Aiming for a winter solstice dinner
“Life is short and one bird season lost is one too many,” wrote Datus C. Proper in Pheasants of the Mind: A Hunter’s Search for a Mythic Bird, a lyrical little book on the sport published in 1994.
I was lucky to know Datus, who wrote articles for me when I edited Trout magazine. One evening back in the 1980s he and his wife hosted me at their home for dinner. I remember he poured Portuguese red wine to go with the last ring-necked pheasant he had killed in Pennsylvania the season before.
I was musing about that dinner last year when the silence of a snowy December morning in South Dakota erupted in whirring wings. “Rooster!” yelled one of my hunting companions; “hen!” yelled another, an instant admonition not to shoot. But for the ranging dogs and the momentary explosion of color and motion, the whole monotone scene had a still, somber feel.
Pheasants are legendary runners. This is especially true for late-season birds. December pheasants are survivors—the ones who outran the dogs in October or November and didn’t get shot. The ethical hunter of game birds shoots only those on the wing. And so the challenge is to convince them to go airborne. That’s the job of the dogs.
By winter, cock pheasants are in full glory, their gray sinewy legs long, their plumage neon, their tails flowing. When they burst suddenly out of brush piles, they look outsized. As they cackle and whir skyward, you would think they would be easy to hit. You would be wrong.
I have hunted pheasant since I was a teenager in small, overgrown New England farm fields of goldenrod bordered by old stone foundations guarded by lilac bushes and gnarled apple trees. But South Dakota is another pheasant world. Back in New England, I was lucky to flush a single bird during a morning’s hunt; here on the Great Plains the pheasants appear as thick as starlings. They are everywhere. If this isn’t pheasant heaven, I can’t imagine what is.
On the winter solstice last year, I found myself, shotgun in hand, wandering the famous Paul Nelson Farm, a 5,000-acre, third-generation family prairie farm. The Nelsons once raised corn, wheat, cattle, and sheep here; now ring-necked pheasants have the run of the place.
I had never before hunted them in the snow. I quickly learned that when the snow flies they head for cover, flocking to rows of purposefully planted Russian olive trees and juniper and hackberry thickets.
The fields seemed empty. The upright rows of corn and millet and sorghum rustling in the bright October sunshine when I hunted here some years back appeared muted and beaten. The dogs dutifully worked the hedgerows. I heard their bells plowing through powder and branches. Our hunting party followed their lead, walking along the perimeter, over-under shotguns loaded with No. 6 shot eager to find the form of an escaping bird rocketing overhead—at what inevitably seemed an impossible angle for a killing shot. “Rooster!” Bam! Miss. Wait, wait—another…. swing. Bam! A snow-covered Labrador retriever suddenly appeared with a limp, warm, brightly colored bird in its soft mouth.
Overnight the big snows came. Great sheets of white swept across fields of stubble, washing over the country roads and obliterating our escape route. To our disappointment, my friend Kate and I were advised to leave a day early. We followed Paul Nelson’s wise advice. As we drove away and left the hunting lodge behind, out beyond the barns and the grain silos, groves of juniper and pines stood against the wintry plains winds. In our minds we could see flocks of mixed dun and brightly colored birds festooning the snowy branches like living Christmas-tree ornaments.
If You Want To Hunt
Pheasant hunting is so popular in South Dakota that each fall the governor hosts a hunt to kick off the season. And good luck campaigning for the office if you aren’t comfortable around dogs and shotguns. Public hunting dates this season are Oct. 15, 2016 to Jan. 1, 2017. Bag limit is three birds per day and 15 in possession. For licensing requirements and a pheasant distribution map, visit gfp.sd.gov/hunting/small-game/pheasants.aspx or call (605) 223-7660. Private lodges throughout prime pheasant country offer longer seasons, luxury accommodations, and corporate retreat packages. For details and videos of the hunting experience, go to paulnelsonfarm.com.
About 95 percent of the farm’s guests arrive by private jet. Pierre Regional Airport, an hour from the farm by car, has a 6,900-foot runway. Gettysburg Municipal Airport is just 20 minutes away but has limited service and only a 4,400-foot runway.
How to cook your pheasant? Wisconsin’s MacFarlane Pheasants (pheasant.com)—which bills itself as North America’s largest pheasant producer and sells the birds via mail order—offers this recipe:
1–2 plucked ringneck pheasants
2 quarts water
1/2 cup salt (pickling, sea, or kosher are best)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup honey or maple syrup
1 small onion chopped finely
3-4 cloves garlic chopped finely
1 stalk celery chopped finely
1/4 cup lemon juice (or juice from 1 lemon)
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tbsp butter, cold
2 tbsp butter, softened
Salt, pepper, and paprika to taste
In large saucepan, heat water until starting to steam and add salt, brown sugar, and honey. Remove from heat, stir until dissolved, and allow to cool to room temperature. Then add the onion, garlic, celery, lemon and cayenne; mix and add pheasant. Cover and refrigerate at least 12 hours. Preheat oven to 325°F. Remove pheasant from brine and pat dry with paper towel; place breast side up in roasting pan. Put one tablespoon butter under skin on each side of breast. Then brush the softened butter over the skin on top. Add salt, pepper, and paprika to taste. Roast for 90 minutes, basting frequently, then take temperature in thigh and breast. Once temperature reaches 165°, remove from oven and cover in a warm place to rest for 10 minutes. Then carve and serve with cranberry sauce, wild rice, and seasonal vegetables.