More than a dozen pheasants erupted like popcorn, flushing helter skelter into the sky one after another from a cattail slough. Six hunters swung their shotguns and fired a barrage of shots, dropping a couple of the birds. But most sailed over the South Dakota prairie unscathed.
"Holy cripes," Mike Smith, 56, of Cologne, Minn., said with a wide grin. "Could you believe how many birds were in there? Oh, that was fun. I missed about a dozen."
Said his son, Jeremy Smith, 33, of Plymouth, Minn.: "It was a blur. I was out of shells and trying to reload and they just kept coming."
Welcome to the South Dakota pheasant opener, an annual celebration of bird dogs, shotguns and wily roosters. An army of hunters clad in blaze-orange descends on virtually every gravel road, slough, cornfield and grassland. Motels, restaurants, bars and grocery stores are packed with hunters, and signs welcoming them are ubiquitous. Why? Because South Dakota is to pheasant hunters what Las Vegas is to gamblers or Colorado is to skiers.
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It is overwhelmingly the No. 1 pheasant state in the nation. Hunters journey here from every corner of America to roust roosters.
Last year, they bagged 1.8 million of them _ way more than any other state and about 1.3 million more than were harvested in Minnesota.
The opener also is all about tradition. Friends and family reunite beneath an endless prairie sky in an expansive and beautiful landscape.
Our group of six Minnesotans journeyed here for the opener, rekindling our own tradition of heading west at least once each fall to pursue ringnecks and renew friendships. Besides Smith and his son were Jack Rendulich, 54, and his son, Dan, 24, of Duluth, and Mike Porter, 53, of Minneapolis. Also along was Derrick Herther, 50, of rural Aberdeen, S.D., Mike Smith's brother-in-law and our local connection to the area. Friends of Herther allowed us to hunt their land.
As usual, South Dakota didn't disappoint.
The local Lions Club started us off right with a $5 all-you-can-eat breakfast in tiny Groton, S.D. Most of the 100 or so who showed up were hunters, anxious for a new season to begin.
Then at noon, when South Dakota's legal shooting hour arrived, the seven of us surrounded a small patch of grass and cattails. Soon the first roosters of the season squirted out the end, evading us. Then one got up and flew west toward Herther.
"I've got him," he hollered, as if calling for a fly ball in the outfield. Then he fired his .12 gauge once, and the bird tumbled to the turf.
Soon two other birds fell, both retrieved by one of our five hunting dogs.
"It's amazing a little bitty pothole like that can hold so many birds," said Mike Smith.
We hiked draws, grasslands, edges of cornfields, tree lines and patches of cattails _ flushing birds and occasionally bagging some.
There were shots to remember, and shots we'd rather forget.
Then it was time to rest the dogs and break for a mid-afternoon lunch of sandwiches, chips and homemade pickles on the tailgates of our trucks.
"Ain't this great," said Mike Smith, relishing every aspect of the trip. "And what a day."
It's still a little work
Soon we were heading in our caravan of vehicles for another hunting spot. And then another. As the sun dipped low, we tried futilely to surround a large cattail slough bordered on two sides by unharvested cornfields. We shot several ringnecks, but many more flew out of gun range. Still, the flurry meant we each ended the day with our three-bird limits.
We recounted the day around dinner and drinks at the little cabin we rented near Aberdeen. Out the back door, in the dark, we heard the cackling of pheasants in the distance.
Sunday, we did it all over again. But the birds were tougher to find. Yes, this is South Dakota. And yes, there are places where a three-bird daily limit comes easy. But with much corn still standing in the area, we worked for our birds.
By mid-afternoon, we had just three. A visit to Lobotomy Slough (named for the demise of a raccoon there a few years ago), brimming with water this year because of heavy rains, we bagged two. But it was a visit to another series of cattail patches near dusk that produced birds, giving us a baker's dozen for the day.
No one complained.
"It was just fun seeing birds," Jack Rendulich said.
The sky turned burnt orange as the sun slipped below the horizon, and we stood at our vehicles, savoring another day afield. The chill in the air signaled that fall definitely had arrived. Overhead, huge flocks of mallards rode a strong northwest wind south.
"What a day,'' Mike Smith said.