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Autumn Afield

I can’t resist South Dakota’s 7 million pheasants

We hadn’t gotten a dozen yards into the thick growth bordering the harvested cornfield when the first rooster burst out — behind me. I whirled, shouldering my model 12 Winchester (circa 1929), swung through the bird and fired. The ringneck dropped like a stone.
    Our 2011 South Dakota pheasant-hunting season had officially begun. Nearby, my oldest son, J.P., gave me a thumbs-up as I slipped the bird into my game pouch and re-established my place in our line stretching out across the field.
    At the other end of the Conservation Reserve Program set-aside acreage, the other five of our party of 10, their blaze-orange clothing barely visible across the distance, were moving in a like manner toward us. Somewhere in the middle, we suspected, were a lot of ringneck pheasants getting seriously nervous.

          Fishfinder         

    The autumn rockfish bite has returned. Chumming with ground menhaden has been producing the last week or so with some larger, ocean-run fish finally joining the mix. Tolley Point, Hacketts and Podickery are experiencing good bites on the Western Shore. while Love Point, Bloody Point and the Hill are doing the same on the Eastern. Jigging and bottom-bouncing soft plastics around the Bay Bridge is also the ticket to some good rockfish action. The stripers are keying on smaller baits, so keep your bucktails, assassins and BKDs to six inches and under.
    White perch have finally left the creeks and rivers heading for their main-stem wintering grounds. If you move around from 30- to 60-foot depths at tributary junctions or around the Bay Bridge, you can find a school of good-sized whities to fill your cooler. Vertical jigging and bloodworms on the bottom will get the best action.
    Crabbing is just about finished for the year, though if you’re rigged for going really deep (20 to 30 feet) you can still get a few jimmies.

    Though the season had just opened for us, it had begun three weeks ago for the birds, and they had grown wise. As we moved along, a flurry of wings and shouts of hen, hen filled the air as the females took flight. Hen birds are protected to maintain the population of this spectacular game bird, hence much more careless in their escape tactics than roosters.
    Then, and well before we were in range, the long-tailed, colorful males began taking wing from the middle of the field. The guns on that flank rushed ahead to cut off the exodus, but it was in vain. By the time they reached the critical area, over a hundred birds, almost three-quarters roosters, had fled to another field of cover a half-mile away.
    Taking the setback in stride, we continued to work our area. Gunfire punctuated the morning as the less clever birds that had held back broke cover and streaked across the sky, sometimes directly over our group. In spite of our best efforts, many sailed on untouched.

Savoring the Bird

    The ringneck pheasant is one of the fastest of all our upland game birds. Their size sometimes makes them look like they are loafing, but they can easily reach speeds in excess of 55mph. Today they had a 30-knot prairie wind to help them out. If you think it’s a simple task to plot the lead on an 85mph bird, guess again. There was lots of shooting, but not a lot of hitting, on that particular drive.
    The ringneck pheasant, native to China, has been established since 1881 to varying degrees in every state of the Union, including Hawaii and Alaska. But it flourishes in our Midwestern states because of their expansive fields of corn, wheat and soybeans. Of all the Midwestern states, South Dakota is the most famous and successful at maintaining a substantial population, approximately seven million wild birds in 2011.
    We all didn’t manage to shoot our three-bird limit that day, though we came close. This was not because of any lack of effort by our hosts, Frank and Bob Smith, nor any want of opportunity. We probably saw as many as three or four hundred birds that day. But the windy conditions and the spooked birds made bagging our quarry tricky. Subsequent days of calmer winds and different cover would treat us better.
    That is as it should be. The essence of the hunt is the pursuit, not the kill, and the fact that some days were long and the walks longer made the challenges we met and the experiences we had more intense, gratifying and memorable.
    We have been visiting Frank and Bob’s pheasant hunting operation (bobsresort.com) at Lake Oahe along the Missouri River in east-central South Dakota for many years. By now, most of our group of 10 guns has it permanently etched on their calendars. November wouldn’t be the same without this experience.


Tournament Alert


The MSSA Chesapeake Bay Fall Classic Rockfish Tournament is scheduled for November 19 and 20. The largest and best-organized fishing tourney on the Bay is also its richest ($65,000 in payouts for the first three places in 2010) plus lots of free tackle for contestants. Register at mssa.net.


 

Oyster Disaster

The commercial oyster season for 2011 is apparently a disaster. Early indications are that the storm floods coming down the Chesapeake from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee have devastated the few remaining stocks of oysters in the mid and upper Bay. With the bivalves at under 10 percent of the historic population, perhaps Maryland Department of Natural Resources will finally declare a moratorium on all further harvest of the surviving populations as part of a serious program of rebuilding this key Bay resource.