By Bernie Hunhoff
From South Dakota Magazine

Teenagers who help at Louise’s Cafe in Fairfax, population 115, are about to get a lesson in communication. That’s one of several side benefits to the hunting season for Gregory County, in the heart of pheasant country.

“I keep telling the kids that they’ll get better tips if they just learn to talk to the hunters a little bit,” says Louise Truax, who has been frying eggs on Fairfax’s Main Street for 30 years. “They joke with you and you joke back.”

Louise’s Cafe, with its $6.50 breakfast special (eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast and coffee) spices the Gregory County ambiance, along with dozens of other small town restaurants, shops and lodges.

Marge LaFave has run the tiny and impeccably clean Hertz Motel in Bonesteel, population 100, for nearly 40 years. Even though most of the pheasants have migrated west of her little town, hunters still sleep there. Across the street is the historic TeePee Cafe, managed by Tami Jons, who features Friday night steak specials, prime rib on Saturdays and Sunday breakfast buffets. The motel and cafe were built in the 1950s in anticipation of the lake traffic everybody thought would flood Highway 18 once Lake Francis Case was filled by Fort Randall Dam.

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Bake sale
Roxy Merrills and Rev. Annie Henninger hold a bake sale at the old Herrick School for their church.
Hunters gather with Shelly Day at her family’s restaurant and bar in Dallas

Walleye and anglers have taken to the lake, but ring-necked roosters take precedence in October when the sorghum heads turn red and the sumac even redder. Pheasants are a $250 million industry statewide. More than 170,000 hunters will be gunning for the birds this fall. That creates numerous jobs for guides, taxidermists, waiters, bartenders and lodge-keepers in the four very small towns (Fairfax, Herrick, Bonesteel and Dallas) and two small cities (Burke and Gregory) that comprise Gregory County. Churches hold bake sales to capitalize on the hunters, and the city of Gregory celebrates with a soup-tasting contest.

Pheasant season once kicked off with big bangs at noontime on the third Saturday of October. Now the hunting preserves can begin Sept. 1 — even before the first NFL game — so the festive regular season opening on the third Saturday of October isn’t quite the same.

Hunters and dogs
Guides Tom Waterbury and Brian Kahler relax with their dogs.
Jim Zimmerman and his daughter, Shelby, hunt a creek bottom

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Still, Opening Day has a fresh aura, especially in Gregory County where an autumn blue sky is beautifully framed by the muted, earthy colors of cornfields, grasslands and tree belts. Hunters regularly remark that they wouldn’t care if they never saw a pheasant, so lovely are the landscapes. (The orange-clad hunters will find pheasants; last year they harvested 44,337 in Gregory County, to be exact.)

Numbers don’t tell the story, however. “It’s more about the relationships and the camaraderie,” says Mike Karbo, who bought the funeral home in Burke 20 years ago and moved from Sioux Falls because he loved the outdoors. He says deer, turkey and walleye are also big draws.

And did we mention pancakes? “I’ve been using the same mix forever,” says Louise Truax, the Fairfax restaurateur. “It’s just milk and butter and the mix and you add water, but they sure like them.”

Then add syrup. “I always tell the kids that when the customer gets ready to pay, all you have to say is ‘have a good day,’” she says. “Some of them do and some don’t. But that’s OK, too.”

Who wouldn’t want to hunt in a place like this?

Hunting dogs
Dogs hurry through sorghum stubble.
Hunting with the family
Pheasant season is a family tradition for many local people — including Jim Zimmerman (left), Jade Siewert (right) and their kids, Shelby Zimmerman and Jayden Siewert.

Copyright © 2014, South Dakota Magazine

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