Remember Pheasants of Days Gone By
By Tom Hayes  Dated 10/18/2002

Tomorrow, the third Saturday in October, is the traditional Opening Day of the South Dakota pheasant season. Every year about now, I experience a bit of melancholy. On the one hand I have some of the best memories of my childhood and my relationship with my Dad associated with the pheasant opener. On the other hand, I also run squarely into the reality of the passage of time and my own mortality.

In South Dakota in the days gone by, kids who had completed Hunters' Safety Class were allowed to buy hunting licenses and hunt accompanied by their parent or legal guardian at the age of 9. In my case, that would have been the fall of 1957, 45 years ago. Dad had me shooting a Stevens falling block single shot 22 rifle, which unfortunately perished in their house fire in 1988, from the time I was about 4 years old. Later, and well before the year of my ninth birthday, Dad had me out in the yard shooting a bolt action Stevens .410 shotgun at Union 76 Royal Triton oil cans he threw up in the air. So, in the fall of '57 I had done plenty of shooting but had never actually been hunting - excluding chasing rabbits and squirrels with my BB gun and a bow and arrows.

We left Rapid City on Friday after Dad got off work and headed for my Aunt and Uncle's place in Vivian, SD. They lived in town and Uncle Lyle worked for the railroad so they did not have land, but in those days, access to private land was generally not a big deal. The law, in fact, was that if you didn't want people hunting your land you had to post it. If it was unmarked, it was wide open available to everyone. I like that about the '50's. 

South Dakota pheasant hunting opens at noon Central time for the whole season so sometime after breakfast and doughnut time; Aunt Grace made about the world's best homemade doughnuts; we would head out to some small patch of weeds near a harvested grain or corn field and get ready for the clock to hit noon. Dad had an 1897 Winchester pump shotgun, which is in my storage cabinet along with the .410 bolt action. Uncle Lyle would "block" the end and Dad and I would walk the weed patch - no dogs involved. My recollection is that while we never had endless waves of birds flushing out of the cover, as was the reputation of South Dakota in those days, we would always move a few birds and get some shooting. I do not remember what Uncle Lyle used for a gun or whether he was much of a shot, but Dad always seemed to be able to put a rooster on the ground. I do not recall ever killing a rooster slap dead with the .410 but I do remember being convinced that I hit some that Dad had also hit. The limit in those days was 5 roosters apiece and I do not know for sure if we got them when we would call it a day, but I do know we would have a hell of a pile of pheasants to clean long before shooting hours would end for the day.

We would go back to the house, go out in the backyard and clean pheasants. There was none of this breasting them out business, either. We skinned the whole bird and kept everything considered edible including the neck and giblets. Mom and Aunt Grace would then take over and fix us a big supper of fried pheasant, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn and green beans. Usually there would be some kind of fresh baked homemade pie and bread. There was coffee for the adults and milk for me to wash it all down. Usually around suppertime someone else would show up, maybe it would be a cousin, my bachelor Uncle and namesake, Tom, or some friend of Uncle Lyle. After supper, there would be people stopping by to talk about how their hunts had gone and the usual camaraderie associated with men telling hunting stories. Everybody smoked. Mom smoked Terytons, Aunt Grace and Uncle Lyle smoked Kents, Dad smoked Roi Tan cigars. Uncle Lowell and Uncle Tom both rolled their own with Velvet. I would filch a cigarette and sneak out to Lyle and Grace's outdoor toilet and smoke me one. I never did get caught.

Dad had not yet imposed the requirement that we had to "be home before dark" so on Sunday, we would go out and hunt for an hour or so, usually with much more meager success, but would always get some birds. We would go home, clean birds, and pack for the 175-mile two-lane-road drive back to Rapid City. The pheasant season would go on for another two months but we would not participate. I do remember wishing I had my independence and mobility so I could go more times. Actually, I remember resenting the hell out of the fact that I could not go several times a season.

It would be two or three years after that first hunt that I cleanly and clearly killed an undisputed rooster of my own. Somewhere between 1957 and about 1960 I graduated from the .410 to a bolt action 20 gauge, which I also still have. Dad, Uncle Lyle and I were walking some weeds alongside a pond out near the Vivian dump. I was walking in the winter wheat field, Dad was on the edge of the weeds and Uncle Lyle was taking his turn wading in the weeds. The rooster came out of the weeds, flew in front of Dad (he did not shoot) and in front of me. I knocked him down. I went running to the spot in the emerging winter wheat where I marked his fall and could not see him. Incredible. The wheat could not have been more than 4" tall, yet there was not a trace of the bird. Dad came over to help look for him. He pointed about 10 feet in front of us just as a puff of wind raised a tail feather from the wheat. The rooster was laying there all hunkered down flat as a pancake. Dad told me to get ready to shoot him again and we began to walk up on him. The bird did not try to get away as he was mortally wounded but he was still alive. I picked him up and wrung his neck and put him on the small game carrier hanging on my belt. There was no discussion. We just went back to hunting. I do not recall getting anything solely on my own during that trip.

The next year, I acquired a 12-gauge model 1897 Winchester shotgun like Dad's, which I still have in my gun closet. Then I became deadly. Other than one incident hunting with Dad and one of his cousins near Platte, South Dakota in about 1962, I never had any problems with it. On that hunt, I let the hammer slip out from under my thumb while letting it down and it accidentally went off. Pa was really pissed. He told me to put the gun in the car, that my hunt was over. His cousin came to my rescue and convinced him that since I was pointing the gun in a safe direction and that "all of us" had had experiences like this with hammer guns, I should not be punished. Dad bought it and the hunt proceeded.

The next year, Dad and my oldest brother's father-in-law joined up with some of the Bohemian relatives near Blunt, South Dakota. On opening day, 25 of us were gathered and broke up into two groups and went to the fields. After just a little over an hour, the total group reassembled. The roosters filled a pickup truck box from the front to just past the back of the wheel wells. The old "Grandpa" of the Bozak family said, "I teenk we bedder count de birds." We did, and after only an hour we had killed more than our 125 bird limit! Holy cow, what pheasant shooting. We took them back to the home place and cleaned birds. And cleaned birds. And cleaned birds. Around three pm, the women brought out fresh from the oven home made bread and we put fresh cream and homemade jam on it. Heaven. After the cleaning and the eating was over, the young guys (10 or so of us that were under 30) loaded up in the pickups and went out to road hunt until shooting hours ended. I think we shot about another whole second limit of 5 roosters each before going back to the farm for supper. And what a supper it was. My Lord. We had fried pheasant, potatoes, gravy, vegetables, bread, butter, pie, and the usual opening day meal. 

A couple of years later, we were hunting with Uncle Lyle again and the night we got to Vivian, my Uncle Tom blew in. One thing lead to another and my Aunt Grace brought up the fact that Tom owned a Remington 870 in 16 gauges that they had been storing for him. I showed an interest in it and Aunt Grace got on Uncle Tom to sell it to me. Reluctantly, and after no small amount of pressure from Aunt Grace, Uncle Tom agreed. Uncle Lyle went upstairs and got the gun out of some hiding place brought it down and the deal was sealed for $40.00. Dad gave Uncle Tom the money. Uncle Lyle dug around and came up with two boxes of 16 gauge shells and the next day I shot roosters with my first "hammerless" pump shotgun, which I still have in my gun closet. 

I used that 16 gauge exclusively for everything including ducks until about 1971 when I bought a 12 gauge Remington Model 48 from a guy at work. The Model 48 became by workhorse for the next several years only to be displaced about 1981 when I went to an over / under Winchester 101. The old Model 48 is now resident in Austin, TX, in the possession of one Joel Hayes. The 101, of course, is in my gun closer at the house and saw duty in the hands of an associate at a game farm hunt yesterday afternoon. I have switched over to a Remington Special Purpose 1100 in 20 gauge for most of my bird hunting, am not restricted. Hunting wild pheasants is still better done with a 12 gauge after opening day so I do have a nice Beretta A390 that is in need of some experiences and my Remington 870 Express, all painted up camouflage is the gun of choice for waterfowl and, with a slug barrel and scope installed, accounted for the best white tailed deer of my life on a shotgun-only hunt in Iowa in the fall of 2001.

It is hard to believe so many years have slid by. It is also surprising to me how clear the memories are. Hunting birds with dogs over the last 28 years certainly makes the more recent experiences more efficient, in spite of a paltry bird population by comparison to South Dakota in the 1957-1969 time frame. The dogs' enthusiasm can take a slow day or a "gimme" hunt on the game farm and turn it into a great experience. But I am not sure anything that has happened on a bird hunt since 1959 compares to the feeling of I had when that rooster hit the ground in the winter wheat. And nothing will likely ever fill the void of not having Dad say something like, "good shot, Tom."