The third Saturday in October has always made me feel like a ten year old on Christmas morning. Over the past forty-plus years I have always written an editorial that coincides with the opening day of the South Dakota pheasant hunting season.
I’ve written about my childhood hunts, buddies past and present that have enjoyed that special day with me, wonderful dogs that I have trained and hunted over. Over the past 25 or so years I have served as a hunting guide at the Jerauld County-based Horseshoe K Ranch. So I’ve observed many firsts and lasts.
My first hunting dog was a lovable black Labrador that spent much of his puppyhood at Dakota State University with our college student son, Korrie. I didn’t really want to adopt a dog at the time, but the experience was so fulfilling that thirty years later I have seldom hunted birds without a dog.
Of course there were the first pheasant moments… mine was with my dad on a balmy October Saturday in 1959. I was carrying a single shot 16 gauge shotgun that had seen better years. There were millions of pheasants in Jerauld County at the time, so I’m sure I had plenty of misses before downing that first bird. But it is a memory that I have carried with me for the next 60 opening days.
I’ve witnessed the excitement in the eyes of my own sons as they picked up their first pheasant… enjoyed the same feeling as younger cousins, nephews and friends bagged the monumental first bird.
I got to thinking about all of those firsts and it occurred to me that in all of those previous editorials I hadn't written about some of the last pheasant hunts.
My dad, Donald Wenzel not only taught me how to hunt, but he taught me to hunt safely. He taught me about respect for the wildlife, the land and other hunters.
My dad eventually went to the nursing home to spend the final years of his life. One day I invited him to come along with me and my old Labrador Pete for some bird hunting. He thought about it for a minute and then agreed to accept my invitation, saying, “I haven’t been pheasant hunting for a long time.”
We drove the 25 miles to the Horseshoe K Ranch and I parked the pickup so he could watch through the windshield. Almost immediately, my younger dog Gunner flushed a big ringneck and it sailed, squawking into the air. I downed him with a single shot, Gunner performed a perfect retrieve and we were off to the races.
By the time I had bagged the third rooster of my bird limit, the sun was settling on the western horizon of the Logan Township ranch.
I stopped by the lodge and grabbed him a HKR orange hat to complete the experience and we headed for home.
When we got back to Weskota Manor in Wessington Springs, Dad was a little tired, and I watched him walk through the front door. A tear filled the corner of my eye as I watched. I had brought a tired old man hunting with me, and an ageless gentleman was standing tall and smiling as he walked back into the place. I cleaned those three birds and the next night Dad, Wilfred Grohs and a few others enjoyed Penny’s special baked pheasant, mashed potatoes and gravy and Spring Valley Colony squash.
That was the last time my father ever went pheasant hunting. He died a few months later. Every time I think about it, that last in both of our lives makes me smile.
A few years ago, Penny and I were enjoying a steak at the “old” Prairie Lounge in Wessington Springs when we overheard some Minnesota hunters talking at the table next to us. “How did you do today?” I asked them. “We’ve hunted for two days and haven’t got a bird yet,” a tired, middle-aged guy told me.
"Oh, that’s too bad,” I said, turning back to my meal.
“Take them hunting tomorrow,” Penny whispered to me.
“Oh, geez, I don’t know,” I said, “I’ve been around enough strangers already.”
Well, anyway, they happily accepted my invitation to go hunting. Thanks to the generosity of Lawrence Caffee, we had a nice mile-long creek to walk and the pheasants were plentiful.
Of course, the next year they showed up again…. this time with smoked whitefish, cheese, local brewery beers and their thanks. They also brought along “Grandpa,” Wade’s old father whose eyesight was showing the wear and tear from a long life.
“Grandpa used to hunt a lot, but there just aren’t any pheasants in our part of Minnesota anymore,” Wade told me.
Later that afternoon, I had taken Grandpa down to the end of a food plot where he would have a chance at bagging a rooster. Sure enough, pheasants began flying past. Grandpa blasted at a couple of them and then connected with a clean shot on a bird at 40 yards. Gunner ran out, picked up the bird and brought it back to my hand.
Wade and his sons rejoiced at the shot that Grandpa had placed on the pheasant and there was happiness on the trip back to Minnesota.
Later that winter, I received a hand-written note from Wade that stated Grandpa had passed away. But until the very end he and the family were thankful for that one last shot at a South Dakota ringneck pheasant.
I never had the heart to tell any of them that Grandpa’s last bird was a hen.
I hope all of you have an outstanding time in the field this Saturday afternoon. The Department of Game, Fish and Parks estimates that a few more birds should be found than there were a year ago. But I also hope that you take the time to notice and appreciate the firsts and lasts in all of your hunting expeditions.