Most years winter comes early to South Dakota. By the time the pheasant season begins in late October, the days are brisk and the winds blow cold across the prairies. But sometimes, as happened last year, winter holds off, as if reluctant to intrude upon the final glorious days of autumn. Then Indian summer—a term that must surely have originated here—can produce the finest of all possible weather. The skies are brilliant and clear, bluer than in any other season. The winds are subdued. A hot, golden sun warms the yellow fields of stubble and dead cornstalks that stretch in every direction to the far horizons.
In the cornfields, hunters doff their jackets, sweaters and caps to walk shirt-sleeved along the standing rows. They hike six or seven abreast, 25 or 30 feet apart, moving slowly, deliberately. Ahead of them, pheasants scurry through the stalks. The birds are fat and splendidly feathered, the opulence of their plumage in sharp contrast to the faded hues around them. Nonetheless, they elude the guns, skillfully using the barest of cover to conceal their getaway.
They run swiftly, outdistancing the pursuers. Then, as if on signal, they take wing, rising en masse into the air, flapping up out of the stalks with a chorus of raucous cackles. Someone fires. Too late. The birds are safe. The hunters emerge finally from the stalks. They are damp with sweat and their faces glisten in the afternoon sun. In the tractor trail at the end of the field are several more of their party. These are the blockers, the guns stationed at the field's perimeter to intercept escaping birds.
"Fooled us that time," one of them says. "Don't ask me how, but those darned birds must have sensed we were here. They certainly didn't stick to the script."
October 8, 1978
"That's what I keep telling you," says another. "We only raise smart birds in South Dakota. The dumb ones get themselves killed. The ones that are left are all super birds."
"Track stars, you mean," says a visitor. "In most places, people shoot pheasants. Here they chase them."
"That's what makes this the best pheasant hunting in America," the South Dakotan says. "These birds really cover the ground on foot, and they always run before they fly. Running fools, but never foolish. They make sure they're out of range before they fly. That noise you heard when they took off? That was the ringneck's way of thumbing his nose at you."
Nose thumbing is a widespread habit among the pheasants of Sully County, where the birds have elevated the art of outwitting man to new levels. Dogs fare little better. Nothing is more frustrating to a hunting dog than a trail that whips in and out like a zigzag stitch made by a sewing machine. The average hunting dog expects birds to hold in cover, as did the average birds he met in training. He does not expect them to charge around like cross-country runners. That is one reason why the best pheasant-hunting dogs in South Dakota are anything but average.
Take for example Denny Barnes' Shorty. Shorty is three parts Chihuahua and one part Pekingese, all seven pounds of him. His long silky hair is the color of ripe apricots and his pert papillon ears are always at attention. He looks too delicate for any place except the boudoir, yet he is most at home hunting the brush patches on Barnes' farm.
There are many such patches on Barnes' land, which is why his pheasant crop is so abundant. These and a liberal number of uncultivated coulees and planted shelterbelts provide excellent feeding, nesting and resting places for the birds, which in turn provide excellent sport for Barnes.
A hunt through one of his brush patches is rugged going. The undergrowth, which in places is waist-high, is so dense it seems knitted together. Thorns and sharp twigs claw at the skin and clothing. As in the cornfields, the hunters advance abreast, guns held high. Two Labrador retrievers crash up and down in the brush, trying to jump over it, making a tremendous racket and looking thoroughly exasperated by the effort. Somewhere deep down inside all that tangled growth, improbable though it seems, pheasants are moving stealthily ahead.
Unfazed by it all, Shorty plunges in, and disappears. He snakes his little body along the ground, moving as the pheasants move, around the roots. Periodically he pops upright, pirouetting on his hind legs, his bright black eyes checking to see if Barnes is still with him. Then he disappears again into the brush. Suddenly a pheasant erupts into the air a few feet ahead. This one is not so smart, because it is in range of Barnes' gun. He swings, fires, and the bird is down. Shorty is already there when Barnes reaches the pheasant. The dog tries to lift the bird by the neck, but it seems at least as heavy as he, and considerably longer. One of the Labradors struggles up. Shorty gives it a condescending look. It is not often that professional jealousies exist between Labradors and Chihuahuas.
Not all South Dakota pheasant hunting is as demanding as that in Barnes' brush patches. Such heavy cover is often too hot for birds in the middle of a day in Indian summer when temperatures rise to the mid-70s. Then the birds seek cooler places along ditches and at the edge of shelterbelts. Driving along a gravel road it is sometimes possible to spot a head or two projecting above the ground cover. The vehicle comes to an abrupt stop and the hunters tumble out. They hastily form two lines, hoping to work the birds between them. Instantly alert, the birds pull in their necks and take off. On foot. They scatter in several directions, eluding the poorly organized hunters. Safely out of range, one bird flushes ahead. Another vanishes into the trees. The hunters plod dutifully on. A cock waits until they pass by, then gets up behind them, cackling merrily.
At one ditch the hunters flush 28 hens and three cocks in a 50-yard drive. The hens, which are protected, fly what appear to be diversionary courses for the cocks. The latter drop into the nearby stubble. There is barely enough cover to mask a beer can, but the birds vanish, safe again from the guns.
The sight of pheasants in such numbers is reason for rejoicing—not just among hunters but also among all South Dakotans—because the bird that has come to be synonymous with the state has suffered hard times in recent years. So much so that the local citizenry has become less and less confident about calling its state The Pheasant Capital of the World. This would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago when the birds multiplied more rapidly than they could be counted, and sportsmen flocked from all corners of the nation for what was surely the best upland hunting anywhere. At one point in 1945, the ringneck population of South Dakota was 15 million. Then the crash came.
Within five years, the population plummeted to less than four million. What happened? There is no simple answer.
From the moment in 1908 when three hunters planted the state's first pheasants on a James River farm north of Redfield in Spink County, the birds thrived. In 1911 the Red-field Chamber of Commerce and the South Dakota Department of Fish & Game got into the act. Jointly they brought in 200 pheasants for free distribution—in packages of three hens and one cock—to farmers willing to release them on their lands. Next, the state launched a three-year stocking program in which it released 7,000 birds.
In spite of the bitter winters, which made the American cornbelt unsuited to most other game birds, the pheasant flourished. And for the very reason that it did so well, its survival was taken for granted. The bird was expected to continue to thrive, regardless of what happened to its habitat. And it did, for a remarkably long time.
In 1919, only five years after the stocking program ended and the first hunting season opened, sportsmen recorded killing 250,000 birds. The population peaked in the late '30s as a result of dry weather and the weedy, unfarmed fields of the Depression which made ideal pheasant habitat. The numbers declined in 1937-38 because of severe winters. From that point, the figure spiraled upward again, and in 1945, two years before the precipitous drop, the annual harvest was seven million ringnecks.
There is no parallel in the history of U.S. game birds to the success of the pheasant in South Dakota. The entire cost of establishing the state's pheasant population, from the planting of the first birds in 1911 to the end of the program six years later, was less than $20,000. While the extraordinary numbers of the 1940s were never approached, the return to the state on the $20,000 investment is estimated in the billions.
No phase of South Dakota life is, directly or indirectly, unaffected by the rise and fall of the pheasant population, and in recent times these ups and downs have occurred with alarming frequency. Nor has anyone been more acutely aware of the bird's importance to the economy of the state than former Governor Richard F. Kneip, who left that office only this summer to become ambassador to Singapore.
Three years ago, after the pheasant population took another sharp downward turn, Kneip called together representatives of 165 state organizations spanning pheasant-related interests from agriculture to tourism to land management to hotels to restaurants. He commissioned this Pheasant Congress, as it was called, with the job of studying the population patterns and coming up with a means of stabilizing them.
The congress concluded that the most significant factor in the pheasant's downward trend was changing land-use patterns: intensified agriculture, new and improved equipment that leaves fewer uncultivated margins, increased grazing, more sophisticated farming methods, the end of federal soil-bank programs, higher taxes and inflated land values. The congress proposed that the state legislature adopt the Pheasant Restoration Act, to be funded jointly by the state and hunters, with 80% of its appropriation to be used for the creation and improvement of habitat, 10% for restocking and 10% for predator control. The act was passed in 1977.
The state legislature allotted $125,000 for the program, the first time in the memory of most sportsmen that funds other than hunters' money have been appropriated for wildlife. Also a $5 Pheasant Restoration Stamp was tacked on all state small-game licenses. For every $5 collected, the Federal Government will put up another $12.
Last year, under one of the provisions of the act, some 180 landowners agreed to plant cover crops and to protect pheasants from grazing or disturbance other than hunting. In return, each farmer received up to $25 an acre per year. The three-year goal is 20,000 compensated acres, but as more and more farmers come to understand the importance of habitat to wildlife, it is expected that that figure will be exceeded several times.
John E. (Matt) Sutton Jr. of Agar has always understood. His long years of wise land management are reflected in the numerous coulees, breaks, shelterbelts and tree stands on his 4,600-acre property. All kinds of game—deer, grouse, rabbits, squirrels—find cover and sustenance there. Pheasants thrive on his land and always have done so, even when their numbers plummeted in other parts of the state. In 1976, for example, when drought made severe inroads into pheasant populations, Sutton's birds were unaffected, thanks to an extensive irrigation system that pumps water up out of the Oahe Reservoir of the Missouri River to his land.
Sutton's ranch, principally a commercial cattle and farming operation, also boasts the oldest privately owned herd of bison in the nation. It dates back to 1909, when Sutton's grandfather founded the herd with three animals. Along with everything else on the property, the buffalo have prospered. One of the ancillary delights of pheasant hunting on the ranch is the unexpected sight of the great humpbacked animals silhouetted against the sky. In this land of vast expanse where one is forever awed by the sensation of being able to see three days ahead, this is a vision of another kind, a glimpse back into the roots of the country.
That such a sight exists at all is the result of continuing public and private restoration efforts that date back to the end of the last century. The bison's swift and shocking decline from more than 75 million animals to a pitiful handful was as unexpected as the pheasant crash. That the bison did not disappear entirely is a result of combined efforts of the state and local citizens who stepped in then, as they have now, in the case of the pheasant. Today more than 60,000 American buffalo are scattered across the country and at least two individual herds, one privately owned and one in Custer State Park, number in the thousands.
It is too soon to determine whether efforts to restore the pheasant in South Dakota will be as successful as those that have replenished the buffalo herds, but there is reason for optimism. After only one year, there is noticeable improvement in cover wherever the Pheasant Restoration Plan has been in operation. In spite of a winter so harsh that deer sought shelter in barns and wandered up and down the main streets of towns, pheasant brood stocks appeared unaffected. They were further aided by late spring rains that delayed mowing, thereby permitting the birds a long and beneficial period on the nests.
Official counts of current populations are conservative—principally because exceptionally heavy cover has made accurate counts impossible—but unofficial estimates are more enthusiastic. The Game Department, in fact, seriously considered increasing the daily bag limit from two to three birds this season. Although it finally rejected that idea, there will be two extra hours added to the shooting day when hunting begins on the 21st of this month.
"I can't prove it, but every sign points to a great season," says Steve Nelson of the state's Department of Economic and Tourist Development. "The cover is fantastic. If you have cover, you have birds, and it certainly looks to me as if we have plenty of them this year. I'm betting that the pheasants in South Dakota are finally on their way back."
No one really believes that they will ever again be 15 million strong, anymore than that bison herds can be expected to reach their former numbers. The country has changed too much. But it is not unreasonable to hope for 10 million birds in future seasons.
Most hunters will settle for that.