I have a South Dakota hunting license in my wallet. That's nothing new. I've chased pheasants there the past three years, and each time I've had a lot of fun and shot my share of birds (and missed my share, too).
What's new this year, however, is that my license is valid Jan. 27-31. Fewer out-of-state hunters are traveling to SD these days – a result of declining bird numbers – and extending the season for a full month is the state's attempt to attract more tourism dollars.
It's an interesting idea, and given how mild our winter has been so far, it's possible that a few hunters are still sneaking up on big flocks of birds in cattail sloughs and woodlots.
I haven't totally ruled out the possibility of such a trip myself, but it's unlikely. I'm not deterred by the idea of trudging through knee-deep snow to chase roosters (I did that near Aberdeen in late October), but a hunt that late in the winter would feel rather odd, because over the years, pheasant hunting has developed a very specific routine and calendar for me.
I go out on Opening Day, even though it's usually rather miserable. The corn hasn't been harvested, the grass is thick and green, and usually the weather seems to be rainy, or so warm that I'm worried about my dog over-heating. In the past decade, I can think of just one “good” opening day in Minnesota.
Then there are my “corn out” openers, those glorious days when the crops are harvested near my favorite hunting spots. I put a lot of miles on my pickup as I monitor the harvest, and there's nothing better than a walk through a waterway the day after the combines finish their work.
Well, almost nothing better. The “snow opener,” when the first inch or two of snow reveals pheasant tracks and concentrates birds in thick cover, can be truly magical.
Later, I have my “after-deer opener.” Several of the farms I hunt are locked down from the bow opener until the final day of the firearms deer season – which I've come to see as a fantastic system. Right about the time when birds on public land have become scarce and skittish, I gain access to private land where birds haven't seen a hunting dog. This year, I shot two roosters in 10 minutes on Nov. 31.
By mid-December, however, things generally get fairly tough. The frozen ground (and in most years, the snow drifts) take a toll on me and my dog. The dumb birds are in someone's freezer, and the wind and cold slow my reactions on the rate occasion when a rooster holds tight enough for me to get a shot.
But I still go out, and in fact I've developed a last-week-of-the-season ritual in which I say farewell to my favorite spots, some of which I've hunted for 20 years.
On Dec. 27, I spent two hours in a waterway near West Concord. I'd shot five roosters there so far this season, but this trip produced just one hard-earned point by Roxie, and the bird that erupted from between her paws in a snow-filled willow thicket was a hen. As always, such a flush was fun to see.
On Dec. 28, I trudged through my favorite swamp near High Forest for 90 minutes. I hadn't shot a single bird there this season, and this day didn't end that run of bad luck. Roxie found plenty of tracks, but the only bird we saw flushed 100 yards ahead of us.
Finally, an hour before sunset Dec. 30, I loosed Roxie 100 yards from a 30-acre field of bluestem west of Rochester. We had found just one hen in that field a week earlier, so I wasn't optimistic, but before we even got to the tall grass, she hit a fresh track in the snow and sprinted toward a nearby pine grove. Seconds later, at least a dozen hens exploded from the trees.
I felt a bit guilty about busting those birds from their winter cover, but I was happy to seen them, as their presence boded well for next year.
I pressed on into the bluestem, and about 15 minutes before sunset, Roxie found fresh scent and began a merry chase. After a minute or two, she suddenly reversed course and darted behind me – which was the rooster's cue to flush 30 yards ahead of me.
By some miracle, the first shot from my short-barreled Ithaca 20 gauge connected, and the bird spun down – but I instantly knew we were in trouble. Roxie had seen neither the flush nor the fall, and I suspected the rooster had hit the ground running.
I raced to my best guess as to where it had fallen, put my orange hot on a tall piece of grass to mark the spot, hollered “Dead bird!” to Roxie and waited.
She disappeared, but returned a minute later with nothing in her mouth.
“Dead bird! Fetch!”
She took off again, and within seconds the noise of her panting and crashing through the grass had faded. If she was on the bird, it definitely was a runner.
I waited a few more minutes, but sunset was approaching, and the last thing I wanted was to be searching for my dog after dark. I hit the beeper on her collar, then hollered “Roxie, come!” at the top of my voice.
I'm very reluctant to shock my dog, especially if there's any chance she's on a bird, but after a few more minutes I was beginning to get worried. Then, just as I was reaching for the e-collar controller, I heard a distant, almost methodical crashing through the grass.
The noise grew louder, and I began moving toward it. Finally, Roxie came into view, and in her mouth was a very-much-alive rooster that I suspect she'd chased deep into a neighboring swamp.
The sun was setting as I put the bird into my vest, and while I still had a couple days left in Minnesota's pheasant season, I suddenly didn't care if I fired another shot. That retrieve was a perfect conclusion to Roxie's sixth pheasant season, and nothing that might happen in late January in South Dakota could top that late-December hunt in a field just west of Rochester.
Eric Atherton is an outdoors writer from Rochester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org