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Youth pheasant hunters carry on tradition

Hunter Dean wades through a field near the Rooster Roost Ranch with his first pheasant the 12-year-old has ever shot. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

As Hunter Dean waded through a thick field of milo, the 12-year-old quickly aimed and fired after hearing echoes of the "rooster" call.

He shot his first pheasant.

Dean was one of 17 youth pheasant hunters who hunted with the expertise and guidance of members from Mitchell's Pheasants Forever chapter on Saturday at the Rooster Roost Ranch for the youth only pheasant hunting season opener.

"I feel so great. It is my first time pheasant hunting, so this is awesome," Dean said.

While Saturday marked the official opening day for youth only pheasant hunters, the group got much more than just a prime place to hunt.

Elroy Gruenewald, owner of Rooster Roost Ranch, kicked off the day by educating the group of youth hunters on gun safety, along with providing valuable tips aimed at helping the kids out in the field during their noon pheasant hunt.

"I really love being able to see these young kids get excited about pheasant hunting and watch them enjoy the beautiful great outdoors of South Dakota," Gruenewald said. "I am also very proud to see more girls than usual this year."

Following Gruenewald's safety meeting, the kids loaded into the Rooster Roost Ranch bus and shot trap to practice before breaking into three hunting groups. As the final clay pigeons were shot, each group was escorted to pheasant hunting "hot spots" surrounding the Rooster Roost Ranch property with the help of veteran hunters.

Austin McPeek, Pheasants Forever youth coordinator and group leader, is proud to help inspire youth pheasant hunters, and understands the importance of doing so.

"We realize our Mitchell Pheasants Forever chapter is getting older, and we have to get youth involved," McPeek said.

McPeek said there are some kids who have never hunted before, but this allows for them to get the full experience in a traditional group style hunt.

"Once the kids start figuring out how to shoot their gun and hit their first birds, it is a special thing to watch " McPeek said.

The youth hunt presents an opportunity for kids who don't come from a family hunting background.

"Since pheasant hunting usually is done in a group setting, we teach them how to properly hunt the fields, and the Rooster Roost Ranch land is a perfect place to show them the ropes," McPeek added.

In a big show of support for the sport of pheasant hunting, several local restaurants pitched in to supply the luncheon, along with the Mitchell Trap Club donating the clay pigeons.

Given the concerted effort and support from outside sources, each youth hunter was given the opportunity to hunt for free and pick up useful hunting tips along the way.

"We had great support from local businesses, and it shows they care about the tradition of pheasant hunting," Gruenewald said.

As hunting dogs go to work, scaring up pheasants for the youth hunters to take their shot at a bird, applause and cheers radiated through the tall fields of corn and milo after Dean took down his first pheasant.

"The fields are thick, but I got myself a pheasant," said a proud Dean.

The group's jam-packed day of hunting concluded with the kids getting their hands dirty and cleaning the pheasants with the help of veteran hunters like Doug Backlund and Tim Harrington. Both belong to Mitchell's Pheasant Forever chapter.

"If we don't keep the youth hunting, the sport dies," said Backlund, while leading his group of young pheasant hunters through a field. "It's great to see the excitement that the kids get when they get out here and hunt."