Ahead of us, the ancient Suburban lurched to a halt in the middle of a muddy road in north-central South Dakota. The driver, Don Vetch, got out and walked to the front of the vehicle.
“What's he doing now?” asked David Lowe of Rochester, who was behind the wheel of a mud-spattered Dodge pickup. He and I, along with another passenger, Laurence Ligon of Austin, Texas, watched Vetch grab a half-dozen pheasants from the basket welded to the front of the Suburban, then walk back and toss them behind the rear seat.
As we guessed at what might be amiss, Vetch went back to the basket and grabbed more pheasants, which he again tossed into the truck's passenger area.
Then Vetch, our host and owner of A.J. Acres, looked back toward us and yelled, “Engine's overheating!” Apparently the six members of our hunting party had shot so many roosters that they were blocking the vehicle's air flow.
Only in South Dakota.
A few months ago, I wouldn't have bet on that kind of success. In June, when South Dakota announced that it would no longer conduct its annual pheasant brood survey, I assumed the state was trying to hide bad news about bird numbers.
Boy, was I wrong.
FUN IN THE FOG
I've made a half-dozen trips to South Dakota over the past 15 years, and I can tell you that the current population of wild pheasants is very, very strong.
Well, on Oct. 30, the first day of our main party's hunt near Onaka, we surrounded a 10-acre cattail slough. There wasn't a breath of wind, and dense fog limited visibility to less than 150 yards.
Lowe and I, along with four Labs, hoped to push birds toward the other hunters, and we hadn't even entered the slough before birds started flying.
The next 45 minutes were both chaotic and magical. Gunfire rang out from all directions. The birds, perhaps confused by the fog, refused to leave the slough. As my Lab, Roxie, flushed roosters from the cattails, others soared in out of the mist and landed behind me.
I shot two birds and missed several more before fighting my way out of the swamp toward the hill where Keeton Eoff, of Abilene, Texas, had been busy.
“The birds were moving before I even got up here,” he said. “We couldn't see them coming until they were right on top of us.” But that also meant the birds couldn't see the hunters until they were within range, and Eoff, along with fellow Texans Bobby Caskey and Patrick Carmichael, had knocked down 10 roosters.
A few minutes later, when Lowe and his three dogs finally emerged from the slough, we did a quick count and reached 17 – one short of our limit.
“No!” Lowe declared with a wry grin. “I was afraid we'd have too many, so I stopped shooting!”
It took a bit of doing, but Eoff knocked down our 18th bird at exactly 11:37, which meant it had taken us just 97 minutes to shoot our limit.
We weren't at a shooting preserve. These were wild roosters that had already been hunted several times this season.
Of course, that kind of day isn't the norm, and the weather was the wild card in this pheasant hunting adventure.
BATTLING THE ELEMENTS
Lowe and I had arrived a day ahead of the rest of the crew, and on Oct. 29 the two of us made the 30-minute drive north to some property he'd hunted years ago.
This was supposed to be a warm-up hunt, a chance to stretch our legs, get the dogs some work and shoot a few birds before our companions arrived.
Our attitude changed when we found nearly a foot of snow in the area, and sloughs where drifts had bent the cattails down into a nearly impenetrable jungle.
“This is not what I was expecting,” Lowe said as we loosed the dogs.
I've chased pheasants for more than 20 years, and this was the hardest I've ever worked. At one point, as I stood in cattails and waist-deep snow 15 yards from the edge of a slough, with sleet pounding me in the face, I told Lowe, “If I'm not out of here in an hour, send in a rescue party.”
Shortly thereafter, I knocked down our first rooster of the day, and while I had a good mark where it had fallen, it took a good 15 minutes to blaze a path that would allow Roxie to find it.
Lowe dropped our limit bird four hours later. My phone told me I'd walked six miles through the snow, but my aching legs told me it was a lot more than that.
And the weather wasn't done with us. On Halloween, nature decided to “trick” our hunting party with wind gusts that approached 60 mph. I'm not ashamed to admit that my presence on this day was merely decorative. I didn't drop a single bird, and I doubt I even came close.
Fortunately, my fellow hunters bailed me out. Ligon, who hadn't shot any birds during our shootout in the fog, ignored the gale and dropped four roosters in the first 15 minutes as he blocked the edge of a food plot. “Pheasant hunting is a team sport!” the 66-year-old declared as he pulled rooster after rooster from his vest.
He couldn't have been more right. One hunter's miss often turned into an opportunity for someone else, and plenty of those birds ended up in the Suburban's basket.
The other members of our “team” included eight Labrador retrievers. Each of them has strengths and weaknesses, and while we put 57 birds into the freezer over four days, we failed to recover just two birds that hit the ground. No matter how you cut it, that's great dog work.
But for me, the highlight of the trip involved a bird that didn't hit dirt at all. It hit ice.
Lowe brought four dogs with him, including seven-month-old Dolly, a yellow Lab out of the same kennel in Iowa where I got my Roxie 5½ years ago. They're distant cousins, but they look enough alike to be sisters.
Dolly saw limited action during the first three days of our trip, but on the final day of our hunt, she was at Lowe's side when a rooster exploded from a hillside and soared over a frozen pond.
Lowe winged it, and the bird hit the ice at a full run.
From 50 yards away, I had a perfect view as Dolly raced onto the ice in hot pursuit. She was gaining on the bird as it approached the opposite shore, and when the rooster suddenly changed directions, Dolly slammed on the brakes and slid on her belly across the ice, then scrambled to her feet and resumed the chase.
She finally caught the bird 150 yards from where Lowe stood, then proudly carried it back across the pond to her master.
Lowe couldn't have been happier.
“That was awesome!” he declared. “That was just perfect. I don't care if I shoot another bird all day.”
Of course, 15 minutes later he recorded a clean double as the rest of the gang watched.
Again, only in South Dakota.
Eric Atherton is a long-time Post Bulletin outdoors writer from Rochester. He can be reached at email@example.com.