The Appeal of the Field

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

When I was a young child, my autumn weekends smelled of guts.

Sometime around dusk, a group of men, often including my father, would trudge up from the fields that spread just beyond our house, carrying gaggles of dead birds and a dog or cat trailing behind leaping for the carcasses.

I would pull on my blue jacket and run out to them, too young to know how to shoot a gun, but old enough to regard a gun with fearful awe. They would flip on the lights in the shed where my father did his handiwork. The lights would glow orange against the growing dark.

Inside, my father and his friends would make quick work of the birds, tossing the pink meat into coolers, tossing spare organs to the cats meowing hungrily at their feet, then carrying one back to the house for my mother to prepare.

Pheasant hunting in South Dakota is like all other things from high school sports to small-town politics. Its a religion, practiced at a specific time of the year. The season comes and goes quickly, but for many in this state, it is always at the back of the mind.

This weekend, I set out to find pheasant hunters and find out how our state and our region are affected by them.

In the Amoco near the Interstate, a man from Nebraska is asking questions.

“I’ve got reservations at the Quality Inn, but I don’t see it around here,” he says.

After much discussion, he and the counterperson decide the Staurolite must be what was once the Quality Inn. He gives us a friendly wave and goes back out to his friends, who are gathered around a battered Suburban.

Cars from all across the country gather in at Brookings gas stations, restaurants and hotels like geese settling into a field during a long migration. They bring the hunters who make opening weekend one of the biggest draws in the state, rivaled only by the Sturgis motorcycle rally.

The cars carry predominantly men, presumably off for a weekend of hardcore male bonding away from the wife. Occasionally one sees a woman along for the ride or even leading the hunt, but I get the sense that pheasant hunting-at least in South Dakota-is still feminist-free, a thought which will inevitably cheer some and anger others.

Indeed, when I go out in search of hunters in the middle of Sunday afternoon, I see mostly men striding through the crackling weeds, black and brown dogs loping along behind them.

I go to Deeder’s Bar in Volga in search of hunters. I find groups of men in hunting garb watching the Vikings game and enjoying a respite from the sun, which is unusually warm for late October.

Two men take a break from watching the Vikings hold off a late Broncos comeback to tell me that a big group is hunting by the Knutson place.

This, of course, is the way we refer to the large plots of land where we hunt and farm here. New York City has the Village and San Francisco has the Haight-Asbury district, but my farm had the “Backer place” and the “West 40.” We invent names for large strips of land-which all look the same-to give them personality.

When I was a teenager, I remember hunting the West 40. I was never a good shot. I liked slogging through the thick weeds about as much as I now like final exams.

But I was a VanDerWerff. VanDerWerffs are hunters.

Hunting was a part of our family’s autumn identity and I didn’t want to miss the camaraderie, the male bonding, the homecomings filled with good food for ravenous stomachs.

The Knutsons are like that. They gather family and friends together. Grandpa Dave gets in the truck and they all go out to look for birds on their 475-acre farm.

When I first meet the Knutsons, they’re gearing up for a lunch break. First they have to wait for several members of their party to make the trek back across a large, dry field.

Dave and I go to stand by the edge of the road, watching the hunters come back. He doesn’t go out and walk very much anymore, he explains to me. Slowly, he’s getting older, but he still likes to go out with his children, grandchildren and friends to chauffer and watch.

This weekend, no one in the Knutson party has done terribly well.

“It was so hot and dry, the dogs couldn’t pick up the scent,” Dave says. On days like these, the pheasants lie low and hide near water sources, darting out only for a drink.

As the party comes back closer to us, they manage to down their first rooster of the day. Later, as they get even closer to us, they scare up a pheasant close to a large puddle near the road. I turn just in time to see a bullet rip through the bird, watch it tumble to the ground and land near the puddle.

It is tossed into a cooler, probably to be prepared later. The Knutsons, red-faced and sweaty, are happy to have gotten two birds on such a hot and dry day.

They, too, hunt less for the hunting. They hunt for camaraderie and friendship. They hunt to strengthen ties of family and friendship. They hunt for the challenge.

“When it comes to hunting, there aren’t any rules,” one of them says. “Just when you think you’ve got the rules figured out, they change.”

Shelby Styf hunts for the same reasons. He likes the bonding and the challenge as well. But mostly, I get the feeling, he likes being out with his brother and father, taking advantage of every last moment of daylight to hunt.

Shelby and his brother sometimes go out before school in the morning and they almost always go out after school at night.

“I like the fresh air. … You get to see wildlife. It’s just fun to get out of the house and do other things,” Shelby says.

get to see wildlife. It’s just fun to get out of the house and do other things,” Shelby says.

The Styfs are another family for whom hunting is a yearly addiction. They hunt geese and duck in addition to pheasants.

Their mother Rose enjoys gardening, but she let the boys clear out her plants from the back of the truck so they could use it to hold the 18 birds they downed Saturday and the seven they got on Sunday.

“When they’re not hunting, they’re shooting at clay pigeons,” she says.

Yes, hunting is about camaraderie and challenge and family.

Yes, it pumps untold millions of dollars into our economy.

The thing is, I’ve got a gun at my childhood home, unused since high school. Sometime, I’m sure, I’ll go back home, I’ll get that gun back out.

I’ll hate slogging through weeds and I’ll be unable to hit anything (I never could figure out how to lead a target), but I’ll have a great time on the wild prairie.

You see, I’m a VanDerWerff. And VanDerWerffs are hunters.