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18
For Rounds, annual pheasant hunt a time for fun

PETER HARRIMAN

Associated Press


PRESHO, S.D. - Variations of this were repeated in farmyards and on field edges across eastern and central South Dakota shortly before noon Saturday:

Pheasant hunters, with dogs underfoot, listened attentively to the word about safety and tactics.

At Pheasant Farm, though, the scene was invested with somewhat more grandeur when one of the hunt leaders giving the talk responded to a hunter's inquiry that began, "Uh, governor"

Since 1995, when Mike Rounds and real estate partner Karl Fischer of Fort Pierre took a look at 320 acres they had listed and, after watching pheasant after pheasant flush, decided "maybe we ought to buy it," the quintessential South Dakota tradition of the opening day of pheasant season usually has begun here for the two men and their families and friends.

Saturday, a group of 19 spanning three generations took part.

Pheasant hunting in South Dakota is about as powerful an image for the state as the heads on Mount Rushmore, but on Rounds' watch, it is undergoing notable changes. The oldest hunters today remember a time when the state's fabulous hunting was still just an adjunct to making a living on the family farm.

Since then, it has become a huge commercial endeavor, with the number of out-of-state hunters surpassing residents for the past few years. Booming away with shotguns at the state bird is big business now, but what is that doing to the soul of pheasant hunting?

A pheasant hunt "is often a business event now," Rounds acknowledges. "At the same time, it's still a great time."

But if the tradition of South Dakota pheasant hunting is in any way in the governor's keeping, it will continue to be more than birds for bucks.

"I know it will if I can help it," he says.

Opening day at Pheasant Farm suggests he means that.

On an amble between fields, Don Rounds, the governor's father, says, "Mike always calls this the Gentleman's Hunt. The spirit here is to have fun and do it right."

Before the hunters start, Rounds cautions them to remember the blockers at the field borders and to refrain from shooting at any low-flying birds.

"No bird out there is so important you take somebody's eye out," he says. "Nobody is going to give you a hard time for letting a bird get away. We've never had anyone hurt down here. Let's keep it that way."

The governor carries a 12-gauge automatic shotgun, but midway through the afternoon, it is still about as ceremonial as a scepter. The barrel remains cool as Rounds spends most of his time setting up the drives through corn, milo and sunflower fields, trying to position the youngest hunters for good shooting and sending his yellow Labrador retriever after downed birds.

During a season, Rounds says, he and Fischer try to give about 80 people hunting opportunities on the farm. On Saturday, nobody seems revved up with a need to kill every rooster on the place.

"We don't, even in a good year, go to the limit," Rounds says. "We don't need to shoot that many." The goal as the day wears on is to make sure everybody gets a chance at birds.

Which is how he sees hunting for the state in general.

"The biggest challenge we've got is keeping enough public land open to everybody so that dads and moms can take their kids out and enjoy good hunting," he says.

If pheasant hunting had to be conducted in silence, nobody would do it. Part of the charm is the banter among hunters, and that was the case Saturday.

"Did you get some shooting?" Don Rounds asks his son Dan after one drive concludes.

"Yes, I did," he replies.

"Get one?"

"No, I didn't."

The corners of Don Rounds' eyes begin to crinkle.

"What was your excuse? Were you too close to one of your partners?"

"No. I missed."

The majority of birds fall to one gun in one field, which prompts the observation, "Now that Steve has shot all the pen-raised birds, let's get the wild ones."

As the day began, one hunter asked Fischer about the etiquette of handling birds retrieved by Fischer's yellow Lab, Storm.

"If he brings that bird to you, you are welcome to carry it," Fischer said. "If he brings them all to you, you are welcome to carry them all."

Inviting his father pheasant hunting is certainly a decent thing for the governor to do, but Don Rounds suggests that in some sense, it is owed.

"The first day of pheasant season in 1954, he was born," he says of his son. "Goofed up my day."

In a way, Pheasant Farm reflects the changes in pheasant hunting and farming in South Dakota. A calving barn and hog pens are almost lost in brown kosha, vegetation Rounds and Fischer let grow for pheasant winter cover. Occasionally, the buildings are used by neighboring farmers when livestock prices are good, Rounds says. This fall, they sit empty.

A nearby white farmhouse calls to mind bleached bones. It is abandoned.

"We farm for pheasants," Rounds says. A tenant carries out the crop rotation Rounds and Fischer determine and harvests on a schedule that optimizes hunting opportunities.

If nobody sees the sun rise here, has breakfast and does a day's work on this land anymore, the connection to these fields rolling away to a wide horizon is still not entirely gone.

In Pierre, in the governor's office, Rounds' thoughts do drift to the farm, he acknowledges.

"Yeah," he says. "They do."

And on the opening day of pheasant season, behind the wheel of a red pickup headed out to the first field, he smiles.

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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