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What’s better than the pheasant opener? How about hiking and fishing and star gazing with family in the Black Hills?

Stopping for a family photo at Spearfish Falls in Spearfish Canyon
Photo by Mary Garrigan
Stopping for a family photo at Spearfish Falls in Spearfish Canyon

My kids aren’t pheasant hunters, so they can be forgiven for scheduling our family gathering at a cabin up near Lead on the third Saturday in October.

Let me repeat that: the third Saturday in October!

That’s the South Dakota pheasant opener, of course. And by “opener” I mean the opening day of the state’s main pheasant season.

There are other seasons: a short youth season. a short residents-only season on public land; a commercial pheasant-preserve season.

The one that matters most, however, is the one that begins on the third Saturday in October.

It’s a big deal, that one, for tens of thousands of people, including me, who have one degree or another of the ring-necked pheasant obsession.

My kids aren’t afflicted — or blessed, depending on how you look at it — with that obsession. So as they scheduled family time months ago, the third weekend in October, and a day or two either side of it, just seemed like a good time to gather in the Black Hills.

Depending on the whims of the South Dakota weather, of course.

This year we got lucky with that. It was pouring rain a week before our gathering was to start. And the forecast for the week after —this week — was for much chillier conditions with some rain and snow. As I write this, those conditions are already moving in.

Last weekend, though? Wow. It was perfect, with sunshine and daily highs here in the hills in the 60s and 70s.

A perfect place in the hills, with ideal fall weather

A trio of grandkids fishes for rainbow trout at a secluded Black Hills pond
Kevin Woster
A trio of grandkids fishes for rainbow trout at a secluded Black Hills pond
Perfect weather for a family hike in the Black Hills near Savoy
Photo by Meghan Roche
Perfect weather for a family hike in the Black Hills near Savoy
A National Park Service ranger is a blur in the low light of a Jewel Cave tour
Kevin Woster
A National Park Service ranger is a blur in the low light of a Jewel Cave tour

So we had ideal fall weather for hiking and scenery gazing. Trout fishing, too. And thanks to my friend Steve and his well-cared-for pond at a secluded spot in the hills, grandkids Emerson, Bodhi and Philip all caught beautiful rainbows. At night the clear skies and lack of light near our cabin offered ideal conditions to stand and gaze up through binoculars at the Milky Way while considering our infinitesimal — yet somewhat meaningful — place in the universe.

It was a great plan, thanks in particular to my daughter-in-law, Wendy, who found and reserved the spacious cabin, and to my daughter, Meghan, who brought us all kinds of food options for a well-stocked five-day stay.

Thanks, too, to my son-in-law, Thad, whose broad shoulders were always ready to cart a kid — 3-year-old May in particular — up the more strenuous stretches of a hiking trail at a pace rivaling that of a well-pedaled mountain bike. And to my son, Casey, whose ability — already beyond my own — to identify specific raptors and faint birdsong and also distinguish a satellite from a star from an airplane in the dark skies above were of essential value.

These times are blessings to be cherished. And I’m filled this week with gratitude for the enriching hours and days that Mary and I had with my kids, their spouses and their kids, with near-perfect weather conditions in a place of such beauty.

There was only one catch: I knew all the while that the great weather conditions here in the hills also extended out onto the prairie, where the pheasant season was opening without me.

This wasn’t the first time this has happened to me. Five years ago Casey planned a great trip for “the boys,” meaning him and his son, Bodhi, and old Grandpa Kevin to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

They drove out from St. Paul to meet me up at at the park. And I drove up on Highway 85 through Harding County between the always-fetching Slim Buttes and the Cave Hills. We arrived at Teddy Roosevelt on a Thursday before the third Saturday in October. That meant I missed the regular opening-day gathering with my Irish mother’s McManus kin at their farm near Reliance.

I don’t miss that big bash without good reason.

A landscape where even the lows elevate your spirits

And, oh, what a wonderful reason I had in our “boys” trip to Teddy Roosevelt. If you haven’t been there, make it a point to go. And the third Saturday in October is a great time for it, or at least it was for us. The crowds were gone but all the beauty remained.

And that was kind of what we had here in the hills last weekend. It was full of highs and lows in a landscape that rises and falls with elegant lines changing geology. Even the lows were great, of course, from canyon bottoms and clear-flowing creeks to the damp, dark depths of Jewel Cave, where the calcite crystals affirm the cave’s name when hit with the beam from a ranger’s flashlight.

I couldn’t have asked for a better place or better company or a better time of time of the year.

It was all so wonderful, in fact, that I barely gave the pheasant opener a thought.

But “barely” wasn’t quite “didn’t.” I had to think about the hunt from time to time, of course, wondering how the McManus crew — which now includes only a few remaining members of my generation — was doing in the march through CRP and shelter belts and grassy lake beds.

If conditions were perfect for Black Hills exploration they were also pretty certain to be sublime for hunting out on the prairie.

State Game, Fish & Parks Department officials reported generally good bird numbers throughout the main pheasant range in South Dakota opening weekend. A GF&P report estimated hunters on public land average one to two birds each, while private land hunters averaged a bit better than that.

Of course, some hunters fell below the average and others above it, with many 3-bird limits reported.

And my cousins made a good showing of it. Bird numbers weren’t as high as they have been during the best of times back home. But they were much improved from recent lows.

Watching the birds flush and driving the roads of recollection

I don’t hunt with the big bunch anymore on opening day, and haven’t for some time. That’s mostly for the younger thrashers. I go mainly for the lunch of Sloppy Joes and chicken and other delights, and especially for the conversation that goes with it, in the machine shed before the hunt. Then I often join brother Jim or sometimes brothers Jim and Terry to watch the birds fly and the younger hunters shoot in their first few marches through the fields.

We drive around a bit then, stopping to visit our cousin Ruth Ann and maybe swinging around past our old farm place. Abandoned since my dad died in 1968, it is being disassembled nail by board by screw by the weight of time and weather. We might walk out onto the grassy ridge where our cousin Tom Woster is buried, alone in a spot he picked for its solitude and the view.

My old springer spaniel, Rosie, is too old and arthritic and hard of hearing to be much use on a group hunt. It’s all too fast and confusing for her these days. And she wears out quickly. But I’ll still take her on a shorter hunt or two at the McManus place, sometime later in the season after all the celebratory hunting is finished.

It won’t be this weekend, however. I have another hunting obligation at the Nick and Mary Jo Nemec farm hear Holabird, where we’ll hold the Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt & Charitable Chili Feed.

The hunt is named after Mount Blogmore, a political blog on the Rapid City Journal website that was started in 2004 by my colleague Bill Harlan. Harlan, Denise Ross and I moderated the blog for several years, and others helped me with it after that until my Mary and I left the Journal in August of 2013 and the blog was discontinued.

But we knew South Dakotans and what they love

One of the roosters bagged during the 2022 McManus Family hunt
Kevin Woster
One of the roosters bagged during the 2022 McManus Family hunt
John Cooper entertains during the 2022 Mount Blogmore Hunt
Kevin Woster
John Cooper entertains during the 2022 Mount Blogmore Hunt

Nick Nemec and I started the hunt in 2007 to being together people who were fighting over politics on Mount Blogmore. We presumed, boldly and perhaps a bit recklessly, that the ruffled feathers of social-media disputes would be smoothed when warring factions came together over the shared love of pheasant hunting.

With, um, loaded firearms.

Some, including my boss at the Journal, wondered about the wisdom of putting people who didn’t like each other in close contact with shotguns in hand. But knowing South Dakotans as we do, Nick and I weren’t worried. And the first hunt proved the interconnectivity of place and purpose.

Nary a harsh word was exchanged and people who had fought pitched battles on social media exchanged grins and stood arm in arm for post-hunt photos.

Mount Blogmore is long gone. But the hunt lives on, with only a couple of years missed because of COVID and a death in the Nemec family. Each year we throw some money into a hat and it goes to the charity of Nick’s choosing. He always chooses wisely.

The Blogmore Hunt is a different kind of hunt from the McManus family gathering at Reliance in some ways. But they are much the same at their core. Each brings together people who might diverge in opinion on certain subjects like politics or religion but share the same love for South Dakota and for time spent outdoors.

It’s about hunting pheasants, of course. But it’s also about hunting human connections in a place where such connections are easily made and likely to endure.

As good as it is, however, I wouldn’t take a pheasant hunt over time with my wife and my kids and my grandkids, especially in a beautiful landscape of majestic highs and inspiring lows. Nope. Not ever.

Still, maybe next year we could schedule our Woster family gathering on the first or second weekend of October.

That’s a pretty good time to get together, too.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.