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Pheasant Hunting: Now and Then

posted Oct 23, 2012, 9:26 AM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Apr 24, 2013, 10:17 AM ]
The third Saturday of October marks an important date each year; opening day of pheasant season in South Dakota! 

    In South Dakota opening day of pheasant season is not just the start of the hunting season, it is one of the biggest events of the year. Businesses throughout eastern and central South Dakota "roll out the orange carpet" for the thousands of pheasant hunters who will take to the field on opening day. In addition to the pheasant hunting, there are banquets, special contests, promotions, and other events taking place on opening weekend.  Over the course of the season an estimated 170,000 hunters will hunt pheasants in South Dakota and harvest approximately 1.5 million roosters. The majority of these hunters are from out of state.   That is a lot of hunters when you consider that South Dakota only has a population of approximately 825,000 people.

  On opening weekend w
e stay in the small town of Pukwana, South Dakota.  During the first week of the season legal shooting hours do not start until noon of each day.  After an afternoon of shooting, we retire to the local volunteer fire department for the annual "Pork Feed." This year the fire department smoked 750 pounds of pork butt for the fund raising event.  Thousands of hunters from from the surrounding area come for the pulled pork, homemade side dishes and beer.  The cost of the event is a donation to the fire department. The donations are on a purely voluntary basis and hunters are asked to donate what they feel is fair.

fter the Pork Feed, many hunters gravitate across the street at the "Puk U Bar and Grill" for a drink and to watch the lawn mower races. Lawn mowers are raced on a small oval track and divided into three classes: (1) Stock, (2) Modified, and (3) Outlaw. The lawn mowers in the Outlaw class show little or no resemblance to actual lawn mowers. The Outlaw class mowers have tube chassis  adjustable axles, and high performance engine parts. These mowers will reach speeds approaching 40 miles per hour on the small oval track.

    The festivities are fun, but the real reason to go to South Dakota, particularly on opening day, is for the hunting.
Opening day provides the best opportunity to experience the "South Dakota Flush." This is not something which happens very often and this in not something which are likely to experience on a game farm.  When hunting wild birds, you will occasionally get into a situation where you have a large number of birds pinned between the "walkers" (who drive the birds) and the "blockers" (whose job it is keep the birds from running out the end of the field).  As the walkers approach the blockers, the field suddenly explodes with birds taking flight.  For a true "South Dakota Flush," the number of birds is not measured in the dozens.  For a true South Dakota flush,  hundreds of birds will come out of the end of the field. If you are lucky enough to be in the right spot, huge number of birds will stream past you for a period of several minutes.  This is an experience which you will never forget.  

    Unfortunately, this was an extremely dry year in South Dakota and the pheasant populations were dramatically down in the area where we hunt.   Fields which had held hundreds of birds in prior years, had no birds at all.  We hunted hard on opening day and managed to bag only thee roosters.   None of those roosters were taken with a muzzleloader.

   Since the pheasant hunting was not very productive, I decided to do some research on pheasant hunting during the muzzle loading era.  In considering pheasant hunting during the muzzle loading era, it is important to remember that the pheasant is not native to North America.  Numerous early attempts to bring pheasants to North America failed. Ben Franklin's son-in-law, Richard Bach, is reported to have released some pheasants in New Jersey. Similarly, George Washington is said to have released pheasants on his Mount Vernon estate during his first year of presidency.   These early attempts to introduce pheasants failed to produce self sustaining populations of birds. The first self sustaining population of birds is generally believed to have occurred in Washington State during the 1890s.  Consequently, the pheasant hunting in North America during the muzzle loading era appears to have been limited.

    The early attempts to introduce pheasants in North America appear to have involved the "English Blackneck Pheasant."   The variety of pheasants which ultimately proved successful in North America today are the Chinese or "Ring Neck" Pheasant.    The Chinese or Ring-Neck Pheasant and the  English Blackneck Pheasant are each separate and distinct varieties of pheasants.   However, these two varieties of pheasants will interbreed and pheasant populations throughout the world include hybrids of the two variants.  

Pheasant Hunting "Rules" Sussex, England 1833

From the December 1833 Edition of the New Sporting Magazine
    The English Blackneck Pheasant are also believed to have originated in Asia and to have been introduced into England as early as Roman times.  During the muzzle loading era, the Black Neck Pheasant was referred to as the "common pheasant" in England.   The Blackneck Pheasant is very similar to the Ring Neck Pheasant.  However, it appears to frequent woodlands more than its Ring Neck  cousin Pheasant.  According to the book National Sports of Great Britain by Henry Alken (1825), pheasants roosted in the middle branches of large oak trees, particularly in the winter season.  While Ring Neck Pheasants will occasional roost in trees, this is not a common trait of Ring Neck birds.

    Other than slight differences in the habitat where birds are found, pheasant hunting in early 1800s was not too much different from pheasant hunting today.  By tradition, hunters shot only roosters and hunting took place only in the late fall and winter.  The propensity of birds to run, rather take flight, was well known and hunters developed strategies to force the birds to fly with in range.  Even the debate as to whether flushing or pointing dogs were better suited for pheasant hunting was raging in the early 1800s.    I have included a copy of pheasant hunting rules which were hung in the breakfast room of a shooting lodge in Sussex, England during 1833. The fines for breaking the rules were collected by the game keepers which kept half.  The other half of the fines were donated to the poor of the parish.  

    The 1833 rules have equal application to pheasant hunting today; do not shoot hens, do not shoot birds on the ground and keep your shots to a reasonable distance.  The hunters of the muzzle loading era clearly understood what we sometimes forget today.  Pheasant hunting is about much more than simply shooting birds.  Like all other forms of hunting,  it is about good sportsmanship and enjoying the company of others who are engaged in a similar activity. During years like this, when birds are in short supply, we need to keep in mind the real reasons why we enjoy hunting so much.