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Back for another year, the Blogmore Hunt seeks roosters, fellowship — and maybe not in that order

The 2023 Mount Blogmore Hunt participants.
Kevin Woster
The 2023 Mount Blogmore Hunt participants.

It occurred to me as I watched Bill Walsh and Larry Mayes commiserating in the icy wind at the end of a shelter belt on Sunday that I was looking at a two-person encapsulation of the Mount Blogmore Hunt.

Or, in more political terms, the left and the right of the hunt.

You don’t get much more liberal than Walsh, a former Catholic priest and retired Black Hills businessman who alternates between homes in Deadwood and Rapid City. And you don’t get much more conservative than Mayes, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel from Rapid City whose mustache helps separate him from his twin brother, Terry.

Bill Walsh, left, and Larry Mayes are different in politics but pals at the Blogmore Hunt
Kevin Woster
Bill Walsh, left, and Larry Mayes are different in politics but pals at the Blogmore Hunt

There they were, the left and the right standing together, smiling and chatting.

Throw in all degrees of political persuasion in-between Walsh and Mayes and you have the Mount Blogmore Hunt. You also have, I think, a hopeful example of what is possible when you set aside differences of politics and policy and emphasize similarities in experience and affection.

In this case, affection for pheasant hunting and all that goes with it. But more than that, it’s pheasant hunting in a way and at a place where shooting birds matters, of course, but shooting the breeze matters a whole lot more.

If you show up at the Blogmore Hunt intent only on racking up a feathered body count, you’re at the wrong hunt.

I had a great time at the hunt on Sunday, for example, and I never took my 12 gauge out of its case under the back seat of my pickup. I was just never inspired to take it out, occupied as I was with trying to help landowner Nick Nemec and our buddy John Cooper put 15 other hunters in positions where they could bag a rooster or two.

Or, at least, get a good shot or two.

Reaching the Uncle Frank stage of hunting

That’s always the goal of the hunting part of the Blogmore Hunt: to get everyone a shot or two, more if possible. And that’s especially true for those “everyones” who have limited mobility and might otherwise not have as much chance of bagging a rooster.

That work takes some energy and some directing. And spending that energy on the worthwhile cause of providing opportunity for others in the field seems to become more fulfilling with age.

I’ve reached what I like to call the Uncle Frank stage of hunting. Frank Woster was my uncle and my dad’s farm partner. They were close, those two Bohemian siblings, loving each other as brothers, farm partners and hunting pals.

The three-pronged relationship broke up in August of 1968 when my dad died, at 56, of cancer. Frank, who was three years older than my dad, lived on until he was 84. So I got to watch Frank age and change as a hunter in his later years in ways I never got to witness the same transformation in my dad.

In our 50s, most of us are still hunting pretty hard. I know I was. Not hard like the crazy, unrelenting days of youth. But hard enough so that it would have been tough to leave that 12 gauge under the back seat on Sunday when the birds started to fly.

Frank was still banging away with his Remington Model 11 into his 50s, and even into his 60s. But he was changing, too. He shot less. He talked more. And watched others hunt even more, with that gentle smile that brought slight crinkles to the edges of his eyes.

Uncle Frank would help direct hunters and pose strategic alternatives, but then turn the field marching and most of the shooting over to the younger guys. I remember him telling me once during a hunt that he’d reached a stage where he enjoyed watching it all better than being in the middle of it all.

Coop and Corbin calling out roosters and hens

As I recall, he was sitting in his pickup with his shotgun nowhere in sight when we had that conversation.

I’m about there myself: the Uncle Frank stage of pheasant hunting, especially when it’s big-group pheasant hunting.

John Cooper, left, and Corbin Powell, with Coop’s black Labrador Millie
Kevin Woster
John Cooper, left, and Corbin Powell, with Coop’s black Labrador Millie

John Cooper is about there, too. The former federal game warden who also served for 12 years as secretary of the state Game, Fish& Parks Department demonstrated that on Sunday. His shotgun was also packed away in his pickup when the shooting started, and when it ended.

This fall Coop has been limited in his walking. Really limited. He needs a knee replacement, which he managed to put off until most of the duck hunting and pheasant hunting is over. But Coop could have skipped the walking Sunday and joined others at the end of field to “block,” pretty much assuring himself some shots.

Instead, he focused on helping others at the hunt and spending time with 9-year-old Corbin Powell, grandson to Nick and Mary Jo. Appropriately dressed in blaze-orange clothing, Corbin rode along in the pickup with Coop. He watched as Coop helped direct the hunt and advise other hunters. He got to know Coop’s black Labrador, Millie. He didn’t miss much, that kid. And Coop said he was a fast learner.

I took quite a few pictures of the hunt with my smart phone. My favorite picture is the one I took from behind Coop, Millie and Corbin as they watched the hunters work their way through a big slough, blasting the occasional rooster.

Coop was teaching Corbin how to identify rooster pheasants from hens when they flushed. This is important business, because only roosters are legal to shoot. And depending on the light conditions and distance and angles, sometimes telling the difference between a rooster and hen can be difficult.

Practice makes perfect, or nearly so.

By the time the hunters finished up in the slough, Corbin was calling out “Hen!” or “Rooster” right along with Coop, which gave Coop a bigger smile than shooting any rooster ever could.

And that wasn’t the end of it. Corbin took a pheasant home after the hunt. And later on my Facebook page, his mom, Erin, added a photo of Corbin and his sister, Addie, making bacon-wrapped pheasant nuggets in the kitchen of their home near Nick’s and Mary Jo’s.

So, something was being passed on during and after the Blogmore Hunt. Something important.

People with different lives but a shared outdoor passion

That happens in other hunts, too. And so does the coming together of people who might live different lives but share a common passion for pheasant hunting. At the Blogmore Hunt, however, the main goal is the blending of people with diverse views and beliefs in other areas into a communion of common love in the outdoors.

Nick Nemec offers a plan to flush pheasants
Kevin Woster
Nick Nemec offers a plan to flush pheasants
Hunters drop a rooster near the conclusion of the 2023 Blogmore Hunt
Kevin Woster
Hunters drop a rooster near the conclusion of the 2023 Blogmore Hunt

You might have heard the origins story of the hunt. But here’s a quick review: Nick and I started the hunt in 2007 to connect people who were fighting about politics on Mount Blogmore, the political blog I helped moderate on the Rapid City Journal website.

We knew that many of the Blogmore combatants liked to hunt pheasants. We suspected that others might give it a try, or at least join the hunt to be part of the gathering.

Nick said, “Mary Jo makes good chili. So we could feed them after the hunt.”

I worked up the guest list, including bloggers, politicians, reporters and wildlife folks. And that has been the mix of people we have aimed for ever since.

It was initially called the Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt. And during that first hunt people threw a few dollars into a hat — literally, a hat — out of gratitude. Nick gave it to a charity and the name evolved into the Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt & Charitable Chili Feed.

It kept that name for a few years. Then my wife, Mary, and I left the Rapid City Journal. And the Journal discontinued Mount Blogmore. So the hunt became the Requiem to Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt & Charitable Chili Feed.

And so it has remained ever since, with Nick using the money we throw into a hat or otherwise convenient repository for the charity of his choice. Lately that has been a Knights of Columbus program that provides coats for disadvantaged children.

Enjoy the hunt but don’t skip the fellowship

Hunters can throw in $5 or $50. There is no minimum. And nobody pays attention to who gives what.

This is a rewarding part of the hunt that developed on its own, through the generosity of Nick and his wife Mary Jo and of the hunt invitees.

JoAnn Morford, left, Mary Jo Nemec and Jack Freidel during the chili feed after the hunt
Kevin Woster
JoAnn Morford, left, Mary Jo Nemec and Jack Freidel during the chili feed after the hunt

Over the years, we’ve been joined at the Blogmore Hunt by a Republican congressman (Dusty Johnson), a Democratic U.S. senator (Tim Johnson), a former Republican U.S. senator (Larry Pressler) a Republican state attorney general (Marty Jackley), a Republican Secretary of State (Jason Gant) and an assortment of current or former state officials.

Republican state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck is a regular. So is Coop. After them there are about a dozen regulars who usually show up. And beyond them a dozen more who are invited, figuring only some will make it.

I try to add a new hunter or two each year, knowing a few from last year won’t be able to make it. We try to have at lest 12 hunters and no more than 20. I’ve tried over the years to add more women to the hunt, but we’ve only had a few. I’ll try again next year.

We try to spend an hour or so chatting over coffee and donuts in the morning and at least an hour or so over chili together after the hunt. We don’t rush to get started hunting and we stop hunting early enough to allow plenty of time for chili, desserts and fellowship time at the end of the day.

People who show up only for the hunt and skip the fellowship are not likely to be invited back. The same is true of people who are unsafe in their gun handling and shooting.

We’ve never had even a minor shooting accident at the hunt and we are committed to never having one. For years Coop gave a quick hunt-safe speech before the hunt. This year former state conservation officer Jack Freidel did most of the safety presentation, with help from Coop.

Then we were off into shelter belts and sloughs and creek bottoms and sorghum strips that always have enough wild roosters to make the hunting part of the Blogmore Hunt exciting. But it’s the talking part of the hunt that matters most, and lasts most meaningfully from year to year.

It creates an affiliation of people who might otherwise not know each other beyond their differences. It shaves off the sharp edges of disagreement, making room for new friendships while strengthening old ones through an outdoor tradition in South Dakota that is more than 100 years old.

Bill Walsh and Larry Mayes would agree on that — while laughing over bowls of chili in the Nemecs’ dining room or standing arm and arm at the end of a field — regardless of how they might disagree on politics.

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