October 21, 2021
When I interrupted Bob St. Pierre recently, it was hard to ignore his infectious enthusiasm as he went about the annual task of gathering gear like an upland bird hunting vest, a shotgun, some Federal Prairie Storm shotshell loads, and the GPS collars for the brace of German shorthaired pointers that join him on pheasant hunts across the Great Plains and the upper Midwest.
In fact, as the always likable and usually smiling St. Pierre took time out from his chores to visit with yours truly about hunting early season pheasants in a drought year, I swear I could almost hear the vice president of marketing and communications for Pheasants Forever smiling on the other end of our phone conversation.
Why the optimism, despite a harsh drought that has impacted nesting activities of both upland birds and waterfowl in the northern Great Plains? Part of it is that St. Pierre is getting ready for another Pheasants Forever Road Trip, part of it is that he’s a joyful bird dog owner eager to get his GSP’s out in the field again, and part of it is that he’s the proverbial kid who loves pheasant hunting and like the rest of us, never quite grew out of it.
"Gosh darn it, I just enjoy the experience (of it all)," said St. Pierre, a Minneapolis resident. "For me, opening day of pheasant season, of grouse season, of waterfowl season, or whatever season it is, is akin to Christmas Day in terms of anticipation and excitement.
"Add in the camaraderie of hunting friends, the passion of opening day in South Dakota, all of the blaze orange that you'll see in the field and in town, the neon signs welcoming hunters, and going to a crowded café for breakfast on opening day, it's just part of the culture, part of the lifestyle of pheasant hunters.
"It's a time that I hope doesn't slip away."
While the tradition and carnival-like atmosphere of opening day is certainly worthy of luring St. Pierre and his Pheasants Forever coworkers into the field—both for Rooster Road Trip content and video footage for the organization’s The Flush television show on Outdoor Channel—there's also the serious business of busting a few roosters and putting some of the best wild protein on the table.
And despite the drought gripping the Northern Great Plains and Upper Midwest this fall, St. Pierre feels especially optimistic that a possession limit of pheasants is bound for his road trip cooler.
"I’m probably a hunter who will opt for the early season most years, which is probably counter to what a lot of hard-core bird hunters like to focus on," said St. Pierre. "After all, they say that there's nothing better than old, cagey longtails bursting from thick winter cover, not to mention the fact that there aren't as many hunters out there."
"But I just love running big, long running pointing dogs out in the grasslands," he continued. "I love it when the temp is in the 40s and not crowding zero, and when you're in the grass and not trying to kick them out of dense cattails around a frozen wetland."
While this year's drought conditions have certainly put the hurt on grassland complexes, due to both the weather and the emergency haying and grazing that has been allowed as a result, St. Pierre is still optimistic that good hunting will be found early on.
It's just that a would-be pheasant hunter heading for South Dakota and beyond over the remainder of October needs to put a little thought and effort into what could be a different, more challenging hunt in 2021.
"First of all, with all of that emergency haying and grazing that is going on, that's going to really affect the walk-in programs in various states," said St. Pierre. "That means that local hunters who haven't scouted or non-residents driving in for a quick weekend hunt and expecting what they’ve experienced in the past are likely to be surprised."
Surprised in what way?
"By how pared down the habitat conditions will be from years past, especially in grassland areas surrounding agriculture fields," said St. Pierre. "If you have plans to pull into a favored spot, don't be surprised to find much shorter grass than you might normally see."
A second effect of the drought, in St. Pierre's mind, is that the hunter willing to put some highway miles onto their truck tires and some new creases in the boot leather, will stand a better chance of success in 2021 than veteran hunters who are intimately familiar with ground they've hunted for long stretches in past years.
Put simply, it won't be as simple as it has been in previous years to drive out of town, find a section of good habitat, turn the dogs loose, and go bust a limit.
"You want to put in some serious scouting time and make an effort to find out where the good habitat is and where the birds are going to be," said St. Pierre. "In fact, it might not have ever been more important (scouting) than it is going to be in 2021."
A third result of this year’s drought conditions is the effect that the dry weather is having on farmers and their crops this fall.
"This year, the crops are dry and farmers aren't having to wait for things to dry out so that they can get in and get everything harvested," said St. Pierre. "That means that in many areas, the harvest of corn, milo, and other things is weeks and weeks ahead of schedule."
What that means to early season pheasant hunters is that the usual routines of seeing birds in the ag fields early and late and melting into CRP grassland cover during the middle of the day, is going to be off schedule for 2021.
"This year, those birds aren’t going to have nearly as much security cover to pull into after the first hour, which is going to mean that hunters and their dogs can really get on pheasants throughout the day," said St. Pierre.
Which is why St. Pierre is surprisingly optimistic heading into the mid-October pheasant opener in South Dakota. There are still good numbers of birds this year and those roosters are going to have less places to go hide!
"That’s going to really, really concentrate pheasants this year in available habitat, perhaps more so than I can remember in recent times," said St. Pierre. "That should mean that opening weekend will be better than it ever has been."
While that may also mean that there will be fewer roosters than normal later in the year, and that those roosters will react to hunting pressure a bit more quickly, that should be offset by the birds going to predictable, thick, thermal cover like cattails around a frozen wetland.
But for now, St. Pierre isn’t thinking about frigid days in late November, December, or even January. Nor is he worried about finding good early pheasant hunting this year.
"There's no doubt in my mind, that drought or no drought, this is a good year to go pheasant hunting early on," said St. Pierre.
"I know some of the variables are different this year, but for the most part, the birds are still there and are likely to be concentrated in the best habitat," he added. "In fact, this year is a clear illustration of the fact that where there is good habitat, there are birds.
"And in the early part of this season, I think it's fairly likely on the best habitat out there, that the number of roosters out there will blow your minds. When you’re where they want to be in that good habitat, the roosters will pop into the air like popcorn, they will be that concentrated this year."
The hunting could get tough later on this fall as cagey old roosters bury deeper into security and thermal cover that even the best dog will have trouble sniffing out. But for now, the warm, early autumn days of the 2021 season look like they’ll be good.
Even for a well-known, veteran upland bird hunter trying to find all of his gear for another Rooster Road Trip out on the high plains. It’s pheasant season in South Dakota, and there’s little more that St. Pierre can ask for, right?