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Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
November - December 2004
Volume 2, Number 6
Number 12
On the cover...
Cover Photo Ron Spomer
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Pheasants, lots and lots of pheasants, may be the best reason to hunt South Dakota, but they aren’t the only reason.

“We’ll drive around to the end of the field. When you see us, push through this milo,” Richard Kieffer shouted over the wind, leaning his head northwest to keep his ball cap stuck on. Like most economically stressed farmers, this White Lake cattleman and grain grower tries to squeeze a few extra bucks from his land by guiding pheasant hunters a few months each year.

He’s good at it, knowing where his flocks like to hide and flee. He leaves big fields of native grass, cut and uncut crops for the wild birds and supplements them with big bunches of reared birds before the shooting starts. They’re part of the local fauna and just as wild by the time hunters begin arriving.

When Kieffer’s pickup stops at the end of the field, we walk toward it, collars turned up. A lab and springer work across the rows until one rooster flushes wild, then another, then six or seven hens. Fresh scent pulls the dogs forward. More birds take to the air. Hot scent drives the dogs crazy. Someone shoots and misses. A dozen more birds spook, catch the wind and blow past like shingles in a hurricane. The black-and-white springer leaps above brick red stalks of grain, snapping at a long tail. An-other shot and the rooster tumbles in a rattle of feathers.

Then, as they say, all heaven breaks loose. Pheasant heaven. Birds jump from those strips of milo like sailors from a sinking ship. Two here, three up there, a wily rooster from behind, a dozen hens up ahead, 20 or 30 mixed birds and a misplaced sharptailed grouse from the northwest corner. Guns pop. The wind roars. Welcome to the Pheasant Capital of the World.

It wasn’t like this 140 years ago. Back then you had to make do with millions of bison and prairie grouse, elk and grizzlies, pronghorn and bighorn. That was good enough for the Lakota but not pioneering European peasant farmers. They preferred wheat and corn by the sweat of their brows in neat square fields. They didn’t want 1,800-pound bison in their corn fields any more than today’s suburbanite wants 2-pound prairie dogs in his lawn. They were, however, more than willing to accommodate prairie chickens, sage grouse and sharptails, but those grand natives slipped through their fingers like dust as more and more grass melted before the plow.

By happy coincidence, the new mosaic of grain, alfalfa and prairie hay fields suited another immigrant, and by the 1920s German, Russian, Slovak, Swedish and Norwegian farmers were coexisting happily with millions of Chinese pheasants. They’ve had their difficulties since, but all have hung in there, perhaps understanding they need one another.

Yes, South Dakotans realize wild game and land on which to pursue it are components of the good life and an economic juggernaut. In this prairie state, tourism ranks close behind agriculture as the second biggest producer of dollars, and hunting is the biggest part of that tourism. You can bet folks aren’t visiting in November for piña coladas on sunny beaches.

Recognizing this, the South Dakota legislature became the first to pass legislation protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits over criminal use of firearms. They began courting manufacturers with incentives like no corporate income tax, no personal income tax, no personal property tax and no business inventory tax.

Today South Dakota is home to Dakota Arms, H-S Precision, Black Hills Ammunition, Superior Ammunition, Boyds’ Gunstock Industries, Cor-Bon Bullets, a Cabela’s retail store and more. The state boasts the seventh lowest cost of living index in the nation. The average commute to work is 14 minutes, but that’s only because so many Dakotans prefer living 30 miles from town on Grandpa’s old homestead where they can raise a pig, plant a garden, shoot off the back porch and let the dog run free.

Folks here still believe idle hands are the devil’s workshop. South Dakota’s high school graduation rate is the highest in the nation, which is all the more remarkable when you consider the distractions teens face: whitetails in the shelterbelts, mule deer in the badlands, antelope on the rolling plains, ducks and geese in the prairie potholes, cottontails in the brush, prairie dogs in the pastures, elk in the Black Hills, grouse in the grasslands and coyotes nearly everywhere. Oh, and those ringnecked pheasants – a few million ringnecked pheasants. More pheasants per acre than anywhere else in the world. What do you say we skip last period study hall and go hunting?

“This drought really knocked back our birds, but you can give it a try,” Mike Weathermon told us as we stood on his porch, not wanting to track mud into his house, despite his wife’s insistence it wouldn’t be a problem. “You remember where to go?” he asked. We remembered, sort of. It had been more than six years since our last visit. The lanky young hay grower brought out some aerial photos. “Everything you hunted before, but I’ve put in more trees and food plots, see, by this dam here. All that’s ours. There’s uncut milo all on this hillside.”

Weathermon was right. His birds were down from the mid-1990s. Instead of hundreds, only two or three dozen flew from an island of tall, yellow kochia weeds near the end of a field of milo stubble and scattered into a vast field of CRP grass divided by two belts of trees. Instead of picking long-tailed red birds from bunches, we had to pick them off in ones and twos over a progression of points as the dogs stuck and moved with the skulking birds.

I kept my young springer, BooToo, as close as I could until his stub began vibrating a warning. Then I jogged to keep up. Dave Lockwood’s wirehair, Autumn, crept cautiously from pool to pool of scent, Dave at port-arms behind. Alan Sands ranged wide with his more freewheeling shorthair, Sassy, who held her birds from afar, head up proud.

Birds leapfrogged ahead in small bands, suggesting a decoy party of Lakota braves luring bluecoats into an ambush. The most damage these decoys could do would be to walk us to death. They nearly did, but by sunset we’d whittled their numbers by nine plus two bonus sharptails that jumped at the edge of range from one of Weathermon’s milo and sunflower food plots. “If Mike says these birds are down, I’d love to see what this place looks like in a non-drought year,” Alan said.

Grain and grass left standing just for pheasants was rare in South Dakota 25 years ago. As a result the state’s famous pheasant population reached lows no one had seen since the first hunting season in 1919. Cafes and motels suffered. The legislature, sportman’s clubs, farm groups and Game, Fish and Parks cooperated to design and fund habitat improvements, both spring nesting cover and winter shelter. Then the federal Conservation Reserve Program funded set-aside acres that soon totaled 2 million. A bit of timely rain and voilà! Flags were again flying high over the Pheasant Capital of the World.

“Let’s try that shelterbelt,” Jerry Rubendall proposed. “We haven’t touched it for a week.” Rubendall, like Kieffer, raises cattle and pheasants, but he headquarters in Mitchell near the big, new Cabela’s store where eager nonresidents by the thousands stop for shells and vests and boots and licenses from October through December, creating the kind of bustling shopping spree formerly seen only before Christmas in the Corn Palace city.

Like most farmers, Jerry will drive to the end of the field and “block,” preventing a mass escape of birds and saving us a long walk back. A mix of locals and nonresidents from as far away as Hawaii step into the belt of trees, a wide strip of native grasses as tall as their chins and another belt of mixed corn and milo. None of this cover has been touched by harvest machine or cattle. On the downwind side, the cover cuts the wind in half. On the upwind side, hunters’ coattails stand out like flags. And on both sides whitetails and ringnecks flush, more pheasants in a half-hour than many hunters see in an entire season. When everyone reaches Jerry, the hunt is over because everyone has shot his three-bird limit. “We can go down to the river if you’d like,” Jerry suggests. “I’ve seen some partridge hanging around there.”

Forty years ago there probably weren’t a dozen farmers who charged a fee for pheasant hunting in this rural state. Now many do. It’s a matter of supply and demand. The supply of upland bird hunting across the country has declined, and the demand for wild birds, heck just a place to run loose with a dog and shotgun, has increased. You can still knock on farmhouse doors and find land-owners who’ll say “have at it,” no charge, but pickings are usually slim in such places. Folks with great numbers of birds often begin charging just to save wear and tear on their doorbells. Options for pay-hunting fall into five categories:

1. -Day rate for trespass rights: varies from $30 to $150.

2. -Trespass rights plus transport and pick up in the fields, perhaps a guide, dog and lunch: $100 to $300 a day.

3. -Trespass rights, guide service, room and board either with family or in old farmhouse reserved for hunters: $150 to $400 a day.

4. -Full lodge with guides, dogs, wild and stocked birds, hot tubs, saunas, gourmet meals, wine list and plush carpeting – and that’s just in the dog kennels! $300 to $1,000 a day.

5. -A guide with access to leased land and lots of wild birds: rates vary widely.

All these options mean there’s something for everyone plus the do-it-the-hard-way cheapskates who don’t want to buy anything more than gas, license and lunch. And they often bring the lunch from home. No problem. South Dakota welcomes even these. Thousands of Waterfowl Production Areas, Game Management Areas, Corps of Engineers reservoir take-line land, National Grasslands and Walk-In hunting areas are open to the hunting public, no charge. Unlike public hunting areas in some states, these are not usually beat to dirt with all the birds pushed onto bordering private land. Many grow more birds and provide better shooting than all the private lands surrounding them. You just have to hit the right one on the right day.

Walk-In Area, the white-and-black sign read. Right there along the state highway with pickups full of orange-capped hunters whizzing by. Foot Traffic Only it read. The hunting rights of this land have been leased with Wildlife Habitat development funds for your enjoyment. Respect the Landowner and the Land! South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Now that’s my idea of a welcome mat. But surely it was too good to be true. It wasn’t. Boo hit the ground snuffling and had a rooster in the air almost before I had the gun closed. Two shots brought a fat rooster to ground, and the happy springer fetched it back. “Good girl, good girl. Let’s find some more.”

I needn’t have wasted my breath. Boo was off and springing, her black ears flapping here and there over the switch grass and bluestem, leading the way to a low swale tangled with raspy wild sunflowers and whippy willow sprouts. But before she got there, her stub tail started beating double time, and three sharptails launched into the wind just out of range, cackling ducka ducka duck as they flapped side to side, looking as if they couldn’t keep their balance. The fourth bird up, a youngster inexperienced enough to hesitate, was close enough. The spread of No. 71?2 shot snatched it from the autumn sky as its covey mates hushed and glided, rocked and called, alternating until they blinked out against unknown depths of prairie.

Farther downhill the ground got soggy. Cattails blocked the way, the kind of muddy, wet, dense cattail jungle no one but pheasants and the dogs who smell them like to penetrate. And Boo smelled them. A rooster flew up cackling, low and too far to risk a shot. Boo gave chase a few yards, then started back, cattails vibrating a zig-zag line, puffs of down floating on the air until another Crayola cock beat up through an explosion of down. The little 28 gauge swept past its beak and barked like a lap dog. The big bird crashed back, kicking up another storm of white fluff that drifted silently while Boo wriggled for the retrieve.

At times like this you know why you drive 1,500 miles in golden October to a land that rolls forever under a blue sky arching to black space. The wind sweeps over you with a hint of Montana snow and the earthy smell of a combine shredding corn from rattling stalks. You have the whole day before you and room to roam. Your best buddy sits panting against your leg, all smiles, her silky coat aglow in the sun, an auburn feather on her jowls and a gleam in her eyes that says she knows the feeling too. It’s as if you’re 13 again and just out of school, only better because it’s October and Mom isn’t expecting you home for chores.

Pheasants would be enough on such a day, yet they are but a small part of a greater compass. There will likely be geese commuting at sunrise and sunset, great tornadoes of mallards swirling into corn fields, whitetails and mule deer jumping from pockets of brush and coyotes howling at the harvest moon while you pluck birds under a yellow bulb in front of the garage, the scent of apple pie wafting from the kitchen. The dawn might bring frost on the hay bales and a flight of dark-breasted prairie chickens gliding into a sunflower field, fox squirrels bouncing from cottonwood limbs or a blizzard of snow geese settling over an indigo pothole. There will be kids in blue jeans and letterman jackets standing by mailboxes, orange buses flashing red lights and white-haired men in baseball caps pulling up to the Co-Op for coffee and donuts. They’ll lift a single finger off the steering wheel as you pass. They know you’re not from around here. They know you have guns in your truck. And that’s okay.

Propellant Profiles
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