column By: Terry Weiland | March, 20
Then there was last June. I was humming along I-90 past White Lake, and it seemed as if every ditch and every field was a lake, shimmering in the sunlight – some big enough to sport waves in the constant prairie wind. The flooding that began in the spring carried over into summer, the corn crop was a loss and machinery was standing idle. Down I-29 through Iowa it got worse, with interchanges closed, buildings collapsed and pavement buckled, undermined by the flooding.
Coming back north five months later on our way to South Dakota to hunt pheasants, it was little better. Road crews were at work the length of Iowa, but silos that collapsed in June now sat rusting, and the long irrigation sprinklers, which looked merely embarrassed before, up to their knees in water, were now positively forlorn.
The outlook for the pheasant crop was about the same as the corn, ranging from poor to dismal. The year before was bad because an isolated storm settled over our 500 acres in July and dropped golf ball-sized hailstones, killing adult birds and destroying nests, but in such cases a hunter always figures the birds will bounce back. That catastrophe, however, was compounded by this year’s flooding.
On the plus side, the contract farmers had been at work on the property, plowing under sorghum that had become infested with bristle burr – not great if you run setters with feathery coats – and replaced much of it with millet. Corn fields were switched, some left fallow, and a lot of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grass was gone because the program expired. Altogether, bird numbers aside, we were going to be hunting what amounted to a whole new property. Who knows what a whole new property might hold?
Such were our optimistic thoughts as we crossed into South Dakota and headed west toward Vermillion, scanning the ditches for ringnecks. Not a one, and that was a first. Worry not, I assured Burt, in this drizzle they’re probably holed up somewhere dry. “Mmmm,” he replied. This was his first time to South Dakota, first time pheasant hunting actually, so it was all new anyway.
Through Yankton and on up toward Stickney, rain was splattering the windshield, and when we stopped for gas the restaurant was full of guys in camo and rubber boots. No question, it was duck weather. Weather, however, can change. What was not going to change was the fact that much of the corn was still uncut. It went in late because of the flooding and now it would be harvested late. You can go into standing corn after the pheasants, those that aren’t in the remaining CRP, but it’s a frustrating enterprise in which shots are close and sudden and, as often as not, if a pheasant does go down it’s never found. These thoughts I kept to myself as the windshield wipers fought back against the heavy rain.
One other thing; near the house there’s a creek bottom a couple of miles long, flanked by grassy hillsides. It always holds pheasants and has a resident sharptail population as well. Just to make our lives complete, a torrential rain in September flooded the creek, raising it 12 feet or more up over the bridge we normally walk under. With the ground saturated and nowhere for the water to go, it stayed high for weeks and was still a soggy mess of interlinking pools when we arrived.
Our hunting areas can be summed up as follows: Those that were normally wet, with sink holes and such, were now lagoons suitable for ducks and dolphins. Those that were generally dry were now ankle-deep in water or mud.
On the plus side, there were a lot of new things to see. Driving in toward the house with its two silos in the distance, a black cloud hovered in front of the car, blending and dissolving like a swarm of locusts. The new millet crops attracted blackbirds in tens of thousands, and for the next four days we were treated to a never-ending kaleidoscope of black wings. We could have made a thousand pies at four-and-twenty blackbirds each, and never made a dent.
The pheasants, however, were thin on the ground, and those that survived the biblical undoings of the previous two years had taken up residence in the standing corn. At least we presumed they did, but our periodic forays into it yielded little. Corn fields are not only a good hiding place, being more than head high and limiting everyone’s vision, it’s also ideal for pheasants to escape on foot, and escape they did.
In such a situation, where flushes are limited, shots are few, and downed birds fewest of all, a hunter remembers his chances and good shots as well as spectacular misses – misses that, not eclipsed by subsequent victories, linger to haunt one’s thoughts all the winter long.
At the end of five days, the score was not good: Four hunters, two dogs and a total of six birds among us. The weather didn’t help. Aside from the flooding, the temperature dropped into the 20s for two days, complete with blowing rain, snow and numb fingers.
Then, on the fourth morning it suddenly cleared and the sky filled – literally, filled, in every direction – with geese by the thousands. All morning skeins landed, flew, wheeled, climbed, circled and plunged. The ponds along the creek bed were crammed with geese and more birds crowded along the shore. We had neither goose permits nor goose guns, but it didn’t matter. We were happy to sit inside and marvel at the sight. Between the geese and the blackbirds, there was no shortage of feathered friends. The dogs sat at the living room window and slavered.
Between trying to dry out, warm up and rekindle our enthusiasm for braving the elements in search of pheasants that just weren’t there, we had a lot of time to talk about the situation. It was, by consensus, the worst pheasant hunting we’d seen in the decade we’ve been going up there; fewest birds seen, by far the fewest downed, and the worst conditions. But pheasant numbers had been steadily declining, according to South Dakota’s game department, for several years. It’s a result of a combination of factors, not least of which are the expiry of CRP grass plots, many of which were returned to agricultural production during the sky-high crop prices a few years ago.
The harsh reality is that farmers usually choose a course of action which is economically beneficial in the short term over any kind of long-term consideration for the pheasants. Pheasants – “ditch parrots,” in the dismissive terminology – are, at best, a minor source of seasonal income and a diversion from worrying about crop prices. Not having to live in the unforgiving Dakotas year-round or worry about making a living there, I am not in a position to judge. I am, however, in a position to renew my support for Pheasants Forever and make a generous contribution.
Three of us had enjoyed previous years of plenty in the pheasant fields and did not agonize about one bad year. It was fun just to get together, work the dogs, admire the guns and recollect past victories. I felt bad for Burt, though, who had never hunted pheasants before and was now seeing it at its worst. Even in January 2018, when we hunted the last week of the season and the temperature held at 20 below, we got more birds than this. I was, therefore, a little hesitant when I asked him if he thought he might want to come back next year.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “I’d never say ‘no’ to a hunting trip.”
And the funny thing, the rest of us, knowing in advance about the flooding, the crop rotations and the dire predictions of the game department, never once considered not going. Not once.