The sun was an hour away from totally slipping beyond the horizon when we dropped our gear off at camp and drove slowly down the gravel road.
Hunting partner Ben Ninas and I were trying to find a few easy birds to start the following day — the non-resident pheasant opener in South Dakota.
We saw plenty of pheasants. Unfortunately they were on the wrong side of the fence nearly every time. Ben and I looked on the private parcels we drove past with envy. Strips of milo and standing corn between tracts of waist-high grass and tree shelterbelts seemed to be everywhere.
The land we planned to hunt, however, looked like it belonged on another planet entirely. Black cattle munched away on the National Grassland while we drove section after section to see if we could find a spot or two that wasn't grazed down to a putting green.
Well east of camp we finally spotted a small flock of pheasants walking out of a milo field to roost for the night along a cattail-ringed pond. Farther into the public ground, we could see a serpentine draw that looked like decent cover. At least had a spot in which to start.
We made note of a few other similar looking parcels before heading back to camp and setting up our tents. Luna, my black Lab, nestled into her bed in my tent. Aside from one other hunter, we had the place to ourselves.
At first light we spent more time trying to develop a game plan. We also kept our eyes peeled for sharptails and prairie chickens, which were fair game before the noon pheasant opener. We saw some flocks of sharpies, but they also saw us and didn't seem too willing to weigh down our game bags.
A Rough Start
Before the opening bell we drove to our starting spot. Whatever optimism we had worked up the day before was quickly tamped down by the reality of three other trucks parked along the road. Orange-clad hunters stood around cradling shotguns in their arms, while a host of dogs stretched their legs and paced in anticipation.
We backtracked to our second spot, only to see the scene repeated. When we finally found a spot without hunters, we watched Luna work back and forth through a half-mile of decent looking cover. Other than songbirds, our avian encounters were nil.
The temperature rose and we figured we might find an easy rooster near one of the waterholes close to camp. When we did, he flushed from beneath a lone cedar and offered Ben plenty of chances to bust our slump, but no such luck. As that bird sailed out of our lives, we felt better. At least we were on to something.
Neither one of us thought it was possible to pheasant hunt South Dakota on opening day without killing a bird, but such is life.
The following day brought more hunters, and we ended up walking an embarrassing number of miles to once again end up blanked. That night as we ate sandwiches in a dark camp we discussed the possibility of having to explain to our hunting buddies how we drove seven hours for this.
On our second morning, Ben had spotted a couple of flocks of sharptails flying into a nearby alfalfa field and he thought we might be able to set up and pass shoot them on this, Day 3. Considering neither one of us had ever killed a sharp, we were short on actual tactics to find the birds and flush them, so we decided to spend a few hours trying to wait them out.
Without a lick of cover to hide behind, I posted up next to a telephone pole while Ben did the same at the corner of the next section. With the sun peeking above the prairie grass to the east, I heard three shots from Ben's direction. Then I spotted a flock of sharptails gliding my way. I could feel Luna tense up next to me when two sharpies, for some inexplicable reason, broke from the flock to cut south right at us.
I'm not proud to say that it took me three shots to bring the leader of the pair down. What's worse is that when I reloaded and sent Luna ahead to retrieve the bird it flushed well in front of her and avoided another three shots. I watched my first sharptail fly level-lined and fast over the crest of the hill.
After I told her to "hunt dead," Luna coursed over the area where I thought the sharptail had landed but she didn't find the bird. I thought, "That seems about right" as I hiked back to my telephone pole to await another flock. Through my binoculars I watched eight mule deer feeding in a draw but never laid eyes on any more sharptails.
I texted Ben that I'd walk back to the truck because I wanted to work Luna through the knee-high grass just to see if we could find the lost sharptail. We had to have been at least 200 yards from where I figured the bird was when Luna's body language changed.
She clearly had caught the scent of something she liked so I tightened my grip on my shotgun and picked up the pace to catch up to her.
The sharptail sat tight and a single shot finished off a horrendous hour of wing-shooting. As Ben and I admired the bird, we hoped our fortunes had changed.
After cleaning the sharptail and eating lunch, we drove out of camp to see if we could find a rooster. It was clear that the weekend hunting pressure had abated greatly with the onset of Monday, which buoyed our hopes.
We sat in Ben's truck watching the slough we had wanted to hunt for two days. When it was just about time to uncase the shotguns and get started, two trucks full of hunters parked just beyond us and got out. That is also the time we spotted a hunter with a pair of setters walking into the slough from the opposite end.
We drove back toward camp and decided to hunt a half-section featuring a snaking gully that had been ignored by other hunters. We had walked it the previous day and flushed a pair of roosters well out of range.
While we were loading our shotguns a rooster flushed and flew toward the first bend in the gully. Ben decided to sneak around and post to try to keep the ringneck contained. When I finally saw him slip into position I pointed Luna into the thick stuff and started to walk.
It was much hotter than the previous two days and every 100 yards or so we'd come to a deep hole that held water. Luna would dive into the water, frantically lap some up, and move on.
When we approached the corner where Ben stood, I heard something in the cover in front of me. While the sound was rattling in my brain and trying to relay a message that maybe it was time to get ready, two long-tailed ringnecks exploded from the cover at my feet.
The first shot disappeared into the air beyond the birds, but the second brought down the trailing rooster. Luna picked him up and brought him to hand. After admiring the beauty of the wild bird, I praised Luna extensively.
As we moved a little farther into the draw Ben sent out a short, sharp whistle. He and I have hunted together enough for me to know he had either seen or heard a bird, and when I looked at him he tapped his ear.
When Luna encroached too close on that bird's personal space he flushed directly ahead of me. A single shot scratched him from the sky and instead of dreading another mile of trekking across the prairie, two hunters and a dog suddenly felt revived.
The four-strand barbed-wire fence demarcating the boundary between land we could hunt and land we couldn't had just become visible in the distance when a third rooster broke from cover. I missed clean but Ben didn't, and after Luna brought the ringneck to me I handed it over to him.
We realized that the heat of the day had brought the birds to the property to take advantage of all of the water. Nearly every hole we peered into featured fresh pheasant tracks, which meant that after filling their crops on the private fields nearby, the birds were sneaking in to slake their thirst.
By mid-afternoon Luna was feeling the effects of running miles across hard ground laced with unforgiving cacti and other paw-cutting plants. She wouldn't stop unless I made her, as all good bird dogs are prone to do. We were halfway through a new spot when I saw her favoring her front leg.
At nearly the same time a rooster cackled not far from us. We decided to give that bird a shot and then call it quits. An unseen pond, framed by head-high cattails and spilling into the best grass we had hunted yet, greeted us as we crested the rise. Luna got birdy and we waited for the flush.
Unfortunately the rooster and his girlfriend had us pegged and slipped out of a small finger draw. They flew directly into the setting sun and Ben couldn't tell for sure which bird was which, so he held off firing.
I asked Ben if that was the bird we had heard, and he said he didn't think so. We had to head toward the truck as it was, so I decided we might as well hunt our way back. It was during one of those times when you're walking along not thinking of much that the young rooster flushed. This set me back a second but didn't buy the bird enough of a reprieve.
Feathers drifted into the still air above the prairie as I looked at Ben and realized that we had both shot at exactly the same time. Neither of us knew the other had shot, which isn't all that uncommon when hunting pheasants.
Despite catching a fair amount of lead, the rooster made it 20 yards farther into the draw before Luna caught up with him at the edge of a deep waterhole. She was worn out to the point that carrying the three-pound bird up the embankment was too much, so I dropped down and relieved her of the weight.
By the time we reached the truck I knew we were done for good. Luna had hunted herself to the point where she needed a break and although we had planned to hunt the following day, we both knew it was a bad idea.
We capped off the night with bacon-wrapped pheasant breasts on a small travel grill. We also discussed a return trip, perhaps a little later in the season to avoid the opening-day crowds.
We recounted the day's hunt and the previous days' struggles. When just 24 hours before we had cursed the empty prairie, we now sat with a good meal in our bellies, a snoring dog at our feet and fresh blisters on our heels.
And the willingness to do it all over again, which we will.