ABERDEEN, S.D. – The pheasant rocketed from tall grass into the dirt-gray sky, rousted by a burly black Lab, his tale pulsating.

“Rooster!’’ shouted Tim McMullen.

Dan Rendulich of Duluth mounted his 12 gauge and fired once, tumbling the bird.

“Nice shot!’’ said McMullen of Delano as his 4-year-old Lab, Louie, retrieved the first bird of the day — and of a new season. It was proof that despite grim predictions of a plummeting South Dakota pheasant population, there was at least one ringneck left on the landscape.

Our group of six Minnesotans soon found more.

For pheasant hunters, South Dakota is the holy grail of ringneck hunting, long the nation’s pheasant capital, where hunters harvest up to 2 million birds a season.

But the backdrop to this year’s hunt was unique: A drought last year, followed by a cold, wet nesting season and coupled with continued loss of habitat resulted in a 64 percent statewide decline in South Dakota’s pheasant index. In some areas, the ringneck population was down a remarkable 80 percent from the 10-year average.

Those are eye-popping declines, even for ever-optimistic hunters.

But they didn’t deter our group, most of whom have been hunting South Dakota pheasants for more than 30 years. An annual fall trip or two to South Dakota is a treasured tradition not to be derailed by high gas prices, bad weather or a bleak pheasant forecast.

We’re not alone, of course. Each fall, about 25,000 Minnesotans hunt South Dakota roosters — about 25 percent of the 100,000 nonresident hunters — easily making the Gopher State the No. 1 exporter of ringneck hunters.

Crops, wind hampered hunters
A landowner near Aberdeen who allowed us to hunt his land summarized his view of the local pheasant population: “There are a few around, but it’s not like other years.’’

With that warning, we uncased guns and unleashed four Labs, two golden retrievers and a Brittany. We rousted a bird here, a bird there in tangled grasslands. Overall, we found his forecast pretty accurate. Still, we were encouraged by the numbers of birds, including hens, that we flushed.

As dusk fell Saturday, Mike Smith of Cologne, Minn., dropped a long-tailed rooster kicked up by companions walking a tree line — ending our day with a limit of birds.

“That’s amazing,’’ Smith said with a broad smile. “The heck with the prognosticators. What a fun day.’’

We didn’t fare as well the next two days. Roosters soon learn the game and many birds flushed wild, out of shotgun range. But for us, pheasant hunting  is about more than how many birds we bag. It’s about hiking through expansive grasslands that stretch to the horizon. Gathering at small-town cafes for breakfast and bragging. Eating lunch on the tailgates of pickups. Crowding into cheap motels with tuckered hunting dogs.

Hunter no-shows

But this year’s pheasant forecast apparently scared some hunters away.

“Hunter numbers were down about 10,000,’’ said Chris Hull, communications specialist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. The no-shows were split evenly between resident and out-of-state hunters.

“Conservation officers said they talked to a lot of people aware and concerned about the pheasant situation,’’ Hull said.

Officers reported that on Saturday, hunters in the southeast averaged .25 to .50 birds per hunter. Those in the central region averaged 1 to 1.5 birds per hunter. And hunters in the northeast averaged .50 to 1 bird per hunter.

Just 30 percent of the state’s corn crop had been harvested, which undoubtedly hurt hunter success. And high winds Sunday didn’t help. Indicative of the poor spring nesting season, South Dakota officials had said some birds renested late, a prediction hunters confirmed.

“Hunters reported seeing lots of small birds, some as small as doves,’’ Hull said. We, too, occasionally flushed birds so small they couldn’t be identified as hens or roosters.

Skunked: A first
At sunset Monday, we gathered at our trucks in the dark, and I surprised my hunting partners when I stepped out of one of the vehicles clad in hunting gear from the waist up, and boxer shorts and hunting boots from the waist down, drawing guffaws.

It’s not uncommon for our dogs to encounter skunks during our hunts, but somehow, while walking the edge of cattails, I stepped too close to a hidden black-and-white critter.

“Skunk!’’ I hollered to my partner, and I directed my Lab away.

I thought we had avoided the critter, but the strong scent persisted, even as I flushed and bagged a bird, and I finally realized I had been sprayed — a first.

“I don’t want you in my truck,’’ McMullen said.

So off came the pants, an inauspicious end to the day’s hunt.

“You get to sleep outside tonight,’’ quipped Mike Porter of Minneapolis.