Pheasant season brings out local, out-of-state hunters

·7 min read

Oct. 17—OLIVET — Nine-year-old Ben Stanze was on his first South Dakota pheasant hunt in Hutchinson County this weekend. He wasn't even carrying a gun, but two hours after the official start of the season, he had already formed an opinion on one of the state's most popular pastimes.

"It's awesome," he said.

The first-time visitor to the state, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was accompanying his dad and a handful of other family and friends as they took advantage of the comfortable temperatures and clear skies while they pursued the often-elusive game bird that has become synonymous with South Dakota hunting culture.

Widely considered to host some of the best pheasant hunting in the United States, South Dakota each year draws thousands of hunters in pursuit of the colorful game bird. Of course, many of those are resident hunters accustomed to the ins and outs of the local obsession, but many converge here from all over the country, as well as international hunters.

The party Ben Stanze was with Saturday morning was no exception. In the group of six, they had hunters who hailed from Missouri, Colorado and New Mexico. And like many who come to enjoy the pheasant season, they were a group of family and friends who make the pilgrimage to South Dakota on a near yearly basis.

It's a great chance to take a break from the rat race, get close to Mother Nature and even reconnect with some family roots.

"My in-laws grew up in Tripp, and we still have family and friends out here," said Rich Stanze, Ben's grandfather, also of St. Louis. "(One year) they said something about coming out to do some bird hunting. And I said we could meet and have a little family reunion. So my father-in-law and mother-in-law came out a whole bunch of years, and it's been kind of a family thing ever since."

Steve Stanze, Ben's father, said he made his first hunting trip to South Dakota when he himself was about his son's age. And he's been back many times.

"I started (coming to South Dakota) when I was eight or nine," he said as he took a break Saturday morning from their first round of walking some public hunting land northwest of Olivet.

The crew made the trip in a few pickup trucks loaded with shotguns, dogs and their kennels and a back seat loaded with snacks. They said the nine-hour drive is worth it for a chance to enjoy the hunt, the environment and the thrill of the chase.

Tom Stanze, Rich Stanze's nephew, said their first attempts Saturday morning were, literally, hit and miss.

"We got two, and we should have had, I'd say, five," Tom Stanze said with a laugh. "I shot the tail off one, but we're knocking the rust off. But the dogs are excited, we were excited and texting each other back and forth. Then we get out there and boom, nothing but air."

Ben Stanze wasn't the only relative newcomer in the party. Mark Chamberlin, a family friend, was on his second hunt in South Dakota after having recently retired from work at IBM and Lockheed Martin. The time off finally gave him a chance to experience the adventure.

"Last year was my first time," Chamberlain, 67, said. "I love it. They've been inviting me for years and I've just never been able to go."

Tom Stanze said South Dakota provides a different pheasant hunting experience than his state of Missouri. Pheasant hunting there is confined mostly to the northern part of the state, and the birds behave differently than the ones in South Dakota. That's due in part to the fact that Missouri is home to several species of predators, including bobcat and black bear, that change the way they react to hunters.

"They are not like they are here. They will not hold. You can't get a dog near them. A lot of guys down there use full-choke shotguns because you're taking longer shots. They're skittish as hell," Tom Stanze said.

About a mile away, Al Wolf, of Worthing, was on his own. No hunting partners, no dog. Just his pickup, his shotgun and an orange vest. But he was anxious to see what he could scare up while he took a few hours off from his family camping trip at Lake Menno.

A regular hunter in the past, he took several years off before rediscovering his love for the season.

"I'm actually just getting back into it. I've been out of it for quite a few years and then I went last year with a friend who had a dog, and I said you know what? I miss this. So I ended up buying a dog and she was going to be ready this weekend, but it will probably be a couple weeks yet before she's ready. And we'll see how it goes after that," Wolf said.

Wolf intended to walk a few ditches and perhaps try some walk-in areas, but without his dog, he figured he would do better trying out some less-expansive private hunting land near home.

A quick scout of the area Saturday showed Wolf that summer conditions for birds were likely not as good as they could be. He noticed some areas had been mowed for hay, which is allowed when drought conditions make hay scarce.

That's an understandable circumstance, he said.

"I'm assuming that's a lot of the reason why it happened like it did. To be honest, I'd hate to be a farmer right now. They have to deal with that all the time, so it's good they're able to do that. But there are also some places left, so hopefully they got pushed to some of those small areas where you can actually pick up a couple," Wolf said.

Taylor Geerdes, conservation officer for Hutchinson and Turner counties, said overall pheasant numbers may be down slightly, but for the most part it's comparable to years past.

"I would say our numbers are pretty much normal to what they were last year, maybe a little lower," Geerdes said. "The drought affected some young pheasants and it also depends on the area. Some areas were hit harder, but in Hutchinson County we're maybe just a little lower than what we have been in the past."

Bird numbers may be slightly down, but the number of hunters chasing them down is similar to past years.

"I think we're doing pretty well as far as getting people over here to hunt. I've checked a lot of non-residents today and there are a lot of Hutchinson County plates running around, too," Geerdes said.

She said she had not heard of any injuries resulting from the season in her counties, nor has she heard of any from her fellow conservation officers from other counties in the region.

She noted that hunters should be on the lookout for deer with Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, also known as EHD. The disease affects primarily white-tailed deer after they are bitten by mites. The disease affects their brain, and the thirst it causes in the animals draws them to watering holes, where they often die.

The disease is not known to transfer to or affect humans or pets, but Game, Fish and Parks is keeping an eye out for it and asks that hunters report any sightings of dead or strangely-acting deer to officials with the department.

"It's something to keep an an eye out for," Geerdes said.

Otherwise, it should be another exciting year for those seeking the South Dakota pheasant.

"Pheasant hunting is a huge attraction for South Dakota. Our pheasant numbers are extremely high compared to some states. It's a great season for us to have, and a lot of people come from all over the world to South Dakota," she said. "And as far as game wardens go, it's the busiest time for us, as well."

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