I write this to you from the wide open plains near Chamberlain, South Dakota. It is a vast area where you get the feeling you could walk for the rest of your days, look back and still see where you started. It’s empty and beautiful at the same time, mile upon mile of rolling prairie and five times a day I expect to see a herd of buffalo come galloping over a rise. It is a very different place for the guy from the southern Appalachians.
Not as many buffalo here as there used to be, but there are a lot of pheasants, Chinese ringneck pheasants to be exact. The ringneck pheasant was imported into the west in the late 1800s and is now common in much of the west. The ringneck pheasant is the state bird of South Dakota and 100,000 pheasant hunters take over 500,000 birds a year in South Dakota. Pheasant hunting is “it” here; would you believe that pheasant hunters brought over $218 million into South Dakota’s economy?
With this many pheasant hunters, many of them from other states, hunting lodges and guides services are all over the map here. The group I am with is staying at the Thunderstik Lodge. (www.thunderstik.com) and to say that the accommodations are nice would be like saying the Pacific Ocean is big. There is a beautiful lodge, nice rooms, the food is entirely too good, and the staff is first rate. There are also some incredible Labrador retrievers that work here who are absolute work horses in the field; more on these guys later.
Eric Suarez (a veteran of several deployments himself) with Remington Arms is our host and I am with a special group of people. The purpose of the trip is to bring wounded and disabled military veterans here to the Dakota plains, the warmth of the Thunderstik Lodge, and expose them to all of the wonders of pheasant hunting. Wide vistas, action-packed wing shooting, marvelous gun dogs, and guides that are as honest as the black dirt we trod through the corn fields.
Could there be something else here? Something I hope for but is elusive, something I can’t quite put my finger on but I sense in the rattle of the dry cornstalk leaves, the cackle of a long-tailed rooster as he rockets skyward, and the glow of the fire at the lodge mixed with the laughter of friends old and new. Healing, can it be found here? I don’t know, and at first I am afraid to hope.
The days starts early at Thunderstik Lodge and I am up before the crowd (the old “can’t sleep in at a strange place thing”). I wander from my room to the lodge, find that coffee is already on near the kitchen, and I am happy to sit and reflect in the quiet. Soon breakfast is on and after that there is a flurry of activity as the guides collect their hunters and we speed away in Suburbans pulling dog trailers, labs barking and hunters full of anticipation.
There are five hunters in our party and our guide, Jeff from Nebraska, knows how to position us as we walk the cover. Jeff is a retired teacher, lifelong bird hunter, and just what this group needs. He is the perfect balance of patience, pheasant hunting knowledge, and a student of people and their behavior. He fits in with this bunch right away. The labs pound the cover in front of us and at times it is very thick. Jeff is in constant contact with the dogs by voice and their “beeper” collars. The first big rooster that comes up out of the twisted grass and brush I think we all probably just stared a little, and then someone yells “Shoot!” Whoever was closest for the shot comes to their senses and blazes away with the shotgun, once, twice, three times and the pheasant flys toward the horizon, cackling and no doubt laughing at us. This somehow happens more than once. As the day warms up, so does our shooting, and by day two the pheasants aren’t laughing as much.
The shotgun we are using by the way is the Remington V3 autoloader. I have written about this gun before and liked it from the start. If you know the V3, you know it descended from the Remington VersaMax, maybe the softest shooting auto loading shotgun out there. The V3 was scaled down to a three inch gun from the VersaMax three and a half, it is sleek and quick pointing and these guns shot all day and I never saw a problem. (www.remington.com)
We all work the covers hard all day; sometimes Jeff loads us up and we move to a different area; he and the dogs are working hard to get us our birds, and in truth at times we may feel a little guilty that our misses are letting them down. Jeff brushes it all aside, tells us not to worry, you are doing better, guys, “We’ll get ’em in this next cover!” Now I would be fibbing if I didn’t say that the ribbing, the teasing, the hacking on each other in the field was fast and furious; that is what guys do, especially those with backgrounds like this.
In the evenings we gather around a corner table in the lodge and trade stories and share lifetimes. All of these guys have military records and some of it in some very scary places. Some of what was revealed I knew about, some I did not. It maybe dawned on me that after spending a day in the field, plotting strategy on some tricky roosters, helping someone a little with the introduction to wing shooting, bonds start to form, maybe you tell your buddy a little more about what you have been carrying around all this time.
We found a lot of pheasants on the South Dakota plains; we also found hope and a chance for some healing. Tomorrow is Veterans Day; call a veteran that you know and thank them for their service to this great country we live in; that may very well give them some hope.