JUST EAST OF THE BLACK HILLS, S.D. — I couldn't complain about the dog work.
Rub, my English setter, gave me 11 points the first afternoon we spent exploring the grasslands of America's top pheasant hunting state. The first 10 birds he pointed, however, were hens.
The 11th was a hen, too, but when the bird took wing, she subsequently flushed a rooster, maybe 15 yards ahead of her in the grass. It was a long — though makeable — shot that I totally failed to execute.
My partners that day — veteran Department of Natural Resources upland bird specialist Al Stewart and his son, Chris — had similar experiences. Ty, Stewart's setter, pointed 12 birds — 11 of which were hens. But Ty did manage to pin down a rooster, too, and Stewart was the only one of the three of us to put a bird in his bag that afternoon.
So we'd driven 16 hours and missed a night's sleep for this?
For the third year in a row, Stewart and I by-passed our usual stomping grounds on the east side of the state for the even more promised land of western South Dakota. But we'd been forewarned; the hatch this year was small, so the bulk of the birds were wise (the truth is, by the time we get out there in mid-December, even the young-of-the year roosters are pretty well educated) to the game. On top of which, the habitat was worse than I'd ever seen it; last summer's weather was so dry that farmers were allowed to graze or mow their Conservation Reserve Program fields because of a hay shortage. Many took advantage. And even where there wasn't grazing or haying, the grass was short and sparse by typical standards.
We could tell as much before we even started hunting; as we drove to our first place, a rooster ran across the road and into the grass. We watched it for 25 yards or so until it disappeared. In years past it would have disappeared within three steps.
Still, two hours into the hunt the following morning, I had three roosters in my game bag.
That's why we come, eh?
Despite less than robust recruitment this year — probably because the drought knocked down the insect production and the young-of-the-year didn't have a lot to feed on this summer — there were plenty of birds. Driving around the countryside from place to place — we hunted a combination of private land, state game areas and federal land — it was not unusual to see hundreds of pheasants in the short grass fields. The haying/grazing left them few places to hide in a lot of areas.
But seeing them and shooting them are two entirely different things. Using an app on Stewart's smart phone that identified the state-leased walk-in areas open to public hunting, we drove past hundreds of acres where we could have taken a stroll across the grounds, if we pleased, but there was no way we'd be able to get anywhere close to the birds before they were in the next county.
Our best hunting over the course of our stay came from cattail stands, along lake or stream edges or in the low-lying swales of what was otherwise agricultural ground. It was hard hunting — difficult to get through and hard on the dogs, as well — but the cattails were among the few places where the roosters would hold long enough for us to get close enough to shoot. In more open grass lands, the birds were almost invariably up and on wing well beyond the range of a 12 gauge. (Why is it that hens hold so much better? Do they realize their mottled brown color makes them that much less visible? Have they somehow learned that we won't shoot them? Are roosters just that much more wary? Who knows?) We spent one afternoon chasing around sharp-tailed grouse with another group of guys who included the director (or secretary in South Dakota parlance) of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. It was typical of late-season sharptails: getting within shooting range of those birds is nigh unto impossible. Still we managed a few — including a nifty double that Stewart shot that made the plainsmen take notice of Michigan bird hunters — but it was after the hunt, when we were kicking the dirt and solving the world's problems that Jeff Vonk (the aforementioned secretary) allowed that, because of high commodity prices and federal agriculture policy, South Dakota pheasant hunting had some significant challenges ahead.
If there are problems in paradise, what does that hold for the future of the game in our humble environs?
You do not need a ton of birds to have a good time. And just the spectacle of prairie wildlife — from the ducks and geese to the coyotes to the eye-popping bucks — is enough to make a hunting trip to the plains enjoyable.
Still, given the shape of the habitat, one wonders what will happen if a harsh winter sweeps across the Plains this year. Winter habitat is often the limiting factor for pheasant populations and there looks to be a lot less of it this year than in the recent past. And, after last summer's drought, will there be enough nesting habitat available this spring?
One worries about the future of pheasant hunting. Everywhere in America.
JUST EAST OF THE BLACK HILLS, S.D. — I couldn't complain about the dog work.
Prep sports scoreboard: 05/16/2013
A roundup of high school sports results from across northern Michigan:Continued ...
Shananaquet to prison for 25-50 years
Tyler Shananaquet expressed remorse for hitting a woman who sought a ride home after a Williamsburg bonfire party, but he maintained he didn't rape her.Continued ...
Asparagus stars at Empire fest
There will be asparagus in the beer and the bratwursts and the soups and the sandwiches at the 10th annual Empire Asparagus Festival Friday and Saturday, May 17 and 18.Continued ...
TC's Keyton readies for time with Lions
Darren Keyton’s dream of signing with an NFL team came true. Not only that, but he’s also playing for the team he grew up watching and rooting for.Continued ...
Traverse City eyes bond to fix roads
Winter 2012-13 laid bare Traverse City's street problems and some city officials want to consider jump-starting a 20-year road repair program with a bond program of up to $20 million.Continued ...
Memorial ceremony a tribute to TC's Sgt. Finch
It was a quiet, sunny day when Traverse City Police Sgt. Dennis Finch responded to a call about a man with a gun outside a Wellington Street home.Continued ...
Letters to the Editor: 05/16/2013
Just state disdain; Contributes to problem.Continued ...
Morels bring three generations together
If you’re one of those people who couldn’t spot a morel if it walked up and tapped you on the shoulder, this will make you eat your heart out.Continued ...
Trojans enter Div. 1 play as the favorites
Traverse City Central hopes to end a five-year regional tennis title drought today. The Trojans enter play in the 11-team Division 1 field at the Midland Tennis Center as the favorite.Continued ...
Recipe of the Week: Easy Pepperoni Pizza
I am an unabashed fan of Tiseo’s frozen pizza dough. It’s made right here in Michigan and available for around $1.49 to $1.79 in many grocery stores.Continued ...
Farm bill would help fruit growers
Both pending versions of the 2013 Farm Bill would make crop insurance available to cherry farmers, northern Michigan's federal legislators said.Continued ...
TC teams look strong for Division 1 regionals
Paper doesn’t run. So even though on paper the TC Central girls track team appears to have everything it needs to win Friday’s Division 1 track regional at Central High School, the Trojans aren’t ready to hold an early championship-crowning ceremony.Continued ...
Phil Power: Get to 'core' of the problem
Michigan was one of 45 states which adopted “Common Core Standards” back in 2010. The standards are aimed at setting out the kinds of skills that will qualify kids to successfully meet 21st century challenges, both in post-secondary education and fulfilling careers.Continued ...
United Way launches iPhone app for volunteering
iPhone users who want to find local volunteer opportunities through the United Way now can get information at the tips of their fingertips.Continued ...
Prep Sports Roundup: Leland scores 6-4 soccer win
Down 4-0 at half, Leland battled back to post a 6-4 soccer win over Kingsley on Wednesday. (Plus more)Continued ...
Food in Brief: 05/16/2013
New cookbook; Berry facts.Continued ...
Intentional Minimalist: Quinoa with white wine and herbs
This recipe features local produce from 9 Bean Rows Farm, Spring Hollow Farm and locally produced products from Black Star Farms and Eden Foods.Continued ...
Inland Seas' Kelly to weigh anchor
Tom Kelly, who launched the first sailing schoolship program on the Great Lakes 25 years ago, will retire at year's end.Continued ...
Wuerfel Park power numbers on the rise
One season probably doesn't completely kill the opinion of Wuerfel Park. But after last season's surge in power numbers, the Beach Bums are doing their best to change the notion that their home park isn't friendly to hitters.Continued ...
Traverse City manager to make $100K a year to start
Traverse City’s likely new city manager will earn $100,000 a year to start and could raise that to $110,000 by the end of a proposed three-year contract.Continued ...
Gusrang's move to outfield pays big dividends right away
Sean Gusrang was an infielder by trade. Until last season, that is.Continued ...
Bums' bullpen figures to be strong
If things go as expected, Beach Bums’ opponents may be hard-pressed to find success in the late stages of games.Continued ...
Record-Eagle Honor Roll Track Boys Lisings: 05/16/2013
Following are the top boys listings for the Record-Eagle Honor Roll track and field meet on May 28 at TC Central.Continued ...
Vargas no laughing matter to Frontier League pitchers
You might not know it, but reigning Frontier League MVP Jose Vargas is a bit of a joker. The Traverse City Beach Bums slugger usually keeps a straight face in public.Continued ...
Community in Brief: 05/16/2013
International Affairs Forum; Old Engine Club swap meet; art opening; and more.Continued ...
- Prep sports scoreboard: 05/16/2013