The red-faced rooster pheasant disappeared somewhere ahead of me in the snow-covered standing cornfield. It was the year 1958, and I had my first hunting license.
October is here with its scent of decaying leaves, bare branches, frosty mornings and pheasant hunting season. The last of these things is my favorite. Even though my artificial hip has put a crimp in my hunting expeditions, I relive the memories of chasing ring-necked pheasants in those rolling hills of western Iowa during the Soil Bank days of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
When farmers took part in the federal program and began planting sweet clover instead of corn on idled acres, it meant one thing: Pheasants had found a way to thrive. And, thrive they did! Where once it was rare to even see one of these spectacular birds, now they produced chicks by the millions.
Millions of acres of farmland were set aside for at least 10 years and those acres were my turf. Rarely did we ever see a pheasant hunter around our farm. Opening day of pheasant season brought out a few city dwellers to cruise the graveled roads, but that was about it. Farm neighbors in our area did not hunt. But, they allowed me to.
My birddog amounted to our farm dog. Rippy was death on any livestock critter that escaped from its pen, and he also reveled in following me over the hill to the Kounkel farm and down a branch of the Whiskey Creek where pheasants could be heard cackling in the early morning.
Rippy wasn't much of a pointer, but once he winded a pheasant running ahead, his legs went into overdrive and it took a good set of human legs to keep up until the flush. The dog didn't retrieve, but would stand guard at a downed pheasant until I found it.
Pheasant hunting has changed a bit since those hallowed days of the Soil Bank. When the land was turned back into cropland, the cover disappeared and so did the once abundant birds.
"You can't have pheasants when you don't have cover," my dad explained.
He was right. Over the years as corn and soybeans took over from section to section, pheasant hunting declined to the point that many hunters gave up the sport. There were other farm programs that brought the birds back for a time, but those programs have withered and we're back to planting fencerow to fencerow even with low commodity prices.
Small towns came alive during the peak of the pheasant cycle. Opening day would find cafes packed, grocery store shelves emptied and hardware stores selling boxes of shotgun shells and blaze orange caps. Motels were booked and gas stations did a land office business as hunters filled up their tanks and purchased windshield washer fluid to wipe the dust from their pickups' windows. American Legions and VFWs did a brisk business.
It was a fun time!
I always looked up the game and fish department population counts for each state I hunted. There you could see how the pheasant population fluctuated from year to year. This year in South Dakota, they've done away with those reports. Somehow someone thought that by not reporting on the counts, that would spread hunters out across the land not knowing where the birds were and where they were not.
I don't agree with that policy. Hunting just for hunting's sake is fine for some folks, but I like to know if I'm in an empty field or not before spending my hunting budget. I hope they reconsider this policy. I like to eat fried pheasant. Kind of tough eating a policy paper.
But, pheasant hunters will be going forth soon no matter what the forecast. There will be some birds for sure, but these days do not in any way match up with my fortunate time as a young hunter in the Soil Bank field. I wish every young hunter could have that same experience. Maybe again someday.
I never downed that first red-faced rooster in that standing cornfield beside the Soil Bank in 1958. I missed. But, I remember that experience like it was yesterday. It's that time of year. October.
See you next time. Okay? Be safe!