ABERDEEN, S.D. (MCT) - It's been about 100 years since farmers released ringneck pheasants - a Chinese import - in South Dakota.
That's why tourism officials are calling 2008 the "pheasantennial."
Although several attempts were made to introduce the birds as early as 1898, state officials credit a 1908 release near Redfield, S.D., with launching the pheasant population.
The birds spread like a prairie wildfire.
By 1919, the first hunting "season" was held, a one-day novelty. A thousand hunters killed perhaps 200 birds.
But it was the beginning of a rich tradition.
As the pheasant population exploded, so did the number of hunters who discovered the joy of ringneck hunting. In 1924, 52,000 hunters harvested a quarter-million birds. By 1926, 83,000 hunters killed an amazing 1 million birds.
That million-bird mark became routine.
Last year, more than 180,000 hunters bagged 2 million roosters.
Other states, including Minnesota, introduced pheasants. But South Dakota's landscape and weather were a perfect fit. South Dakota quickly became the No. 1 pheasant state in the nation, a position it has held for decades.
Pheasants, of course, also have become huge business, pumping $200 million into the economy last year. More than 100,000 hunters journeyed from other states to hunt South Dakota last year. Minnesota regularly sends more hunters than any other state. On opening weekend, motels, restaurants, taverns and cafes all are jammed with blaze orange-clad hunters.
They come to hunt what many consider the quintessential game bird - big, colorful, wily - and tasty.
"It's a huge social event," said Tom Kirschenmann, game program administrator with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. "Family and friends come back for the opener. A lot of friendships have been built over the years. It's just a huge tradition."
Several Minnesota friends and I packed vehicles filled with shotguns, gear, dogs and anticipation and headed west over a recent weekend to launch another South Dakota pheasant season. Hunting South Dakota ringnecks has been our own tradition for more than 25 years.
Our experiences have been, well, memorable.
On our first visit, two of us jammed into a tiny 1979 Plymouth Horizon hatchback, a Springer Spaniel nestled between us. We slept in the car our first night, then linked up with a fellow who operated a poor man's bed and breakfast.
He had some land to hunt, and he grabbed his old 12 gauge and showed us around. Our most memorable recollection from that first hunt occurred as we were walking across a gravel road, and our host suddenly fired his shotgun into the ground, stunning us.
"Just checking to see if it was loaded," he explained. "The safety doesn't work."
OK. Maybe we'd hunt by ourselves.
We got some birds that year. And the little springer evolved into a pretty good first hunting dog.
Our subsequent hunts were safer, and over the years the memories piled up. We've traversed the back roads of most of eastern South Dakota. We lost a hunting dog outside a Watertown motel (and found it at the dog pound). We've hunted near Mitchell, Huron, Brookings, DeSmet, Chamberlain, Draper and Aberdeen - and almost everywhere in between.
We hunted an Indian reservation for a few years, and they allowed hunters to begin at dawn, not 10 a.m. or noon like elsewhere. So, being young, foolish and determined, we hunted from dawn to dusk. It was brutal on us and our dogs. But the wide-open landscape was spec tacular and alluring.
We've come to love it.
Last week, seven of us drove west from Minnesota to open another pheasant season. We found pheasants, but also some surprises. Heavy rain a couple of weeks ago had inundated fields, ditches and sloughs. Traditional pheasant hangouts were swamped, including some cornfields.
That caused a couple of problems. Wet feet and muddy dogs, for starters. Most cattail areas were flooded, all but eliminating hunting there. And because the cornfields were still muddy and wet, virtually none had been harvested, leaving far too much cover for roosters to hide.
So even though we hunted private and public land, we struggled to roust roosters.
On Saturday, when hunting began at noon, we joined a South Dakota friend and had only four birds at 5 p.m. But the bewitching hour before sunset is when birds move from corn to cover. We hunted a strip of grassland surrounded by cornfields just as birds moved in.
"Rooster!" someone shouted as a bird erupted into the air. A gunshot, followed by another, folded the bird, and one of our hunting dogs quickly snapped it up. In all, 10 birds fell before a blazing orange sun slipped below the horizon, ending another opening day.
"That was fun," said Tim McMullen of Delano, Minn.
Many believe these might be the "good ol' days" of pheasant hunting in South Dakota. The last few seasons have been spectacular, with harvests near or exceeding two million birds since 2005.
"The bird numbers we've seen lately rival what we saw in the 1950s and '60s of the soil bank era," Kirschenmann said. "We've had very mild winters with lots of birds carrying over to spring."
Habitat conditions have been excellent. But, prompted by high crop prices, the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of federal Conservation Reserve Program lands this year and expected loss in the next few years could dramatically affect South Dakota's pheasant population.
"There's no doubt it will have an impact," Kirschenmann said.
The days of two million bird harvests could be nearing an end.
But whether South Dakota pheasant hunting nose dives or not, pheasant hunters like us will still show up each fall. Working our dogs. Chasing roosters. Making memories.
It's a tradition.
© 2008, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.