by then. Opening day was a feast. Mid-season hunting took work. A person often walked a whole lot farther than before and saw only a few birds in the course of an afternoon. When the going gets tough, you know?

I’m not saying I was tough. I just liked it better when the hunting party included a couple of cousins, my big brother, a friend or two of his from school and maybe my dad and my uncle. There was no pressure to find birds like there was on opening day. We just liked walking the land, anticipating the flush of a rooster and getting a shot or two, if it worked out that way. But it felt just fine if we only talked as we walked or during pickup rides between fields.

I gave up hunting after we sold the farm. I never cared to hunt land that wasn’t my own. If I ever start hunting again, though, it’ll be about halfway through the season, tradition or not.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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