Another pheasant season is fast approaching. Soon, my dogs and I will be chasing birds in a field somewhere west of Sioux Falls. I don’t know what to expect—maybe the bird numbers will be up from last year; maybe they will be down in some places. Either way, I am still hunting.
Although I can’t predict what will happen this season, I have a pretty good idea of how it will unfold. Experience has taught me that South Dakota’s 79-day pheasant season is actually three separate seasons, each with its own characteristics.
Season One: October
The anticipation of a new hunting season begins to build during the waning weeks of summer and peaks on the third Saturday in October. The weather turns colder. There is a wet, earthy smell in the air. After the first hard frost of fall, everything that was green and living is now brown and dormant. Corn stands tall in the fields waiting to dry before the combines come to cut it down.
It is time to hunt.
The start of the season usually involves hunting in large groups of at least a dozen people, sometimes more. Tradition dictates that anyone with a shotgun and an orange vest can join your hunting party, as long as they have some shared connection—no matter how loose that connection may be.
Early-season hunting parties are likely to include any combination of friends, coworkers, nephews, second-cousins, brothers-in-law…the friend of your brother-in-law who lives in another state and is always outfitted head-to-toe in new Cabela’s gear. He is invited, too.
It doesn’t matter who they are or where they came from, because you are united by a love of hunting and a desire to be outdoors. This is all about connecting with old friends and making new ones in the field.
Season Two: November
Things begin to slow down now. The out-of-state hunters start to thin out. The weather has settled in to long stretches of almost-tolerable cold and wind. By now, all the crops have been harvested, and the fields lie bare. With fewer places for the pheasants to hide, the sloughs and CRP grass are much more productive.
Compared to October, this part of the season is certainly more spontaneous. If you want to chase pheasants, all you need to do is send a two-word text message to your most reliable hunting buddies.
The next day, you are walking through chest-high CRP grass with two or three close friends. It doesn’t require a lot of logistics, just a willingness to jump in a truck and go.
At this point, things are starting to click. Most of your missed shots have been corrected, the dogs have a better understanding of what they are supposed to do and the boots you bought at the beginning of the year are comfortably broken in.
November is when you are perfectly content to sit on the tailgate, eat roast beef sandwiches and pass around a Thermos of hot coffee. The birds can wait until you are finished.
Season Three: December
The month of December is what separates the casual pheasant hunters from the fanatical ones.
In most years, the sloughs and fields are drifted over in hard-packed snow, which makes it nearly impossible to hunt. If the snow doesn’t stop you from getting out, the sub-zero temperatures and bitter wind-chills will.
This is when patience is a pheasant hunter’s best quality. Eventually, there will be a few days in December when the weather cooperates just enough to sneak in a late-season hunt.
Of course, your mostly-dependable hunting buddies from November are now busy with family obligations they have neglected since the start of the season. It will be just you and your dog, and that is all right. One determined man and an eager dog can hunt the heck out of a small patch of public ground.
These hunts seem more satisfying than the large-group hunts of October. Any bird you flush and shoot is one you earned the hard way. More often than not, one brilliant pheasant bursting from a stand of snow-covered cattails is all you get—and that is more than enough.
There are very few stories to share in December, because there are no witnesses. No one will see your beautiful right-to-left swinging shot or your dog’s perfect retrieve. These are the moments you keep for yourself.
The three pheasant seasons are neatly divided month by month on the calendar, but really, it plays out like one long decrescendo. What begins as a loud parade of blaze orange marching through the cornfields ends quietly on a single note.
Just you, your dog and the birds.
That is all any hunter can expect from the pheasant season.