SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The state bird steps into the spotlight Saturday in South Dakota, with the start of the traditional pheasant hunting season.

Tens of thousands of hunters from across the country and around the world flock to South Dakota each fall, supplying a shot in the arm to local economies, big and small, though pheasant season is just as much about tradition as it is dollars and cents.

You don’t have to hunt to appreciate pheasant season in South Dakota.

“I’ve not actually shot the gun, I’ve been pheasant hunting. I weed the birds out of the weeds (laughs),” Crystal Mariner said. “I’m just there for the fun of it, in support of the hunters,” Mariner added.

Crystal Mariner isn’t an avid hunter, but she does deal with sportsmen on a daily basis as manager of Friendly’s Fuel Stop in Humboldt, and says opening weekend is a sight to see.

“At 6:00 in the morning when we open up, there’s people that are already lined up outside the door or trucks waiting out there full of pheasant hunters, and not just from locally, they’re coming from everywhere,” Mariner said.

Pheasant season and the Sturgis Rally are Friendly’s busiest times of the year, providing an economic boost for this town of less than 1,000 people.

“We’re right off the interstate, yet most of who we see are locals in this particular store. Having the hunting season happening, it does bring in tons more business,” Mariner said.

Meeting the people behind the blaze orange is one of Mariner’s favorite parts of the job.

“That’s the interesting part of it all is meeting all the folks from different areas and hearing about their day and just seeing what they think about our state, for the first timers especially,” Mariner said.

“We get a lot of the same guys come in year after year after year, and we’ve made some great friendships over those years,” Northview Bait & Tackle owner Matt Staab said.

Matt Staab owns Northview Bait & Tackle in Sioux Falls. His business is primarily fishing, but he does sell hunting licenses and dog food. Staab is a hunter himself, bagging birds in the Kimball area.

“My wife is from there, it’s why I married her, and it’s part of the whole family tradition. I take the nieces and nephews out hunting and we have a good time out there,” Staab said.

Brule County saw nearly 6,000 hunters harvest more than 54,000 pheasants in 2022, while spending nearly $13-million.

“Certainly in small towns, it’s a much bigger deal on a percentage basis, the influx of money makes a much more big difference,” Staab said. “The cafes, the hardware stores, the gas stations in the small towns really depend on that out-of-state dollar and the hunter dollars,” Staab added.

“East to west, north to south everybody knows about pheasant season,” Experience Sioux Falls Executive Director Teri Schmidt said.

Teri Schmidt is Executive Director of Experience Sioux Falls, who welcomes hunters to South Dakota every October.

“A lot of them fly into Sioux Falls, and then what we’ll see are all these people coming from around the state to pick up the hunters. Some of them stay overnight waiting for the rest of the group to get here and then they go to different parts of the state. They buy clothes, they buy groceries, they buy gifts for the land owners,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt grew up in Winner and says her parents used to house about 15 hunters each fall.

“My mom would cook for three months ahead, all Lebanese food, for these guys to eat and she would serve them like crazy,” Schmidt said.

That hospitality still exists in many pheasant hunting communities.

“They plan for it, they wait for it, and when the hunters come they roll out the red carpet,” Schmidt said.

Hunters in Tripp County bagged nearly 50,000 pheasants last year, and spent almost $12-million.

“This is their Christmas, so when their small hotels fill up and their cafes on main street are busy and let’s face it, their bars get busy (laugh), that all is economic stability,” Schmidt said.

It’s an officially sanctioned season that dates back more than 100 years, but when it comes to pheasant hunting in South Dakota, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“That tradition, that heart, that relationship they build with people in South Dakota and land of South Dakota, that doesn’t change, that’s what it’s really all about,” Schmidt said.

The tradition continues Saturday.

The traditional pheasant hunting season in South Dakota opens Saturday, with daily shooting hours of 10:00 a.m. central time until sunset. The season closes on January 31, 2024.