Sport: Horse Feathers

For most travelers, the South Dakota prairie is a place to pass through or over on the way to somewhere else. Bob Tinker would not want it any other way. The fortysomething bird hunting outfitter, with a Stetson that is as much a fixture on his head as the handlebar mustache is over his lip, keeps a secret known only to a select few outside of his hometown of Pierre. South Dakota may be familiar ground to the nation’s bird hunting aficionados, but only a handful have experienced the wonders of hunting on horseback across the state’s expansive prairies. Tinker has combined his love of training finely tuned English setters with a passion for riding to offer sportsmen a unique hunting experience. Most of Tinker’s clients fly their private jets to Pierre to spend a few fall days (pheasant season runs from October through December) decompressing on the prairie. As one repeat visitor says, “These are the only five days a year in my schedule when pleasure comes before business.”

While both grouse and prairie chickens are native to the state, Asian ringnecks were first successfully introduced in the late 1800s. They have since become the main attraction, now luring hunters from all corners of the country. Pheasants outnumber people almost five to one in South Dakota, and with the money spent by visiting hunters on licenses, lodging, guides, food, and other tourism expenditures, officials estimate that the annual pheasant hunt is worth some $100 million to the state. To pay homage to the Chinese import and all that it means to South Dakota, the governor, joined by celebrities and corporate dignitaries, hosts an annual pheasant hunt each October, marking the start of the season.

Tinker and I are on horseback as a trio of his dogs prospects the air currents for bird scent. The day is clear and warm, and the wind is holding its breath—an unusual occurrence on the prairie, where locals joke that most of the people in these parts would tip over if the breeze ever ceased. An orange and white setter named Patch flashes through the knee-high grass until encountering the scent of a rooster pheasant. In a blink, the blur of white that was a setter on the hunt is now as motionless as a porcelain statue.

“Point!” hollers Tinker. “Go ahead and dismount and flush the bird.”

I am on the ground before he can finish his instructions, shuffling ahead as Patch shifts his eyes back and forth with the intensity of a leopard about to pounce. I make two steps past the dog when the rooster flushes out of the grass in a moment of mayhem punctuated by my shot. We encounter several more birds during the course of the outing, including two coveys of sharptails that seem to mock us with their chuckling calls as they take flight.

Glancing overhead, I cannot help but notice the contrail of a commercial jetliner, undoubtedly en route to a city 2,000 miles away. The sight serves as a reminder that if the masses continue to pass by, all will be right in Tinker’s world.

Bob Tinker, 605.224.9971, www.tinkerkennels.com

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