A hunt through one of his brush patches is rugged going. The undergrowth, which in places is waist-high, is so dense it seems knitted together. Thorns and sharp twigs claw at the skin and clothing. As in the cornfields, the hunters advance abreast, guns held high. Two Labrador retrievers crash up and down in the brush, trying to jump over it, making a tremendous racket and looking thoroughly exasperated by the effort. Somewhere deep down inside all that tangled growth, improbable though it seems, pheasants are moving stealthily ahead.
Unfazed by it all, Shorty plunges in, and disappears. He snakes his little body along the ground, moving as the pheasants move, around the roots. Periodically he pops upright, pirouetting on his hind legs, his bright black eyes checking to see if Barnes is still with him. Then he disappears again into the brush. Suddenly a pheasant erupts into the air a few feet ahead. This one is not so smart, because it is in range of Barnes' gun. He swings, fires, and the bird is down. Shorty is already there when Barnes reaches the pheasant. The dog tries to lift the bird by the neck, but it seems at least as heavy as he, and considerably longer. One of the Labradors struggles up. Shorty gives it a condescending look. It is not often that professional jealousies exist between Labradors and Chihuahuas.
Not all South Dakota pheasant hunting is as demanding as that in Barnes' brush patches. Such heavy cover is often too hot for birds in the middle of a day in Indian summer when temperatures rise to the mid-70s. Then the birds seek cooler places along ditches and at the edge of shelterbelts. Driving along a gravel road it is sometimes possible to spot a head or two projecting above the ground cover. The vehicle comes to an abrupt stop and the hunters tumble out. They hastily form two lines, hoping to work the birds between them. Instantly alert, the birds pull in their necks and take off. On foot. They scatter in several directions, eluding the poorly organized hunters. Safely out of range, one bird flushes ahead. Another vanishes into the trees. The hunters plod dutifully on. A cock waits until they pass by, then gets up behind them, cackling merrily.
At one ditch the hunters flush 28 hens and three cocks in a 50-yard drive. The hens, which are protected, fly what appear to be diversionary courses for the cocks. The latter drop into the nearby stubble. There is barely enough cover to mask a beer can, but the birds vanish, safe again from the guns.
The sight of pheasants in such numbers is reason for rejoicing—not just among hunters but also among all South Dakotans—because the bird that has come to be synonymous with the state has suffered hard times in recent years. So much so that the local citizenry has become less and less confident about calling its state The Pheasant Capital of the World. This would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago when the birds multiplied more rapidly than they could be counted, and sportsmen flocked from all corners of the nation for what was surely the best upland hunting anywhere. At one point in 1945, the ringneck population of South Dakota was 15 million. Then the crash came.
Within five years, the population plummeted to less than four million. What happened? There is no simple answer.
From the moment in 1908 when three hunters planted the state's first pheasants on a James River farm north of Redfield in Spink County, the birds thrived. In 1911 the Red-field Chamber of Commerce and the South Dakota Department of Fish & Game got into the act. Jointly they brought in 200 pheasants for free distribution—in packages of three hens and one cock—to farmers willing to release them on their lands. Next, the state launched a three-year stocking program in which it released 7,000 birds.
In spite of the bitter winters, which made the American cornbelt unsuited to most other game birds, the pheasant flourished. And for the very reason that it did so well, its survival was taken for granted. The bird was expected to continue to thrive, regardless of what happened to its habitat. And it did, for a remarkably long time.
In 1919, only five years after the stocking program ended and the first hunting season opened, sportsmen recorded killing 250,000 birds. The population peaked in the late '30s as a result of dry weather and the weedy, unfarmed fields of the Depression which made ideal pheasant habitat. The numbers declined in 1937-38 because of severe winters. From that point, the figure spiraled upward again, and in 1945, two years before the precipitous drop, the annual harvest was seven million ringnecks.
There is no parallel in the history of U.S. game birds to the success of the pheasant in South Dakota. The entire cost of establishing the state's pheasant population, from the planting of the first birds in 1911 to the end of the program six years later, was less than $20,000. While the extraordinary numbers of the 1940s were never approached, the return to the state on the $20,000 investment is estimated in the billions.