Drought last year and a cold, wet spring this year have taken a toll on South Dakota's pheasant population. But that's not keeping hunters from boarding flights to Sioux Falls to take part in Saturday's big opening to the pheasant season.
The hunters are undeterred by projections from Game, Fish & Parks that South Dakota's pheasant population will be down 64-percent from last year. When it comes to hunting the birds, tradition trumps population.
Blaze orange is less of a fashion statement among hunters at the airport this year. But there's no camouflaging their enthusiasm for the start of pheasant season.
"If it's something that flies, we'll shoot at it and probably miss more than we hit," Brook Saunders of Knoxville, TN said.
Brook Saunders is a member of an inter-generational hunting party from Tennessee that's been coming to South Dakota for more than a half-century.
"Originally, it was two business associates, and then they started bringing their kids and then grandkids and we've had cousins and fathers and just friends and business partners, so it's a mix of everybody," Saunders said.
And hunters in Saunders' party weren't about to break a 51-year tradition just because of fewer pheasants.
"It's a little concerning, but we're still going to come here regardless, just because it's a good group of guys who come out here to have a good time, more here for the comradery than anything else," Saunders said.
Virginia hunter John Mattern will take a spin through Tripp County to try his luck at bagging birds.
"Winner has probably got more pheasants than some of the other places and we're hopeful that prediction is true," Mattern said.
Mattern is used to seeing the bird counts go up and down in the years he's hunted in South Dakota.
"You've got to take the good years with the not-so-good years and we're not of the ilk that you have to kill your limit to have a good time," Mattern said.
"Even if the hunters fly home with fewer pheasants, that won't keep them from planning another trip to South Dakota with hopes of a higher count next year.
"I've already got it on my calendar for next year: third Saturday in October. Unless the state changes it. I'll be back next year, God willing and my knees and hips hold out," Mattern said.
Hunters say they'll probably be more reliant on guides this year to point them to the pheasant hotspots.
Pheasant season runs through January 5.