Passing on the pheasant hunting tradition

Some traditions are worth keeping, even if there are fewer pheasants around

In past years, the author’s son, Gavin, has been a spectator on a few pheasant hunts. Starting this year, however, he will be trusted to carry a shotgun and fully join in on the pheasant hunting tradition.

I remember my first pheasant.
My father sent a note to the school principal asking for an “excused” absence so we could go pheasant hunting. When the reply finally came, it simply said there were probably worse reasons to miss school.
So, with the principal’s blessing, my dad took me on my first pheasant hunt. It was a Friday, my Dad’s day off, and I was 13.
For my inaugural trip, Dad decided we’d head west to hunt some family ground with my great uncle. As kids we only knew him as Uncle Clarence, and for years I didn’t even know he had a last name. A testament to his character, people who weren’t even remotely related called him Uncle Clarence. A few other folks probably called him by some other choice names, many of which wouldn’t be fit for print.
Anyway, even in those days Uncle Clarence was a throwback. He had survived the D-Day invasion in World War II, but I never heard him talk about it, which was noteworthy because he seemed to have an opinion on everything else. He was loud, boisterous and always wore a smile on his wrinkled face.
Uncle Clarence lived in Forestburg, which sits on the edge of the James River Valley along state Highway 34 in Sanborn County. Little more than a blip on the map these days and better known for its famous melons, it was also home to some really good pheasant hunting.
We arrived and loaded up our gear in Uncle Clarence’s pickup. After hunting a couple places without much luck, he decided to take us “up north” to a plot of land where he knew there were some birds. As we turned on the two-track gravel leading to the field we were going to walk, we saw a rooster pheasant sitting on the trunk of a deadfall just inside a fence line. Dad asked Uncle Clarence to stop and started coaching me on how to get out of the truck, load the single-shot .410 Winchester he had given me and walk into the ditch before attempting a shot.
“Why go to all that trouble? Just shoot him out of the moonroof,” Clarence said as he started to slide back the roof window of his pickup.
And if you knew Uncle Clarence, or have known men like him, you knew he was serious. However, Dad told me to step out and shoot this bird in true road-hunting fashion, which meant at least setting foot in the ditch before touching one off. So, I got out of the truck, carefully loaded my gun and then slammed the door shut.
At the noise from the slamming door, the bird took off. And then a couple more jumped out of the CRP surrounding the deadfall. And then dozens more lifted from the cattail slough behind the CRP. And then hundreds more erupted skyward from all directions. Birds were even coming out of the abandoned farm buildings on the other side of the road.
I stared blindly into the swarm. By this time, Dad was standing next to me on the road. I fumbled around, trying to bring the gun to my shoulder.
“Put the gun down and just watch,” he said. “You’ll probably never see anything like this again.”
And he was right. In the 26 years since that day, I have yet to see that many pheasants at one time. Sure, I’ve seen big groups of pheasants, even flocks of hundreds get up. But that first time was different, and standing there on a minimum-maintenance road in Sanborn County, I became hooked on hunting, having never fired a shot.
Eventually, I did end up shooting my first rooster later that day. We didn’t have a dog back then, so it took me a minute to find the downed bird after the surprise finally wore off that I had actually hit it.
Truth be known, I actually tripped and fell, as 13-year-olds are prone to do, while I was searching and just happened to look up at the winged rooster staring right back at me through the canary grass. I was proud as punch when I took it to my dad. However, when I set the bird down to catch my breath and tell Dad the story, it promptly flew away.
I thought it was dead, but it evidently had enough juice left to fly 20 yards or so into a weed-choked fence line. Lucky enough and laughter aside, we were actually able to retrieve it a second time.
I will never forget that day, but not because I shot my first pheasant. I stood a bit taller that October day because my dad took me hunting.

Missing the point
Recently, much has been made of the state Game, Fish and Parks Department’s findings from its annual pheasant brood survey report, which estimated the statewide pheasants-per-mile index was down 45 percent compared to last year and down 65 percent compared to the 10-year average.
Often regarded as the unofficial, official start to pheasant season, the survey’s findings are viewed by some hunters as an annual harbinger of how good the hunting will be during the upcoming pheasant season. While I won’t argue the report’s findings or the fact the state’s pheasant population is trending downward, I will argue that people who jump to conclusions on how good, or how bad, the season will be based on a report are missing the point.
Living in South Dakota, it’s easy to take pheasant hunting for granted, even in down years. The trick to truly enjoying a pheasant hunt lies not in bagging a limit of birds, but in deriving greater satisfaction from the roosters you do shoot and from spending quality time afield, be it alone or with family and friends.
My son is set to take his HuntSAFE course later this month, and, if all goes well, he’ll be able to carry his single-shot .410 Winchester — the very same gun my father handed me before my first hunt — into the pheasant fields alongside me this fall. Regardless of what any survey says, I know where we’ll be at noon on Oct. 21 when the season opens.
He’s been with me on several hunts before, but, as most hunters would tell you, it’s different when you’re certified through HuntSAFE and trusted to carry a gun and be one of the guys.
I doubt we’ll see a swarm of birds like I did on my first hunt, but I’m fine with that. I’d much rather he learns to work hard for any pheasants we do shoot and to appreciate much more than the simple act of pulling the trigger.
My hope is that he doesn’t judge the day based on if he shoots his first bird or not, but somehow discovers, on his own, the treasures the outdoors offer to those who seek them. Some traditions are worth keeping, and, who knows, maybe by day’s end he might just walk a little taller like his daddy did all those years ago.
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