ABERDEEN, S.D. -- On Dec. 16, the last thing I said to my brother-in-law Randy Rush was this: “When you step outside tomorrow morning, you'll probably be within a quarter-mile of 50 roosters.”

I have no gift for prophecy. By noon the next day, after two hours of hunting wild pheasants in north-central South Dakota, we had seen just a handful of birds, with nary a rooster among them.

We'd made the seven-hour drive from Rochester with David Lowe, who is the most die-hard pheasant hunter I've ever known. I've hunted this area southwest of Aberdeen numerous times with David, but never in December, and Randy's only previous hunt in South Dakota was a less-than-stellar excursion on public land more than a decade ago.

My expectations for this three-day hunt were sky-high. The corn harvest was complete, Randy and David are both crack shots, and we had plenty of dog power. David brought three Labs – Dolly, Murphy and Indy – and Randy has two pointers, Chance and Zoey. With my short-legged Lab, Roxie, plodding along behind these sprinters, I had every reason to believe we'd put nine birds in the freezer by early afternoon each day.

But you can't shoot what isn't there.

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On Dec. 17 we battled sub-zero windchill as we started our hunt with a hike around a cattail-ringed lake. We saw just two hens.

Then David blocked the end of a brushy treeline that in late October had held dozens of birds. This time it was empty. Nearby food plots of standing corn produced nothing.

“Where are all the birds?” David asked repeatedly, to no one in particular. Six weeks earlier, he and eight other hunters had shot 27 birds in the very spots that now were empty.

Eventually, David got us on the board with a Hail Mary shot and a great retrieve by Dolly, who ran the winged bird down after a 200-yard chase through tall grass.

Then Chance and Zoey found a pair of roosters in a slough, and Randy knocked one down. “I should have had both of them,” he lamented as we admired the rooster. “I missed the easy shot.”

Still, we were seeing less than one-tenth of the birds we'd expected. Our legs grew weary as our puzzlement grew.

Randy Rush, left, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, and David Lowe, right, of Rochester, hunt a food plot as the sun goes down near Onaka, S.D., on Dec 16. Contributed / Eric Atherton
Randy Rush, left, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, and David Lowe, right, of Rochester, hunt a food plot as the sun goes down near Onaka, S.D., on Dec 16. Contributed / Eric Atherton

Mystery solved

We were driving across a picked cornfield, heading to the next in a seemingly endless series of sloughs, when birds began flushing around us.

“They're out here feeding in the corn stubble!” David said. He was right. For the next two hours, nearly every bird we saw was running or flying from the truck. We'd walk a CRP field and see nothing, then put up a dozen birds as we drove to the next patch of cover. It was maddening.

As quitting time approached, we still had just two birds in the bag, but David had a plan. “This last slough has been pretty good at sunset in the past,” he told me as we approached a long, narrow, strip of cattails bordered on one side by picked corn and on the other by a gravel road. “If they were feeding in the corn an hour ago, then this is where they should be.”

“I don't think I've ever hunted this with you,” I replied, and David agreed.

“We've always had our birds by now and didn't need to hunt it,” he said. “Not today.”

He dropped Randy, me and our three dogs at one end of the slough, then drove a quarter-mile to the other end.

A glorious finish

I wasn't optimistic. My legs felt like rubber, my fingers were stiff with cold and my glasses kept fogging up. “It's gonna take a miracle for me to hit anything,” I said to Randy as we stepped into the slough.

Within seconds, birds started flying away from us and toward David. “Rooster!” I hollered – and as if in response, a dozen more birds erupted, all of them out of range and escaping across the road or over the picked corn.

I made a split-second decision to leave the slough and sprint down the gravel road, hoping to cut off an escape route, but a “cascading flush” was already underway. Birds were flying everywhere, and I had a great view as David knocked down a rooster, then Randy quickly followed suit.

The confusion was glorious. Dogs were scrambling to retrieve the downed birds, and more pheasants kept flushing. David downed another one, and then I failed to connect on the one rooster I managed to identify against the gloomy, wind-swept sky.

“There must have been a hundred birds in here!” I hollered to David from the edge of the ditch as he approached in the chest-high cattails.

“Let's push back to where you started,” he called back. “We still have time, and there might be a straggler.”

Roxie seemed to agree. She darted from my side and back into the slough, and within seconds she was hot on a trail. A hen flushed right under her nose, and then Roxie repositioned, her tail quivering.

“She says there's another one in here,” I yelled, just as Roxie turned and leaped deeper into the cattails.

The rooster that flushed in front of her offered me the best shot I'd had all day, but not only did I flub it, I also short-shucked my pump gun and failed to eject the empty shell. The bird was well on its way to a narrow escape when Randy's second shot sent it cartwheeling into the corn stubble some 50 yards away.

Zoey retrieved the bird, and as Randy put it in his vest, he happily declared, “So that's the South Dakota you've been telling me about!”

Indeed. We'd see more birds in the final 10 minutes than we'd seen in the previous six hours, and Randy and David ended a brutally tough day with their limit of three birds each.

I'd been shut out, but I hit the pillow that night with optimism born from experience in South Dakota – and this time that optimism was well-placed.

We bagged our nine-bird limit each of the next two days, which featured glorious weather and great dog work. Zoey and Chance pointed a handful of roosters, and Dolly proved to be an absolute machine at finding downed birds.

As for me – well, I didn't shoot very well, but I managed to knock down a couple birds that Roxie put up, including our hard-earned final rooster at 3:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon.

Ninety minutes later, we and our snoring dogs were headed home, weary but satisfied – which is exactly how you want to feel after three days of late-season pheasant hunting in South Dakota.

Eric Atherton is an outdoors writer for the Rochester Post Bulletin. He can be reached at sports@postbulletin.com