I’ve pheasant hunted in South Dakota almost every season of my 13 years as an employee of Pheasants Forever, but I’d never been fortunate enough to make a pilgrimage to the “pheasant capital” for opening day. That finally changed last week as I pointed my truck west on highway 212.
I was not alone heading west out of the Twin Cities last Friday afternoon. Thousands of vehicles with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan license plates caravanned 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 season’s opener is also acknowledged as 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. Plain and simple, pheasants are big business in South Dakota.
I saw that first hand at the Cowboy Country Store in Watertown. “Welcome Hunters” signs greeted me as did a massive display of shotgun shells and blaze orange apparel. Greenbacks were being handed over in front of a line two dozen customers long. Business was good on the heels of the state announcing a 42 percent spike in bird numbers surveyed by the annual roadside count.
Habitat is 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 South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. As you can imagine, the 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 drive.
Dry Conditions Necessitate Dog Power
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 opening day.
As we entered the field at high noon for South Dakota’s mid-day opening day start, dust puffed under our boots. It hadn’t rained in weeks and any moisture from the morning had burned off as the thermometer made its way toward 70 degrees. We knew the conditions could be tough for our bird dogs, but our enthusiasm was high.
We spread out twelve deep behind two Labs, a Springer, a wirehair, my shorthair, and even a corgi. Literally twenty seconds after we began our march across a patch of switchgrass, my shorthair, Trammell, eased into a point. An easy snapshot at fifteen yards later and I was holding the first rooster of the season at 12:01 p.m. The shooting action slowed to a more reasonable cadence after that with a flush every fifteen minutes or so till our group had a limit of 36 roosters before the sun reached the day’s “golden hour.” It may have been my first South Dakota opener, but I can guarantee it won’t be my last!
is Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever’s Vice President of Marketing. Follow Bob on Twitter @BobStPierre
and listen to Bob and Billy Hildebrand every Saturday morning on FAN Outdoors radio on KFAN FM100.3