A traditional season opener filled with family, pheasants, SDSU football and, finally, that Wall Drug donut
The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.
There was a problem early in the day on the opener of the main South Dakota pheasant season.
And by early in the day, I mean 7:06 a.m.
That’s when I stopped at Wall Drug to pick up my traditional opening-day doughnut.
My traditional opening-day maple-topped doughnut — which I’ll spell “donut” from here on, as Wall Drug folks prefer to spell it.
The problem was, Wall Drug wasn’t open yet.
“What the heck?” I said, or something like that, when I tugged on the door nearest to the cafe part of the fabled tourist establishment on Main Street in Wall. “It’s the opening day of the pheasant season. How can they not be open?”
I peered through the glass window on the door. It was mostly dark inside. There were some lights on back around the cafe, and a guy wearing one of those Wall-Drug-server hats was fiddling with something behind a counter closer to the door. But there were no customers. And no unlocked doors, yet.
Once I thought about it, I realized that it was a little earlier than I usually stop for my donut on my drive east for the opener. Later that day I’d check the Wall Drug website and find out that the store opens at 8 a.m. outside of the main tourist season.
I guess I can understand that, now. But Saturday morning I was surprised and dejected.
I trudged back to my pickup, which was parked across the street in front of the Badlands Saloon & Grill, where a bright red neon sign in the window proclaimed: “OPEN”
I walked closer and looked through the window and saw people sitting in a booth.
“I don’t suppose they have any Wall Drug donuts,” I muttered.
I didn’t take time to check. I had places to go, after all. Lyman County places. Pheasant-hunting places. Opening-day places. And I had relatives and friends to meet, beginning with my brother, Jim.
Coming home for the season opener
Like me, Jim is drawn to Lyman County on the opening day of the main pheasant season. And to clarify, the main season is the traditional pheasant season. It’s the only one South Dakota had before the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission added a special, much-longer season for hunting preserves, another much-shorter season for young hunters and a three-day season for resident hunters on public land only. Confused yet? I hear you.
But here’s all you really need to know: The main pheasant season, when virtually all public and private hunting ground across the state is open to residents and nonresidents, is THE season. And it has opened on the third Saturday in October since not long after I was born. Which was almost 71 years ago.
The season began in 1919 in one county — Spink — and lasted one day. It grew from there, and was set for various lengths before GF&P wildlife managers understood that it was habitat and environmental conditions, not shooting roosters, that had the biggest impact on the pheasant population. So it’s a delightfully long season now, running all the way through January.
I love hunting pheasants during the early, middle and late parts of the season, each for different reasons. But I love opening weekend and especially opening day the most. Because it’s so much more than a hunt.
Opening day gives us a hint of what the season to come will be like, of course, as thousands of hunters take to the fields. But it also reminds us of who we are and what we are like, as relationships are renewed and rituals revisited.
I have hunted in large groups on opening day across South Dakota, beginning with those of my youth on our farm northeast of Reliance. I have worked as a reporter on opening day, interviewing hunters for both for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and the Rapid City Journal. I have hunted alone on opening day behind a nosy springer spaniel on public ground.
But, for the last 30 years or so, I have traveled home to begin most pheasant seasons with relatives and friends at the McManus farm west of Reliance. There the descendants of my mother’s Irish kin offer a welcome home that includes lunch, storytelling and, eventually, pheasant hunting that has ranged in recent times from marginal to fantastic.
Usually it’s pretty good.
The pre-hunt ritual includes had long included a celebratory speech from Bernie McManus, the eldest of five siblings — Bernie, Larry and triplets Ronnie, Sheila and Sharon — raised on the farm of my Uncle Bill McManus and his wife, Bertha. That’s where we gather. That’s where we hunt. That’s where we remember things that matter.
This year the joy of that gathering was diminished by the loss of cousin Bernie, who died last January after offering a spirited resistance to a conglomeration of ailments for a number of years. Bernie got the most out of his 83 years, including a long career with United Airlines. But always a farm boy at heart, he came home often, especially for the pheasant opener. He was hoping to make “one more hunt,” he told my brother Jim by phone a few weeks before he died. Instead, Bernie came came home in July for his final rest at St. Mary’s Cemetery two miles from the farm where he grew up.
He’s buried right next to where my mom and dad are buried, in an area of the cemetery that includes both Woster and McManus ancestors and, sadly enough, some contemporaries, too.
Family and friends gathered in July at that cemetery for a graveside memorial for Bernie that included Catholic prayer and concluded with a series of shotgun blasts. I pulled the trigger myself, along with members of Bernie’s immediate family, extended relations and friends.
Moving on with the hunt, as Bernie would have wanted
There was a similar sendoff nine years earlier at a gravesite nearby, after Ronnie “Red” McManus, Bernie’s youngest brother, was buried. Red was the ramrod of the annual family hunts, just as Bernie was the captain and head toastmaster.
So we had a lot to remember and meaningful losses to feel after the opening-day lunch in the old machinel shed this year. No one had more to remember than Larry McManus, the last of the three brothers.
“This must be kind of hard for you, with both Red and Bernie gone now,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s just me left, of the brothers,” Larry said.
Understandably, Larry wasn’t up to playing toastmaster. And there was an emotional pause in the place where Bernie’s pre-hunt speech would normally be. So brother Jim stepped up and filled it with a few words on the value of the gathering, the beauty of the day, the importance of the hunt and a toast to a good man lost.
To Bernie. Yes, to Bernie.
“It sure is different without Bernie,” Jim said to me a few moments later. “Red gone. Now Bernie. You look around and it’s a hunt for the younger guys, really”
“Yeah, the young ones, taking over like they’re supposed to,” I said.
“Yeah,” Jim said. “That’s what Bernie would say. It’s what he would want.”
So we did what Bernie would want, and what Red would want, too. We loaded up in pickups and headed off for fields, most with shotguns in hand and carefully pointed in safe directions.
A few of us, including Jim and me, didn’t carry guns. We were there to talk and watch and enjoy.
Most hunters, as they age and evolve and mature, come to appreciate such gatherings and the hunting more than the shooting. A lot more. Not that the shooting doesn’t matter. It does. It’s exciting, and joyful. And the wild game it puts on the table is both healthy and delicious.
But the process matters more to many of us in the old guard. So does witnessing and sharing the enthusiasm of youth. It’s a privilege, really.
Searching hard for every downed rooster
Jim watched the group hunt one field before he headed back to Sioux Falls. Not straight back, of course. He planned to drive out past the cemetery and over around our long-abandoned farm, then follow a winding gravel road that would eventually take him back to Interstate 90 at Oacoma.
I watched the group hunt a couple of fields before I headed back to Rapid City. The second was an especially promising setup. The line of hunters started around a dugout in a grassy lake bed surrounded by a tree belt, then marched into a strip of sorghum that leads to a a strip of dense switchgrass, which is marvelous cover for pheasants.
I watched from my pickup nearby, parked on a rise in an adjoining mowed hayfield. There were birds and action from the start. A gusty northwest wind made the roosters tougher to hit. But the group was doing well with the shots they had. Most in-range roosters fell.
When a bird was knocked down but not immediately found, the hunt stopped and other hunters came to the area, to search until they found the bird. Several times that happened. Several birds were found.
That matters. A lot. No good hunter easily accepts the loss of wounded birds. Each one is a small failure that lingers. Or should be. Bernie knew that. So did Red.
As the line of hunters moved out of the sorghum and into the switchgrass, a flurry of birds flushed. A couple fell hard. But one rooster rose from my edge of the switchgrass, caught the wind and sailed up and away and behind the hunters as if launched from a catapult. It was hit and fell hard into a mowed hayfield, but rolled over and popped back up to take off running toward a fence line at the end of the field.
One of the hunters, a family member named Jacob Sazue, took off running after it. He’s young and has a good stride, but the rooster had a 50- or 75-yard head start. And winged rooster pheasants are sprinters. Good luck running them down.
So I started the pickup, spun around and tore off after the bird, swinging out wide when I passed Jacob and turning the pickup in an arc that would let me cut off the rooster before it reached the fence line and the dense cover beyond.
A Red McManus comparison is high praise in the fields
Roosters are fast, but an F-150 Ford is faster. I drove past the bird 20 or 30 yards and hit the brakes. The rooster changed directions. I backed up and cut it off. It went the other way. I drove forward and cut it off again. The rooster finally stopped and crouched down. I waited for Jacob to get within shotgun range of the bird, then I backed up quickly to give him a clear shot.
The rooster again made a dash for the fence line but couldn’t outrun a load of pellets.
Jacob picked up the rooster. I picked up Jacob. And we drove back to the waiting group to resume the hunt.
More shots were fired. More birds fell. None were lost that I saw. It was a good drive.
At the end of the field, Danny Elwood, a regular on the opening-day hunts, hustled over and raised his hand for a high five:
“Good pickup driving!” he cheered. “You looked like Red out there!”
That was high praise from this group. Red McManus never let a wounded bird get away, if he could help it. And his pickup chases were legendary, at least among us.
Speaking of Red, his son Donnie had just joined the hunt. Donnie took over as the main hunt master after his dad died in September of 2013. And he’s normally there to get things started. But on this day, Donnie had been helping his son Liam with harvest chores on some leased land south of Kennebec. It is, after all, still a working farm, even on opening day.
So Larry planned the hunt and got it started. And Donnie joined us when it could.
“Did you bring your dog?” Donnie asked me.
“No, not today,” I said. “She’s not up to much hunting these days. It would have been a lot of riding for her, and not much hunting.”
Opening day with Rosie was a week earlier
My springer spaniel Rosie is almost 12, you see. But a couple of her joints are more like 16. She has been been an exceptional pheasant-hunting dog, the most athletic I’ve had. But her hard-charging style took a toll over the years. That’s pretty obvious in the slow, careful gait she has developed. And it was especially obvious when I took her out a week earlier, during that special three-day season for resident hunters on public land.
Some health challenges kept me from hunting at all last year. And that meant Rosie didn’t hunt at all, either. So I wasn’t sure how she’d be, with her age and arthritis and almost two years removed from the pheasant fields.
I gave her some anti-inflammatories the morning before the hunt, which always help. Still, I had no idea how she’d react to what Pennsylvania writer Charles Fergus called the “thick and uncivil sorts of places” where wild rooster pheasants like to hide.
But pheasant scent is a powerful elixir to a good bird dog. And once I Ied her into a field of wheat that was left standing for wildlife on a state game production area near Hot Springs, Rosie started to quarter in front of me, nosing through the cover. Just like always.
Soon after that, she got birdy, wagging her tail and snuffling with excitement. Just like always, if quite a bit slower.
That was all good. It would have been enough, too. But then, wonder of wonders, a rooster flushed 15 or 20 yards away. I was so shocked I missed the first shot, before catching up to the bird with the second load of steel 3s. Rosie nosed her way under thick, blown-over wheat to dig out the bird and bring it to me. Just like always.
I praised her lavishly. Just like always. And that was that.
One flush. One rooster down. One retrieve. We continued on, but by the end of the field she was pooped. Finished. And when she’s done with a pheasant hunt, so am I.
That was Rosie’s opening day. Donnie had seen the pictures I put on Facebook.
“Well, anytime you want to bring your dog out, just give me a call,” he said. “I’m usually around here somewhere.”
Heading west, with one sweet stop along the way
I said I would. And soon after that, I said my goodbyes. With a honk to the group, I drove down a familiar section line to old Highway 16, took the asphalt west to Kennebec and got back on I-90 for the drive home.
My only regret about not taking a gun was not having a rooster for the frying pan or crockpot. But it wasn’t much of a regret. Not on an opening day like that, with people and places like that.
It got better as I drove west, too. WNAX was broadcasting the SDSU football game. So I got to listen to the Jackrabbits beat the NDSU Bison at the Fargodome, a win that would move State into the No. 1 spot in the FCS national football ranking.
That was pretty sweet, but not nearly as sweet as the maple-top donut I got when I stopped at Wall Drug at about 4 p.m. It was still opening day, after all. And going or coming, I wanted my donut.
I savored it slowly, one small bite at a time, as I drove from Wall to Rapid City, sipping iced tea and admiring the sweeping West River landscape I know and love.
It couldn’t get much better than that, could it? Well, yes, it turns out it could. I found that out when I got home, pulled into our driveway and started to unload the odds and ends from my trip.
You know that rooster Jacob and I chased down in the hayfield? He left it in the back of my pickup.
We had pheasant dinner after all.