— By Amber Johnson
“Dad! How fast am I running now?” I would yell while sprinting down a rural gravel road in Hamlin County through the exhaust and dust behind my parent’s vehicle. Dad had the driver’s window down and would yell my “miles per hour” back into the dusty lane. I was in hot pursuit of Dad’s vehicle and our beloved black Lab named Sloan.
Pheasant season was fast approaching, and because we lived within the city limits of Castlewood, my father would load up our Lab and whichever of his three children crazy enough to join him and turn us loose to run the gravel roads for “conditioning.”
This memorable scene from my childhood still causes me to belly laugh and shake my head for several reasons. I’m not sure exactly what we were training the dog for, other than improving his cardiac health for the pheasant fields, but I give Dad credit for at least inspiring the love I still have for evening jogs. I suppose the countless fetching and commands we repeated in the yard at home also helped when Sloan would need to retrieve a wounded pheasant.
My Dad and his brothers and buddies also had a seasonal routine that I can also remember to this day. Dad had a shop in the basement where he kept a MEC 600 reloading press and other forbidden and fascinating tools on a huge workbench. Occasionally, he would retreat into the basement shop, click on the bulb of the large swivel arm lamp, and busy himself for hours reloading shotgun shells and cleaning his guns.
Soon, in the coming fall and winter, the basement rec room and bedrooms would be filled with his jolly, bearded friends. I can recall sneaking partially down the basement steps just enough to spot the blue haze and to smell the celebratory whiskey and normally forbidden cigarette and cigar smoke which hung in the air. I also loved eavesdropping on their stories and camaraderie after a successful day of pheasant or deer hunting.
This was a scene I would recall my Dad repeating year after year. Eventually I took the hunter-safety class and walked some fields with him. But, for the most part, it was a sacred rite for my dad, his brothers and buddies, and later, my younger brother.
From Moose to Ringnecks
One woman who fantasized about hunting pheasants and triumphantly made it her reality is Maggie Lindsey. I met Maggie a few years back at one of the South Dakota Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshops, which are part of a national education program that strives to make women more comfortable in and more aware of the outdoor world around them.
Maggie Lindsey is a South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department education services coordinator based out of Pierre. She loves that the whole focus of her job is to recruit new hunters, retain existing hunters, and re-activate lapsed hunters. I love her story of how her Springer Spaniel named Scout was really the driving reason why she moved to South Dakota to pursue her love of pheasant hunting.
“In my 20s I moved to Alaska and had a wonderful little Springer Spaniel named Peggy,” she said. “She and I would hunt ducks and ptarmigan and both of us loved it. My dear friend Bill Berringer would come up from Kansas each year to hunt moose with me in Alaska, and every time he invited me to Kansas to hunt pheasants even though it never seemed to happen. Finally, when Peggy was 12 I decided she and I needed to experience what I had dreamed about for 20 years, and we took Bill up on his offer. Bill was an expert, so over the next five days he taught me all about pheasant hunting and I actually managed to shoot several birds. I’ll never forget the first rooster Peggy flushed — the colors, the sounds of wings and the cackle, and the excited little yip from my dog who finally got to do what she was bred to do. I was hooked.
“Bill shot that bird for us, and I still remember my little dog coming back with her prize and both of us making a huge fuss over it and how it felt so heavy and warm in my hands — my dream finally a reality,” she continued. “That was Peggy’s last hunt. From then on, I was crazy about pheasant hunting so my next dog was a 100 percent field-bred Springer I named Scout. We joined a dog club in Alaska and hunted pen-reared planted birds. Seeing what a talented dog we had in Scout, we started taking vacations to North Dakota pheasant hunting for two weeks at a time. I did it for the dog, but also for us. We fell head over heels in love with pheasant hunting. Years later it was a major influence in our decision to move to South Dakota where we could pheasant hunt every fall. I took a job in Pierre, S.D., with GFP. When people ask me why I moved to South Dakota I tell them the truth — because of a Springer Spaniel named Scout.”
Maggie has many memorable pheasant hunting stories.
“I don’t think I could pheasant hunt without my dogs, as they’re the main reason why I hunt,” she said. “I train my dogs myself, so when it comes together in the field it is magic. My best pheasant dog ever was Scout, a hard-hunting English Springer that lived for bird hunting.”
Maggie said Scout was the best dog she’s ever had for tracking wounded roosters, and she said they almost never lost a bird.
“I had taken my friend Angie on her first pheasant hunt, and she was at the end of the field posting when she shot her first rooster, which hit the ground running,” Maggie said. “We were hunting with some guys that had very well-trained German wirehairs that searched and searched but couldn’t come up with the bird. I took Scout over and walked her in a circle around where the other dogs were working, and she took off on a trail down into a creek bottom behind where Angie had shot the bird. The wirehair owners kept telling me to call Scout back to search the fall area, as they were convinced it was there and not in the creek bed. I trusted Scout, so I let her go and 20 minutes later she came back with a very live rooster in her mouth — Angie’s first pheasant!”
Know Your Game
In addition to stories about her dogs, Maggie also offered her insight about pheasants and why she is addicted to the pursuit.
“If you are working a big CRP field, they see you and they are smart,” she said. “They sneak around you. You need to change your tactics. Instead of walking in a straight line, you need to zigzag or turn 90 degrees, and you need to stop. Oftentimes they are running in front of you, so if you stop they get nervous and take off and fly.
“Late season is a tactical game,” she continued. “I used to hunt with a guy and he would draw the field in the sand, and we would have a game plan — kinda like a football coach in a huddle he instructed us. ‘You will walk here, and you, Maggie, here, and you will not move until such and such a time.’ We got so may pheasants with that guy!”
Pheasants smarten up real fast, too, especially after season opener, Lindsey said.
While some hunters choose to skip season opener and wait their turn to pursue wiser pheasants as the season wears on, Maggie said she chooses to hunt opening weekend simply because she loves to hunt.
“It’s actually kind of a bonus to start with easy, because I know it’s going getting tough later,” she laughed. “I do love late season though when the crowds have cleared out, when the weather is gnarly, when the fields are cut, and it’s usually just me and my dog or a small group. You work hard late season, so when you get one it’s a prize. The birds get educated in a hurry!”
Maggie also took some time to describe how pheasant hunting is relevant today.
“Pheasant hunting is useful today to get people out and connected to wild places,” she stated. “It also makes hunters aware of how important conservation and good habitat is for not only pheasant production, but for all wildlife. It provides a connection to friends and family, as well as to a good hunting dog. Hunting provides personal satisfaction and good exercise, as well as a healthy, lean wild meal for the family.”
Lindsey said it’s rewarding to see the light come on for new hunters.
“I have a friend who just started hunting,” she explained. “She saw a deer the other day. She was all excited. She has never looked at deer that way before she was a hunter. Now she cares! She is more aware that conservation and good habitat is not only for pheasants but for all wildlife.”
Ready, Set, Hunt
Maggie offered some advice on how someone can learn how to pheasant hunt.
“They can start by connecting with a mentor hunter that is willing to take them along on a hunt,” she said. “I can’t encourage people enough that they first learn firearm safety and shotgun shooting — that is critical to success. GFP also offers hunting classes targeting both kids and adults, such as Harvest South Dakota and Hunting 101, where adults can learn each step to pheasant hunt.”
The way to a pheasant hunter’s heart might be through his or her stomach, Lindsey said.
“An interest in pheasants can even begin through one’s stomach! I have a friend who does not hunt at all but he loves pheasants,” she said. “He sat with us at the Pheasant Cuisine class offered through Bruce and Kim Campbell who wrote a cookbook, Broosters Dakota Cuisine, which features pheasant recipes. That was a fun class!”
Maggie said she believes any age is appropriate to become invested in the outdoors.
“I love it when I see little kids following hunters along in the field,” she said. “I used to walk along with my dad as a little girl when he hunted doves. I loved those outings. A child can’t start shooting till they pass a HuntSAFE class. usually around 12 years old. I have introduced and taught many others how to pheasant hunt from 12 years old to 70 years old. There really shouldn’t be an age barrier.”
As we celebrate South Dakota’s 100th pheasant season, I challenge you to internally ask yourself what has been your role of promoting hunting and conservation up to this point? Ask yourself if you’re rearing your children to fill the pages of the next Pheasants Forever book, or simply have the endurance to run an evening 5K?
A recent Outdoor Life Magazine video reported that the number of Baby Boomers who hunt is declining, which means fewer licenses are being purchased. The report said that the U.S. keeps diversifying, yet hunters don’t. More than 90 percent of hunters are white, and more than 70 percent are male. That doesn’t match what our national population looks like.
Lastly, many recruitment events don’t actually work — the one-day hunting programs don’t make a dent. It takes two to four years to successfully recruit someone into the fold, which means newbies need sustained mentorship.
Hunters need to reach non-hunting families. Every hunter needs to recruit a new person, and budget that time for one year. Try to recruit someone who doesn’t look like you — a woman, a person of different color than you, adults or kids. It’s up to hunters to save hunting, so get out there!
For you hunter dads and moms, take the hand of your children who are eavesdropping on the basement steps, stand them up, dress them in blaze orange and mentor them.
Or, send them off with someone who can! They will love you for it!
About the Author: Amber Johnson is a freelance writer and avid outdoors woman.