I departed my former home in Bismarck at 6 a.m. without even a rumor of inclement weather in the forecast. My destination: Wessington Springs, a sleepy little town in east-central South Dakota.
My plan: To hunt ring-necked pheasants, the Lords of the Prairie. Riding shotgun was Buddy, my 8-year-old black Labrador.
It was Thanksgiving 2009, and my drive that morning passed like a kidney stone. It was white-knuckled agony. A seemingly innocent snow squall near the North Dakota-South Dakota border unleashed a chain reaction of ugly conditions, from periodic whiteouts to icy overpasses and highways that sent vehicles into ditch-bound tailspins. For tow-truck drivers, it was a bull market. For me, it was precious hunting time lost. For Buddy — well, he just slept, and snored, the drive away.
I pulled back the curtain on the semi-rusted memory a few weeks ago when I got a call from an old friend and former co-worker. He wanted to take his son to South Dakota over Thanksgiving weekend and asked me for some pheasant-hunting advice.
He came to the right source. For nearly 20 years beginning in my early 20s, I spent every Thanksgiving holiday weekend — often to the chagrin of my mother — in South Dakota chasing ringnecks. At 51, I look back on those oft-crazy bird-hunting adventures — and the many people I met and became friends with along the way — with deep gratitude and thankfulness. It was a stanza of my life truly lived in full.
During this period’s early years, I spent the long Thanksgiving weekend mostly with my uncle and late grandfather. Superb wingshooters, they made their bones hunting the birdie bottomlands of the Minnesota River near Belle Plaine. Most years we’d hit the road after Thanksgiving dinner — a five-hour journey to the South Dakota hinterlands. We shot countless limits in those days, most over my uncle’s relentless German shorthaired pointer. Fine hunting aside, my grandfather — a proud Irishman — always stole the show. Often while chewing leaf tobacco and using a jelly jar as a spittoon, he held court, spinning wonderful yarns about hunting during the Soil Bank era, making blood sausage on the farm, playing “hide-and-seek” with local game wardens and watching his old German shepherd — a former police dog he taught to hunt — break ice to retrieve a drake mallard on a river slough.
Truth is, I never knew which stories were true — or merely embellished. But I didn’t care: It was grand theater. I still hear his stories today and feel the sensation of his mild Irish brogue hit my ears, proving, at least for me, Faulkner’s famous quote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
• • •
In the late 1990s, I took my first daily newspaper job as the outdoors writer for the Aberdeen American News. For my sins, I was paid the living wage of $8.95 an hour. But I got rich in other ways. My first editor wanted me to write a series on agricultural producers who practiced habitat conservation. That’s when I met Charlie and Rudy, both whip-smart land stewards and wildlife enthusiasts.
Charlie is a rancher from Eureka, west of Aberdeen. Everything about Charlie is big — his voice, his stature, his personality, his opinions. A retired grain farmer, Rudy, who died several years back, was, by contrast, completely understated.
Both men helped ease my transition to prairie life, educating me about South Dakota politics, hunting traditions and land and water conservation. If I needed a place to hunt, I always had one. Rudy took a particular interest in my well-being, exhibiting a strain of radical generosity I’ll never forget — especially over Thanksgiving, his favorite holiday.
Being a dirt-poor journalist wasn’t all bad. I didn’t have the money to drive home for the holiday, but Rudy being Rudy, he’d always invite me to hunt. One year I got to his farm on Thanksgiving and he was gone. He’d had a family emergency, but he left me a note on his front porch: “Gone to Sioux Falls. Hunt wherever you want. Stay the weekend. Beer is in the frig.”
That was Rudy.
Pheasant hunting in South Dakota on Thanksgiving isn’t for everyone — especially for those looking for a traditional meal. Most cafes are closed. Bars in some small towns open Thanksgiving night but typically only serve frozen pizza, pickled eggs or, if you’re lucky, chislic — the iconic South Dakota dish of cubed beef or lamb that’s fried and salted and served with toothpicks as utensils. It’s not turkey and dressing, but it’s better than a stale packaged sandwich from a gas station.
The hunting can be boom-or-bust. Gullible, young-of-the-year roosters have already been cleansed from the gene pool, leaving only wise survivors to hunt. But they’re almost always easy to find, because they’re congregated in one place: heavy cover.
• • •
When I finally made it to Wessington Springs, I headed directly to The Slough — a cattail marsh west of town my uncle and I got permission to hunt years before and which always held birds in its subterranean environs. The night before, the landowner told me he had just picked the corn surrounding the wetland and that the best way to access it was from a nearby minimum-maintenance road. “It should be full of birds,” he said.
The only problem: Buddy and I were walking with the wind, and late-season birds are notoriously spooky. Close to the slough, I released Buddy and he made a small arc in the picked field and finally started working the slough toward me and into the wind — a slick, self-taught scenting maneuver he had perfected from his many days afield.
That’s when our hunt morphed into a must-see-to-believe happening. Over the next few minutes, dozens upon dozens of birds exploded from the cattails. Cackling roosters crisscrossed in midair, coppery blurs amid the mayhem, while still others rattled the cattails before flushing hither and yon.
I quickly dispatched a limit, and Buddy, who passed away in 2012, retrieved them to hand. Then we stood there in bewildered awe, alone on the South Dakota prairie, our harrowing early-morning drive long forgotten, watching still more birds flush.
It was the perfect coda to our Thanksgiving hunt — and a memory I still savor a decade past.