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Most years winter comes early to South Dakota. By the time the pheasant season begins in late October, the days are brisk and the winds blow cold across the prairies. But sometimes, as happened last year, winter holds off, as if reluctant to intrude upon the final glorious days of autumn. Then Indian summer—a term that must surely have originated here—can produce the finest of all possible weather. The skies are brilliant and clear, bluer than in any other season. The winds are subdued. A hot, golden sun warms the yellow fields of stubble and dead cornstalks that stretch in every direction to the far horizons.
In the cornfields, hunters doff their jackets, sweaters and caps to walk shirt-sleeved along the standing rows. They hike six or seven abreast, 25 or 30 feet apart, moving slowly, deliberately. Ahead of them, pheasants scurry through the stalks. The birds are fat and splendidly feathered, the opulence of their plumage in sharp contrast to the faded hues around them. Nonetheless, they elude the guns, skillfully using the barest of cover to conceal their getaway.
They run swiftly, outdistancing the pursuers. Then, as if on signal, they take wing, rising en masse into the air, flapping up out of the stalks with a chorus of raucous cackles. Someone fires. Too late. The birds are safe. The hunters emerge finally from the stalks. They are damp with sweat and their faces glisten in the afternoon sun. In the tractor trail at the end of the field are several more of their party. These are the blockers, the guns stationed at the field's perimeter to intercept escaping birds.
"Fooled us that time," one of them says. "Don't ask me how, but those darned birds must have sensed we were here. They certainly didn't stick to the script."
"That's what I keep telling you," says another. "We only raise smart birds in South Dakota. The dumb ones get themselves killed. The ones that are left are all super birds."
"Track stars, you mean," says a visitor. "In most places, people shoot pheasants. Here they chase them."
"That's what makes this the best pheasant hunting in America," the South Dakotan says. "These birds really cover the ground on foot, and they always run before they fly. Running fools, but never foolish. They make sure they're out of range before they fly. That noise you heard when they took off? That was the ringneck's way of thumbing his nose at you."
Nose thumbing is a widespread habit among the pheasants of Sully County, where the birds have elevated the art of outwitting man to new levels. Dogs fare little better. Nothing is more frustrating to a hunting dog than a trail that whips in and out like a zigzag stitch made by a sewing machine. The average hunting dog expects birds to hold in cover, as did the average birds he met in training. He does not expect them to charge around like cross-country runners. That is one reason why the best pheasant-hunting dogs in South Dakota are anything but average.
Take for example Denny Barnes' Shorty. Shorty is three parts Chihuahua and one part Pekingese, all seven pounds of him. His long silky hair is the color of ripe apricots and his pert papillon ears are always at attention. He looks too delicate for any place except the boudoir, yet he is most at home hunting the brush patches on Barnes' farm.
There are many such patches on Barnes' land, which is why his pheasant crop is so abundant. These and a liberal number of uncultivated coulees and planted shelterbelts provide excellent feeding, nesting and resting places for the birds, which in turn provide excellent sport for Barnes.