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.
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.