Missouri River roosters: Minnesota hunters find plenty of pheasants along the river in South Dakota
GETTYSBURG, S.D. — Joy was sure she had the rooster locked up. John Lindgren's Llewellin setter held a rock-solid point, her nose riveted on a patch of brush in this gully along the Missouri River in South Dakota.
But — no. Now the 6½-year-old setter was on the move again, down along the ravine until — whoa — right there, boss. This wasn't her first ringneck rodeo.
Two more points on this running bird, and she had him nailed. Duluth's Lindgren moved in on the little thicket until the rooster launched. All clatter and indignation, the pheasant rose, a splash of rust and red and white against the deep blue South Dakota sky. Lindgren shouldered his shotgun. When he squeezed off the shot, the bird tumbled into the shortgrass prairie, and Joy was on it.
The bird was the fifth of this late October for Lindgren, 57; his sister, Sandi Restine, 64, of Delano, Minn.; and their longtime friend Ted Heisserer, 63, of Detroit Lakes, Minn. They have been hunting these "breaks" — grassy and wooded drainages that border the Missouri River — for the past six or seven years.
The group had hunted some private land in eastern South Dakota a day earlier and, despite lots of standing corn, had shot several birds. Lindgren had gained access to that private land by knocking on farmers' doors in previous years and developing relationships with a couple of families. But he kept saying, "Wait 'til we get to the river..."
The hunters talk about "the river" with a kind of reverence. It's their favorite place to hunt pheasants, although completely different from typical pheasant country. For one, it's flat-out gorgeous. Over the eons, the Missouri has carved its way down into a broad valley. The valley is bordered with deep folds — drainages, ravines, gullies. Most of the land is shortgrass prairie, dry and sparse. But in the low areas, enough moisture gathers to grow taller grasses, a few head-high thickets of brush, and the occasional juniper.
That's where the pheasants hang out.
Nearly all of the land along these breaks is public — state land or Army Corps of Engineers land. The hunters work up one draw, down the next. Sometimes they post a hunter at one end and work toward him or her.
Up on top, on private land bordering the public areas along the river, farmers grow corn and soybeans. That's where the pheasants eat.
The walking is relatively easy along these drainages, but there's not a level piece anywhere. It's all up and down, often steep. It's also spectacular. From atop the higher ground, a hunter can see for miles, the Missouri a ribbon of blue far below.
It's difficult, walking the high ground, not to pause, look down at the river below and imagine Lewis and Clark working their way upstream in the early 1800s. Perhaps members of their party hunted mule deer for dinner on the same land we were walking.
Plenty of birds
Earlier in the day, Lindgren had taken the first rooster. It flushed from a steep rise along a gully choked with trees. He dropped another following Joy through a grassy run. Heisserer took one that he had watched fly into a ravine. It didn't go far when he pushed it out.
The party had split up after a snack break on high ground, and Restine had headed back to the pickup far below. Soon after, Lindgren and Heisserer flushed a rooster from a thicket up high, and Lindgren missed it. The bird made the mistake of flying in Restine's direction. She hadn't seen the bird flush, but she knew what to do when she looked up and saw it flying overhead.
"It was the most awkward shot ever," she said later. "I hand my fingers all tangled in the trigger."
She managed a shot and plucked the bird out of the sky.
The missing hunter
The hunt was punctuated by short pauses to appreciate the country, take on water or to work burrs out of Joy's ears or tail. The day was cool, the air dry. But something was missing, and all three hunters felt it. This was the first year that John and Sandi's dad, Kenneth Lindgren of Detroit Lakes, hadn't made the trip. At 88, he had decided the trip might be a little more than he wanted physically.
It's amazing, of course, to think of any pheasant hunter going until age 87. Kenneth had shot his last rooster just two years before, Restine said.
"I'm 88," he had said in a telephone interview before the trip. "Things happen."
He knew what he would miss about the hunt.
"It's that sudden burst of excitement," he said. "You go along — walk and walk and walk. And all of a sudden, there the rooster is, right in front of you."
"It's hard to describe," he said.
He, too, loved the river.
"I go for the aesthetics," Kenneth had said. "It's beautiful out there."
Lindgren and Restine didn't say much about it during this South Dakota trip, but they were missing their dad's presence.
"I think I called him six times today," Restine said on one day of the hunt. "What I miss most is the joy on his face. He smiles so much."
This fall, Kenneth had passed down his old 12-gauge Remington Wingmaster shotgun to Lindgren. John had his own Wingmaster, but he carried his dad's on this trip.
"Since I was 8, I've been in the boat with him, sitting on top of the decoys, looking up at the night sky," Lindgren said. "I'm trying not to get emotional about it, but it's hard not to do something that you've been doing with your dad for years."
The hunters walked down to the river's edge on their way back to the truck that October day. They were carrying a nice bunch of Missouri River pheasants in their game bags. And a touch of heaviness in their hearts.