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Columnist: Hunting season with Homer Harding

Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

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PIERRE, S. D. — It makes my year to come to South Dakota during pheasant hunting season.

Vehicle tags historically have billed this state as one of “Great Faces” and “Great Places.” I have a suggestion. If they want an eager aficionado’s opinion, state officials should add “Great People” to their license plates.

South Dakota is not such a big place with the total population standing at just over 853,000. There are about a dozen cities in the U.S. bigger in population than South Dakota, a place where the governor seldom wears a tie. My favorite governor out here, the late George Mickelson, often wore cowboy boots and a string tie to the office.

More pickup trucks — this should be no surprise — dominate the parking lots than any other mode of travel. I can never remember seeing a Lexus in Pierre, the capital city. There must be, but in a couple of months, a Lexus won’t get you to the grocery store in a snowstorm without debilitating complications.

Folks here identify with the work ethic. Farmers and ranchers In South Dakota live hard and work hard. They are hearty with a rawhide appreciation for life on the plains. Their days end with a trek out for dinner where they order the hard stuff and a big steak.

I’ve been coming here for years dating back to the early eighties when an introduction to the aforementioned Gov. Mickelson resulted in an invitation to join him for pheasant hunting. After his tragic death in a private plane crash, Homer Harding, the state treasurer of that era, keeps inviting me back.

Homer is remarkable. He loves his home state where he flourished in business. Owner of a Ford dealership, Homer also made his way in banking, politics and the wise investing of his money. Along the way, he found time to identify with the most passionate avocation in the state—pheasant hunting. A man with deep affection for the flag, Homer is a retired Brigadier General in the Army Reserve, having served in the Philippines in World War II.

For years, Homer worked as a hunting guide for groups that came from out of state to enjoy the unmatched thrill of shooting the cock pheasant in the corn and grain fields of South Dakota. He can remember when the daily limit was seven — four roosters and three hens. “My mother, Rose, was an excellent shot,” Homer recalls. “She would cook and can pheasant to put up for the winter.”

Over dinner with Homer and his wife, Pat, the dinner conversation was spiced with hunting and fishing stories. All the time, in your mind’s eye, there are flashbacks to those times when you have enjoyed memorable days hunting with Homer’s friends Darrell and Brad Reinke and Jay Etzhorn.

You recall the trips in which you shot your limit every day. Other days less favorable are forgotten. You remember the shot which brought compliment from the South Dakotans and are reminded of those shots when you walk through your study where mounts are prominent on your wall. You remember the fellowship and the good feeling of moving through the fields and seeing a rooster rise, with a cacophonous cackle, as your aim brings down the most beautiful of game birds.

Riding home from the fields after a successful hunt, there is much to savor — fulfillment is over the top. Hunting in a bottom by the Missouri with Homer one day, I came to an immediate halt. Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea floated by where I stood on the bank of that consequential river.

There are still cowboys in South Dakota. The Buffalo continue to roam in South Dakota, and genuine people are as prevalent as the cock pheasant.

As the trip was coming to a close, we were out in the fields with a yellow lab named Dakota. We were walking our last food plot when suddenly a rooster thundered up. With the greatest of aplomb, the wiry and gentlemanly Homer Harding, 90 years young, raised his Black Benelli as he has done for years.

Suddenly a robust pheasant crashed into the corn rows. Dakota retrieved him with oil painting aplomb. I’ve said it before, and I say it again. I want to be like Homer.

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.