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Volume 16, Issue 46 - November 13 - November 19, 2008
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A Postcard from Pheasant Paradise

A 26-hour drive from the Bay, South Dakota is where the birds are

We had been in the sprawling field of thigh-high rye and broom grass not 10 minutes, my German shorthair pointer, Sophie, quartering, when she wheeled and locked into a rigid pose. Her nose thrust forward, she was crouched and trembling with focus. There are few things more elegant or exciting than a pointing dog in action on pheasants.

Field partner Rich Woodhull and I hurried forward, well out on either side of the dog, 20-gauge over-under shotguns at port arms and ready. But there was no flush. The bird had moved. Striding in, I gave Sophie the release command, and she sprinted ahead to relocate. I took a deep breath and tried to regain control of my racing heart.

Fish Are Biting

Big winter rockfish are arriving daily to the mid-Bay. Stripers in the 36-inch range are becoming common. The bluefish have vamoosed, so whether you are trolling soft shad or live lining perch and spot, the toothy devils will no longer spoil your baits. Most of the bigger rock have been cruising traditional Eastern Shore structures such as The Diamonds, The Hill, Gum Thickets and Bloody Point. On the Western Shore, the mouths of the tributaries are the hotspots. Also the Bay Bridge has been holding its share of stripers — as well as some good perch and a few sea trout. It’s a good time to get out on the Chesapeake.

Exactly 100 years ago, three east-central South Dakota sportsmen from the town of Redfield turned loose three breeding pairs of ring-neck pheasants at Hagman’s Grove, just outside of town. They had secured the birds from Grant’s Pass, Oregon, where Judge Owen Denny, the American consul to Shanghai, had recently established the first population of this Chinese game bird in the United States.

Eleven years later, the first official pheasant season in South Dakota opened in Redfield’s Spink County. Quickly acclimating themselves, the rugged and prolific birds had spread out and multiplied. Now South Dakota’s ring-neck population has been estimated as high as 16 million birds, an excellent reason for the state’s claim as Pheasant Hunting Capital of the World.

In the Field

Moving downfield, we zigzagged after Sophie and beat through any dense cover that might have concealed a rooster lying doggo. About two hundred yards out in front of us, the birds started to go up. They were well out of range. The brown mottled hens flushed first, catching our attention. Then came the gaudy roosters.

The males were big, brightly colored, graceful with their exceptionally long tails and obviously smart. The season had been open for less than three weeks, but all of the rascals in our field appeared to have been soundly educated. These birds are not easy to bag.

Rich and I separated to try to catch them in a pincer movement. We had arrived late the first day, had only an hour or so of daylight before shooting was over and did not have the luxury of patiently waiting for a bird to make a mistake. We had to force it.

Sophie and I circled well out, moving through an area of mixed corn and undergrowth where I had seen a couple of the roosters land. Rich circled the opposite way downfield to cut off their escape route. If they hesitated between us for long, perhaps we could trap some of them within shooting range.

Sometimes one of my plans works. As I moved in, a couple of hens flushed close out of the cornstalks to my left, alerting us and jangling my nerves. Two large roosters, cackling and screaming, launched far off to the other side, again out of range.

Then Sophie locked up, paused and frantically relocated as her nose told her a bird was close but running. I loped after her, my gun at the ready. Suddenly a wild thunder of heavy wing beats and a cackle marked a rooster’s flush. It was too far from me to shoot, but it flew right into Rich’s ambush.

A sharp boom and a cloud of feathers marked the victory. We hurried to the pheasant. The long, sharp spurs on the bird’s legs explained our difficult stalk. This rooster was definitely a veteran. I guessed it had been running these fields for the better part of three years.

We relaxed after that, and though we hunted until sundown and had a couple more opportunities, we didn’t score another bird. But we had achieved our goal: getting the kinks out from the long 26-hour drive from Annapolis and letting Sophie get a taste of what was to come. There were six more days of hunting, and we were intent on enjoying every minute.

Our hosts again this season were Frank and Bob Smith of Gettysburg, South Dakota (, 605.765.2500). They have been assisting and guiding outdoor adventurers to the wildlife treasures of South Dakota since their dad started the operation over 50 years ago on the shores of Lake Oahe. Both Frank and Bob are great sources of information and assistance for both public and private hunting and fishing areas. Give them a call if you’re looking for a great experience.

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