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The Sporting Life Afield

For pheasant, there’s no better place than South Dakota

The South Dakota countryside exudes a kind of magic this time of year. It’s generated by a particularly celebrated game bird, the ringneck pheasant.

Fish Are Biting

The big cold-weather stripers are stalled just to our south but within range of determined anglers. Fish to 40 inches are being encountered below Poplar Island on the Eastern side and near Chesapeake Beach on the Western. Rock in six- and seven-pound sizes are being taken in the mid-Bay, trolling small to mid-sized bucktails deep and by jigging one-ounce Bass Assassins right off the bottom. The fish are moving constantly, and not all schools are actively feeding, so persistence may be necessary to find the pod of fish that will fill your limits. The perch bite continues to pick up, though most anglers are targeting rockfish. Crabbing is tailing off fast with the drop in temperatures.

In Season

Details at: www.dnr.state.md.us/huntersguide/pdfs/Hunting_Seasons_Calendar.pdf

Canada goose, migratory Atlantic
Nov. 20-26

Ducks: thru Nov. 26

Black ducks thru Nov 26

Canada geese, resident: thru Nov. 26

Light geese thru Nov. 26

Mourning doves thru Nov 26

Woodcock thru Nov. 26

Snipe thru Nov. 26

Whitetail and sika deer, bow thru Nov. 26

Whitetail and sika deer, firearms Nov. 27-Dec. 11

Sea ducks thru Jan. 29

Ruffed grouse thru Jan. 31

Squirrel thru Feb.

I have long pursued avian game all over the United States, Mexico and even down into Central America, but I find myself returning to South Dakota and the ringneck year after year. Along with a number of long-time friends, I have developed a special relationship with this state and its most famous resident.

It’s a rare bird hunter who isn’t aware of South Dakota’s position as the pheasant hunting capital of the world. The state’s population of these birds, nearing 10 million in 2010, dwarfs its citizen count of barely 800,000. Over a million of these birds are harvested and taken home to the table every year, yet the Dakota pheasant population continues to flourish.

Driving along the straight and mostly deserted roads of this High Plains farm state, you see the ornate immigrant in residence virtually everywhere. With an iridescent green head and bright crimson cheeks set off by a brilliant white collar, the ringneck’s vivid plumage outshines even the mandarin robes of China, its country of origin.

Set off by an incredibly long and dignified tail, the bird is impossible to miss as it stands roadside, eyeing the passing traffic and availing itself of the copious grain left by the mechanical harvesters plying the state’s endless crop fields.

As an upland game bird, the ringneck has few equals. Smart, cagey and explosive in flight, the Chinese — as old timers know it — is one of the fastest of all game birds, clocking 65mph even without the benefit of the tailwind, which is never lacking in a prairie state. On the table, it can dazzle even the most jaded palate.

This November, our group gathered once again in Gettysburg, South Dakota, to engage in our annual, primal dance with this wonderful bird. Hunting with friends, Frank and Bob Smith of Bob’s Resort (bobsresort.com) at Lake Oahe on the Missouri River and with Lanny Wager of Wager Cattle Co., we were returning to renew old friendships and make new ones as well as enjoy the unique sporting experience.

Our hunting party had doubled to over a dozen guns this year, including (for his first hunt) my eldest son JP, as we had all made a special effort to bring newcomers to the hunt. That may seem a large number, but when attempting to push a square mile of cover (the size of an average Dakota crop field), the odds are still very much in favor of the bird.

This year we were a particularly wide-rooted group, with hunters from Maryland, Kentucky, California, Michigan, Florida and Texas. Varied backgrounds to be sure, but we all spoke the common language of the sport.

The new people meshed quickly and comfortably with us regulars. Safe gun handling and good marksmanship certainly helped things along, and it soon seemed we had all been together more seasons than just this one.

The group gamesmanship at the end of each day quickly evolved from that of who got which bird to who missed the easiest (and most) shots, my general claim to fame.

With the bird population at its current peak, we never had much trouble filling our three-bird limit by early afternoon. We spent the rest of the day on the high plateaus overlooking Lake Oahe, near the Cheyenne Indian Reservation, chasing sharptail grouse, mostly to no avail.

All too soon, however, our idyll was over and we packed up to return to jobs and family — but not before making firm plans to return next year.