Pheasant Pharewell

sporting dogs
Mark and Dinny, with the dogs: Fiagia, the red-and-white, Harry Flashman (rear) and the puppy, Arthur. All being de-burred.

by Terry Wieland

One of our number, arriving in Platte, South Dakota, the day before we were to start pheasant hunting, was greeted with the words: “We don’t see many hunters here anymore.”

“Oh?  Why not?”

“End of the CRP.  Fields cultivated to the fences. Numbers keep dropping.”

Those were pretty much the exact words, and while they don’t cover every factor involved in pheasant numbers in the Dakotas, they come pretty close. Other things that had, or are having, an impact include flooding, drought, hail, corn prices, and increasing sales of land to outside buyers who want a long-term investment, and whose business managers then demand that it make money.

Pheasants? Who cares?

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) ended a few years ago, and almost immediately much of the federally funded grassland it provided was plowed under.  This was no small thing.  In the area we hunted just east of the Missouri River, one large tract of grass — 20 to 30 acres — was probably our most dependable area.  When I first started going up there in 2007, we would occasionally put up hundreds of birds from that field, with flocks of a dozen or more going up one after the other.

Not a bad day’s work, thinks Harry Flashman, and imagine how good it could have been if these people could shoot…

Bounded as it was by corn, it provided the birds both food and cover.  Corn is great until it’s harvested, at which point it provides no cover.  With fields of CRP a thing of the past, and fencerows either reduced by intensive farming or eliminated altogether, the pheasants are struggling.

I asked if there was any chance of the CRP being revived, and the answer was a definite no.

“The farmers don’t want it,” I was told.  “They can sell every bushel of soybeans they can raise.  It goes to China to feed pigs.  If there’s going to be any federal money, they’d rather have the crop insurance increased.”

Many farmers who offer pheasant hunting do so on a production-line basis, signing up a dozen hunters, buying pen-raised birds to put out, then conducting organized shoots.  Since these don’t depend on wild birds, the outfitters aren’t too concerned about natural bird numbers.  Exactly where that leaves those of us who like to walk the plains with a dog, looking for wild roosters, I’m not sure — but I’m not too optimistic.

My impression, after hunting the same land with the same people for 15 years, is that overall numbers have gone down steadily, with occasional spikes upwards followed by a resumption of the decline.  In 2007 and 2008, it was not unusual for four or five hunters to get their limit of three roosters each, almost every day of a five-day hunt.  This year, with three of us hunting, we ended up with a grand total of 11 birds.

Granted, not being particularly bloodthirsty, we didn’t hunt every legal hour, and we didn’t lose any sleep on the one day where we downed nothing at all.  We enjoyed the dog work, especially watching one six-month old English setter by the name of Arthur having the time of his life under the tolerant eye of his eight-year old uncle, Harry, who was directing operations, and a red-and-white setter named Fiagia (pronounced Phoebe) whose specialty is recovering the wounded and snuffing them like a candle.

Out of five days, we had two of high winds and one of pouring rain, but the fifth day was letter-perfect — bright sun, no wind, right around 60 degrees, and we ended it with a long drive down some grass flanking a tree row.  The pheasants ran, flew, doubled back, reversed, and finally reached the road where I was waiting. It was a frantic five minutes, but I ended up with two birds — a left and right that could best be described as a following pair — and Fiagia recovered both from the undergrowth.

After 15 years, it was not a bad way to call it a day.

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The property our shooting editor hunted for so long goes under the hammer in December to settle an estate, so this was the last year, regardless.  He tried hard not to be maudlin, but…