Forging friendships, finding pheasants
ROSCOE, S.D. -- The elder statesmen of this pheasant hunting clan have reserved seats up front in the old conversion van. That's Roy Meier in the driver's seat. He's 80. In the passenger seat is Rolf Grimsrud, 75, of Superior.
This past opening weekend made it 47 years. It was 1962 when Grimsrud and some friends wound up at a motel in Roscoe, wondering where they might hunt some pheasants. The motel's owner called Meier, who was just getting started in farming.
At that time, Roy Meier wasn't a pheasant hunter. He tried to decline the request of the motel owner, who happened to be his uncle.
"I don't know nothin' about hunting pheasants," Meier protested.
But being a true South Dakotan, he agreed to help. He and a neighbor took Grimsrud's party to some spots. They found birds. And a friendship forged in pheasants was born.
"We hit it off good," Meier said. "He measured up to my expectations."
This is not uncommon, of course. Pheasant hunters from all over the Midwest descend on South Dakota each fall, and many of them enjoy longstanding friendships with farm families.
Over the years, Meier has since bought at least four vehicles from Grimsrud, who is general manager of Larson Chevrolet in Superior. Roy and his wife, Erma, along with their son, Mark, and his wife, Zady, have been to Superior several times to visit Grimsrud.
Roy and Erma have since moved to Roscoe (pop. 324). When Grimsrud and five friends arrived the evening before the South Dakota pheasant opener last weekend, they stayed at Mark and Zady's new farm home on the same property where Roy and Erma once lived.
Prospects for the season were excellent, based on South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department roadside counts. Biologists touted a near-record number of birds.
Scouting a duck-hunting slough one evening, Duluth's Mike Seyfer and I watched seven or eight roosters flush from heavy grasses one by one, half of them cackling as they went. We stood and watched in awe.
"God bless South Dakota," Seyfer said.
How good is it this year? Almost as good as 1945, Roy Meier said.
"My brother and I shot 14 from the highway to our house [two miles]," Meier said. "With one gun."
Some farmers think pheasant numbers are higher than necessary.
"It's too good," Zady Meier said. "They're doing crop damage. It used to be, if you were cutting hay and you came to a nest, you'd drive around 'em. Not any more."
But big numbers didn't guarantee a bang-up opener. When the noon opening hour rolled around, Roy and Rolf squired the assembled hunters to a grove of trees across the road. Some hunters piled out to walk. Roy and Rolf drove to the far end to post.
But a funny thing happened. No pheasants flushed.
That's because virtually all of the corn in the area remains standing. Early-season rains delayed planting, and late-season rains have delayed the harvest.
"It's unusual to have this much corn standing [on the opener]," Grimsrud said. "In another two weeks, it'll be a lot better hunting."
Pheasants will stay in the corn as long as they can, where they have feed and cover. The fields are far too large for hunters to hunt effectively.
But Grimsrud's gang found its birds. They walked one small patch of corn near the Meier farmstead, and birds poured out.
"Rooster! Rooster!" hunters cried.
Grimsrud, working the edge of the field, shot two roosters. The group of eight took four in all.
Then it was on to the "slough," a triangle of cover full of waist-high canary grass and sweet clover. No sooner had a phalanx of hunters entered the patch than birds began getting up everywhere. It was pheasant pandemonium.
God bless South Dakota.
Duluth's Eric Olson, 50, nailed three roosters. Russ Wester, 68, of Superior waylaid a rooster on the flank. Jim Thompson, 68, of Minong dropped two along the north edge.
In all, 50 or 60 birds must have flushed. Hens, of course, are off limits. And several roosters managed to escape unscathed.
Back at the farm
When the day was over, the hunters had 15 birds, well short of their limit of 24 for eight hunters. But that wasn't bad. Reports from the South Dakota of Game, Fish and Parks Department said hunters in the same region of South Dakota averaged about one bird per hunter for the weekend.
After the birds were cleaned, the hunters gathered for mountains of food prepared by Zady Meier. Baked chicken. Salad. Potatoes au gratin. Corn. Cheese bread. A choice of two desserts.
Roy took his customary spot at the head of the table, telling stories that many in Grimsrud's group had heard before -- and wanted to hear again. At the other end of the table, Grimsrud listened quietly and smiled. He seemed to understand how lucky he was when he checked into that motel 47 falls ago.
God bless South Dakota farmers.