NORTH-CENTRAL SOUTH DAKOTA -- Exploding into an azure sky, the rooster pheasant's iridescent feathers glowed in the late afternoon sun.
The gaudy ringneck rocketed over a field of brilliant green alfalfa -- a scene so stunning I paused a nanosecond to admire it, then instinctively shouldered my 12-gauge and squeezed the trigger.
My young yellow Lab raced out and proudly retrieved the fallen bird, then scoured the grasslands for more scent.
Welcome to South Dakota, the No. 1 pheasant hunting destination in the nation -- for good reason. Even in a year when the pheasant population is down nearly 50 percent, birds can be found.
Last week, undeterred by the somber forecast, four Minnesota friends and I journeyed there. We found decent numbers of pheasants -- and much more: The undulating Missouri River Valley landscape of prairie grass, pastures and ravines that stretches to the horizon and beyond -- a breathtaking "Wild West'' vista. And the small-town restaurant-tavern owner who welcomed us with smiles, homemade pie and advice on where to hunt.
"This is some country,'' said Mike Smith of Cologne, Minn., as we ate sandwiches on a bluff overlooking a picturesque valley 100 feet below.
For us, the entire experience -- the dazzling landscape, chatting with locals over coffee or beer, playing cards and cooking chili in our rooms -- was as important as finding pheasants.
"The highlight for me is sitting on the tailgate at the end of the day and rehashing the hunt,'' said Tim McMullen of Delano.
Minnesotans in South Dakota
Which is why the bleak pheasant forecast this fall wasn't a problem for us. Minnesota's pheasant population is down 64 percent and South Dakota's is down 46 percent, but birds can be found in both states for those willing to work for them.
Some aren't. Minnesota's pheasant stamp sales are down by 12,000, or 15 percent, and South Dakota's small-game license sales had been down 6 percent, but now are nearly even with last year, though hunters are expected to harvest about 1 million roosters, down from 1.8 million last year.
"That's still more than Minnesota, Iowa and North Dakota combined,'' said Travis Runia, state Game, Fish and Parks Department upland biologist. "It's still world-class hunting.''
For diehard hunters like those in my group -- addicted to the thrill of flushing a rooster -- fewer hunters just mean more opportunities for us.
Still, we saw plenty of Minnesota license plates. Last year, Minnesota again exported more pheasant hunters to South Dakota -- 25,000 -- than any other state. Minnesotans make up 25 percent of the 100,000 nonresident hunters who visit annually.
We found birds
Over the past 30 years, we've hunted South Dakota pheasants from Watertown to Chamberlain and beyond -- and most everywhere in between. This year, we hunted east and west of the Missouri River. Part of the allure was trying something new. Cactus grow there, and the soil was dusty-dry -- a stark contrast to the flooded fields in eastern South Dakota.
We also decided to hunt five days after the Oct. 15 South Dakota's opener, hoping to encounter fewer hunters on public lands and betting more crops would be harvested.
We were right on both counts. And while we didn't find large numbers of pheasants, we continually flushed enough to keep us and our dogs happy.
Hunting public "walk-in'' lands that bordered a corn field, Jack Rendulich of Duluth and I bagged four birds in our first hour. "Pretty good start,'' he said. But we didn't get another shot until late in the day. Still, five of us finished that day with 14 birds, one shy of our limit.
We hunted hard over 4 1/2 days with six dogs, always until sunset. We made some great shots -- and missed plenty of easy ones. Still, we bagged 56 roosters -- not bad for a down year.
"We saw a lot of birds,'' said Mike Porter of Minneapolis. "We never got our limits, but that's not important.''
Said McMullen: "It couldn't have been any better.''
Doug Smith • email@example.com