Where we live: Fall memories
Every year the third Saturday of October always brings back good memories of growing up in my home state if South Dakota.
Fall in the Midwest is a wonderful time. The crisp mornings and chilly evenings bring on the leaves of bright oranges and reds.
But what I remember the most was the anticipation of pheasant season. A ringneck pheasant is a large, long-tailed and long-necked game bird. The males have green heads, a white collar and a coppery body plumage with black and white spots.
South Dakota is the pheasant hunting capital of the world, home to some of the best pheasant hunting opportunities anywhere.
The season opens the third Saturday and runs through the first weekend in January. The hours are noon to sunset for the first week and 10 a.m. until sunset for the rest of the season. The limit is three males birds a day per hunter.
It was a family tradition to go pheasant hunting. Each year my dad would invite uncles, cousins and friends over to hunt in our fields. The crops were already harvested, so the stubble corn and milo fields were the prefect spots for the pheasant roosters to hang around. For those of you who don’t know, you can hunt only the male of the species.
By 11 a.m. of opening day, everyone would be at our house dressed in hunting gear, with their guns cleaned and bullets in place. The hunting dogs would then get their last chance to fill up on water for the next few hours. By 11:30 they would all get into their trucks and head out to the fields. We would all form a line, at least 6 feet or more apart at the beginning of the field. At noon someone would yell, “Let go!” We would all walk to the end of the field to flush out the birds. Shotgun blasts rang out, birds would fall and dogs would retrieve. I think I can still smell the smoke of those spent shells if I think about it.
After a few hours of walking and hunting, everyone would have their limit and home we would go for the next step, which was cleaning each bird. We would always have a big meal afterward prepared by the ladies, and it would be a partylike atmosphere on our little farm. It was a yearly tradition that was passed down for generations in our family.
My dad loved to hunt ducks and geese, too, but I think he enjoyed the pheasant hunting the most. When I was young, you were able to shoot from a vehicle. It was called road hunting. So off we would go with dad’s gun loaded and barrel sticking out his driver side window and me sitting “shotgun” in the front seat. We would drive slowly down the dirt roads. Our eyes searching the grassy ditch for a ringneck. Soon we would see one duck down in the grass. My dad would stop the truck, slowly get out, set his sights on the bird. Many times the bird would make its loud cackling sounds, noisily flap his wings and take flight. The shot would miss and the ringneck would get to live another day. Road hunting was outlawed in the state many, many years ago for obvious safety reasons. Today you can only hunt on private property or game lands.
This year marks the 100th pheasant season in South Dakota. These birds were brought in from China in the early 1900s. The wild birds quickly grew into great numbers and in 1919 the first hunting season began.
A few years ago, the pheasant population was down due to droughts and harsh winters in the state. Also, because of an overpopulation of fox, which tended to eat the hens eggs before they can hatch.
This year I read that population is up. We found this to be true. Driving on the country roads this summer it was common to see a mother pheasant with at least 6 to 9 little ones running behind her. I’ll never get tired of seeing such a cute sight.
Wild pheasant is a lean meat. If not cooked with care, it will taste like a very dry, very bland chicken. Pheasants have a mild taste. Many other games birds like duck and quail have a stronger, gamier taste. A good recipe is to cover the whole bird in strips of bacon and bake in the oven for an hour with a lot of basting every 15 minutes. I like to cut up fresh carrots, potatoes, parsnips and turnips and roast them with the bird. And of course, white wine is a great complement to the meal.
So today at noon I will probably pause for a few minutes to think about all the hunters taking to the fields today and all the great memories they will make as another pheasant season begins.