Opening South Dakota’s pheasant season with a bang

I’ve pheasant hunted in South Dakota almost every season of my 13 years as a Pheasants Forever employee, but I’d never made a pilgrimage to the nation’s “pheasant capital” for opening day. That fact changed last week as I pointed my truck west on U.S. Highway 212. 

Pheasant economics

The author (far left) and his hunting group bagged a limit of roosters on opening day last weekend.I was not alone leaving the Twin Cities last Friday, Oct. 16. Thousands of vehicles with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan license plates convoyed with me through Olivia, Montevideo, Watertown, and beyond. 

A few years ago, the South Dakota Department of Tourism estimated that pheasant hunting generates $223 million in retail economic impact annually and an additional $111 million in salaries annually. Those revenues are the result of 76,000 resident and 100,000 non-resident pheasant hunters purchasing licenses, fuel, food and lodging during the state’s three-month pheasant hunting season.

The nonresident rooster opener is the busiest weekend of the year at the Sioux Falls Regional Airport. In fact, the state estimates there are 4,500 jobs linked directly to the pheasant hunting industry and related tourism. Pheasants are big business in South Dakota. 

I saw that firsthand at the Cowboy Country Store in Watertown. “Welcome Hunters” signs greeted me as did a massive display of shotgun shells and blaze orange apparel. A line of two dozen customers handed over greenbacks at a rapid pace. Business was good on the heels of the state announcing a 42-percent increase in bird numbers surveyed by the annual roadside count.

Habitat the key

My opening morning destination was the farm of Les Roberts, 92, a long-time Pheasants Forever member who has purchased life memberships for each of his three sons. Earlier this month, Les was recognized as “Habitat Partner of the Year” by the S.D. Game, Fish and Parks Department. His mix of grass, shelterbelts, food plots, and brood/pollinator cover did not disappoint. Ringnecks clearly approved of the habitat recipe on the farm as seven roosters greeted me at the end of the gravel driveway. 

Dry conditions require canine power

Longtime Pheasants Forever member Les Roberts hosted St. Pierre and his hunting party at Roberts’ property that he manages for grassland wildlife.As luck would have it, my youngest bird dog entered into her first heat cycle days before my South Dakota departure. That meant my veteran shorthair, Trammell, would carry a heavy load during the unseasonably warm opener. 

As we entered the field at high noon for South Dakota’s opening day start, dust puffed under our boots. It hadn’t rained in weeks and any dew had burned off as the thermometer approached 70 degrees. We knew the conditions could be tough for our bird dogs, but our enthusiasm stayed high.  

We spread out 12 deep behind two Labs, a springer, a wirehair, my shorthair, and even a corgi. Literally 20 seconds after we began marching across a patch of switchgrass, my shorthair, Trammell, eased into point. An easy snapshot at 15 yards later and I was holding the first rooster of the season at 12:01 p.m. The shooting action then slowed to a more reasonable cadence with a flush every 15 minutes or so till our group had a limit of 36 roosters when the sun reached the “golden hour.”

It may have been my first South Dakota opener, but I can guarantee it won’t be my last!  

Bob St.Pierre is Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s vice president of marketing. Follow Bob on Twitter @BobStPierre.

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