South Dakota pheasant opener endures as celebration of family, land, memories of loved ones lost

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
It began for me as it did for many -- with a single-shot .410

Brother Jim called to tell me what I already knew about the pheasant numbers back home.

They’re down, down, down.

So this year's season opener won't be be very good, if “very good” is defined by the number of birds seen and killed, and by comparisons to past years.

Jim had just spoken to my cousin, Donnie, keeper of the lamp of pheasant-hunting light for the McManus side, my mother’s side, of our family near Reliance, where the pheasant hunting can be some of the best in South Dakota.

Which means some of the best on earth.

“Pheasant Capital of the World” is not just a marketing ploy. It’s true. Has been for a long time. And nowhere in South Dakota has the pheasant been more successful over the last century than in the southcentral counties, incluiding ours.

Still, even the best pheasant turf on earth has to face the realities of weather and habitat variations, and their impacts on bird numbers. And we’ll see those impacts in the field this year, back home in southcentral South Dakota and throughout South Dakota’s ringneck country.

Or maybe it’s more accurate to say we won’t see those impacts. Because we won’t see as many birds. Not by a long shot.

The state Game, Fish & Parks Department August road survey of pheasant broods indicated a 45 percent drop from 2016. Even worse, it was down 65 percent from the 10-year average.

Which is why Donnie was calling around.

“He says they’re just way down,” Jim said. “So he was calling around to let people who were coming in from other states know, so they could decide if they still wanted to come out.”

He was letting those of us who only drive a few hours to get there know, too, that the gunning would be way below average.

My response was obvious for a central South Dakota pheasant hunter with a history of opening-day hunts with family and friends:

“Well, is there still going to be some sloppy Joes in the tool shed before the hunt?” I asked.

Jim said he thought so.

 “And are at least some of the Irish cousins and neighbors going to gather there in the shed and hang out for a while, and swap a few lies?”

Jim was pretty sure they would.

“That’s all I need to know,” I said.

What else, really, do you need to know about the annual opening of the main state pheasant season? And to be clear, we're talking about the real season.

Oh, there are others. There's a special youth season for five days a couple of weeks before the regular season. And then there's the special three-day season for resident hunters only, on public land only. That was last weekend.

There's also a special season on hunting preserves, commercial operations that rely -- a little or almost entirely -- on pen-raised pheasants and have an extended season that starts in September and runs through March.

Those are seasons. None of them is "The Season." That starts each year on the third Saturday in October and runs through the first weekend in January. And it's open to residents and non-resident, kids and old gasbags like me, on public and private land open to pheasant hunting.

Lots of birds make the season better. But they don't make the season, or break it.

Got family and friends and food, and an assortment of scatterguns? You’ve got a pheasant hunt.

For us, the family and friends and food — and the pheasants, in whatever number — are in Lyman County. But pheasants and families and friends and food will come together this weekend in other counties across the state’s main pheasant range, which is roughly the eastern two-thirds of South Dakota.

One of those gatherings is in Hanson County near Alexandria, where the Wagner clan has been opening the pheasant season each year with a bang, multiplied beyond calculation, since, well, maybe since 1920.

At least, that’s the way family lore has it.

“If it ain’t true, it should be,” says Dennis Wagner, a 59-year-old community banker here in Rapid City at Black Hills Community Bank.

Here’s the story, as it has been passed down in the Wagner family from generation to generation:

But getting to the hunt means starting with Henry Wagner, who was president of Farmer’s State Bank in Alexandria when the South Dakota had its first pheasant hunting season in 1919. It was a one-day season open only in Spink County.

The season expanded in 1920, and Henry’s two sons, John and Tony, hunted on Wagner land near Alexandria that opening day.

“And every year since then John and Tony or John’s four sons and Tony’s two sons or their grandsons, of which I’m one, or their great grandsons, of which my son is one, or their great-great grandsons, of which my grandson will be one, have hunted Wagner land on opening day,” says Dennis.

And that’s a lot of opening days. But before we move on through the years, a word about the patriarch, Henry, as well as the Bank Holiday declared in March of 1933 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt just a day after his inaugural. The week-long “holiday” shut down banks, allowed time for Congress to pass emergency banking legislation and defined classes of banks that might or might not be able and allowed to reopen.

Farmer’s State Bank was among the many that would never reopen, which was a painfully sad reality for Henry Wagner, who was nearing the end of his life. And three years after that awful time, Henry Wagner died.

Fast forward to 1982, and the death of Henry’s grandson, Ray,  Dennis’s father.

“It was my great privilege to find in my dad’s stuff when he passed on in 1982, a copy of Henry’s last will and testament,” Dennis says. “And the last will and testament was pretty standard stuff except for the last six pages were single spaced type of promissory notes that my great-grandpa Henry had bought out of the bank before it had failed.”

The promissory notes were with family, relatives and neighbors in Hanson County. And it was written into the will that upon Henry’s death, all of those notes were forgiven.

“The idea was to make sure his family, relatives and neighbors didn’t have to lose their land in the Great Depression,” Dennis says. “I think that says a lot about the kind of man he was.”

It says a lot about family, too, the value of family land, and the deep connections between the two.

They’ll be remembering Henry, the Wagner family patriarch, and the kind of man he was, during the opening-day celebration. They’ll also be remembering other loved ones who have passed on, in particular a special relative who died in service to his country.

Wagner’s cousin, Staff Sgt. Greg Wagner, was with the South Dakota National Guard serving in Iraq when the family gathered for opening day in October of 2005. But he reached them by cell phone.

“He talked to all of us right out in the fields,” Dennis says. “It was pretty cool. But that was the last time I talked to him.”

Sgt. Wagner was killed in Baghdad in May of 2006. His vehicle was on the way back from an Iraq police station, where Wagner helped with training, when it hit an improvised explosve device. He was 35, and was buried — after a memorial service that included Sen. John Thune and then-Gov. Mike Rounds — among other kin in the St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Alexandria.

Memories of this solider -- who was also a beloved son, brother, uncle, grandson and cousin -- will never be buried, however.

The Annual Greg Wagner Run/Walk Memorial Ride in Alexandria keeps those memories alive  even beyond family and friends. It also raising money for charities. But nowhere is the memory of Greg Wagner more alive, in a quintessentially South Dakota way, than during the opening-day hunt.

Dennis Wagner still chokes up while talking about his cousin and that last phone call in the fields. Sad, poignant memories will mix with the happier ones as the Wagners gather to rekindle the campfire of love and recollection. And while he is a casual hunter himself, Dennis Wagner wouldn’t miss the day, for all that it means beyond shooting pheasants.

So when does he start getting excited about it?

“I’ve been excited about it since last November,” he said.  “It’s a family tradition and it’s our family holiday. And before we go in the field we gather at the Jim and Kathy Wagner house and we take a picture, and there’s usually many, many more than the 20 hunters who show up for that.”

Twenty is the maximum state regulation allow for an individual hunting party. So when 43 people crowded into the picture in 2014, it was a pretty good example of how the hunt draws those with nary a hint of interest in packing a scattergun into the fields themselves.

“It’s aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and so many people who come back for the family part of it all,” he said. “I”m not a very good hunter. The thing I like about pheasant hunting is the social aspect of it.

“If I had to keep quiet like you do with goose hunting or stealthy like with deer hunting, I’m not very good at those types of things,” Dennis said. “But making a whole lot of noise and socializing as you walk through the fields and raise the roosters, I can do that part.”

We can do that part, too, back home. And we do. My cousin Donnie has taken over leadership of the hunt since his dad, Ronnie “Red” McManus -- Reliance mayor, fire chief, cemetery overseer and all-around great guy -- died in September of 2013. Red’s passing was a heartbreaker for the hunt, and all who love it, and loved him.

And that October opener was a sad one for us, but it went on in a subdued, respectful way. We thought Red would want that. And we also thought that by gathering with the normal assortment of scatterguns to walk the fields and shelterbelts he so carefully tended was a good way of honoring him.

Life happens in-between these annual openers, after all. Babies are born. Little kids get bigger. Graduations and marriages are celebrated.

Death happens, too. But the hunts go on, good years and not so good, with the familiar faces that return, and with palpable absence of those who have died.

In his poem The Layers, Stanley Kunitz speaks of the loss of loved ones and the process of moving on without them:

“How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
where I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.”

Each October, many of us turn, we turn, exulting in the road back to the familiar land where our lives are rooted, and to the losses all have suffered along the way. Going home. It’s a need as elemental as a deep breath.

 “The reason I do it is it’s a family event, and it’s part of our heritage," Dennis Wagner said. "Part of the Wagner name means that on the third Saturday in October you’re on a field on Wagner land in Hanson County.”

Solid folks, those, coming back to something solid there in Wayne Township in Hanson County.  We’ll be returning to our own version of South Dakota solid, too, back in Lyman County.

Turns out, I won’t make the opener this year. Mary and I will be on the Pine Ridge Reservation tomorrow to attend Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert Gruss at the chapel on the Red Cloud School campus, near where Chief Red Cloud lies buried. It’s part of the Cause for Canonization process for Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man who also became a Catholic catechist.

If you've read or heard of Black Elk Speaks, that's the Black Elk. He was a man of great vision -- those of this world and beyond -- and of profound spirituality. Well deserving of sainthood. The process is meant to explore and affirm that.

The day will also include meals and visits to Black Elk’s grave near St. Agnes Catholic Church at Manderson. It’s just too much to miss, even if attending means missing the opening day of pheasant season.

But it will only delay by 24 hours the inevitable. Jim and I will be meeting at the McManus place in Lyman County on Sunday, in plenty of time for the second-day hunt. If this year is like the others, most of the hunting crew from Saturday will be there on Sunday, too.

They'll get their shotgun licks in, too.

"Charlie will bang away, even if there's no birds up there to shoot at," brother Jim said, referring to an a cousin who's never afraid to spend pellets. "You know what he says: 'I come to shoot.'"

And to eat. And to talk. And to remember.

Cousin Donnie figures the McManus hunts as they’re organized now have been going on for more than 40 years.

“And I heard dad and those guys talking about going up to Uncle Hank’s and places before that,” he said.

That Uncle Hank was my dad, Henry Woster, who married a McManus girl named Marie. Her brother, Bill, was Donnie’s grandpa.

And we hosted our fair share of family pheasant hunts on Woster ground prior to dad’s death in 1968. My first with an actual firearm in my hands came in the early 1960s, when I turned 10 and Dad presented me with a brand-new Stevens single-shot .410, with nicely patterned wood and delicate engraving on the metal.

My Uncle George, Dad’s older brother, was up from Kansas City for the opener. He joined Dad in a trip to the Gamble’s store in downtown Chamberlain, where the loose wood floors creaked all the way back to the sporting-good areas, and bought me my first box of paper-cased shells. Remington, I think.

I fired a couple on that first hunt, I think, but didn’t hit anything — perhaps because I’d hardly slept all night, energized as I was by visions of what was to come. But no matter, I was officially part of the hunt.

And over the next seven years, Dad and I shared time afield with guns in hand and birds in the air, often with relatives and friends, but sometimes just the two of us, and our poorly trained Labrador, Nipper. Those were glorious days. Priceless gifts that endure, they helped shape my love for bird hunting and deepen my connectons to the land, especially the land in Lyman County.

And, I think, they helped point me in the direction of the manhood to come.

Then ’68 came, along with the first opening day without my father. He died two months before the season started. I was 16, confused, dispirited, but I hunted anyway — with cousins and with my brother-in-law, Ray, who saw to it that I didn’t miss the October ritual.

After that, I hunted on opening day for a few years with my Woster cousins and Uncle Frank, before losing my heart for the hunt when I went off to college. That didn’t last, though. And when I returned to pheasant hunting, the McManus Hunt was going strong.

And has been, ever since.

Add it all up between the Wosters and McManuses, and you’ve got a pretty long string of opening-day hunts. Maybe not all the way back to 1920. But quite a ways.

“I can’t prove it, but I’m thinking 60 or 70 years,” Donnie says.

Which sounds about right to me. This year, he figures attendance will be down along with the birds.

“Food might be down a little bit, too,” he joked. “But there’ll be something to eat. And I’m sure we’ll have a dozen hunters or so, at least. ”

And that’s just in the fields. The ones in our hearts are too numerous to count.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.