NEAR DEVILS LAKE, N.D. -- Tad Schmidt had one of the most enjoyable hunts anyone could ask for on a recent Saturday morning, and he wasn't even carrying a gun.
It was Oct. 3, the opening morning of North Dakota's two-day youth pheasant season for hunters age 12 to 15, and Schmidt, 40, was in the field with daughter Jael, 15; son Tad Jr., 13; and son Kesad, 12, who'd just completed his Hunter Education training earlier that week.
North Dakota has offered the youth pheasant season the Saturday and Sunday before the regular pheasant opener since 2005.
Pheasant action was likely, if not a given. The previous evening, the Lake Region Sportsmen's Club had released 250 adult roosters at three sites northwest of Devils Lake: Kenner Marsh Wildlife Management Area and two blocks of private land enrolled in the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's Private Lands Open to Sportsmen program.
But with about 1,400 acres of prime habitat to cover between the three sites, there'd be no guarantees. The pheasants had plenty of room to roam -- and hide.
"They might have grown up in a pen, but they're still wary birds," Schmidt said.
Oldest son, Lyon, 16, also tags along for this morning afield, but he's relegated to observing and helping his dad make sure the show runs smoothly.
Canine companions Shadow, a yellow Labrador, and Sparky, a black Lab, round out the crew. Shadow's 11 years old, and his best days of hunting might be behind him, Tad Schmidt says, but the old dog still knows a few tricks.
"Not many roosters can outsmart him, but age has gotten the best of him," Schmidt said. "He's still a part of the family."
Birds on the loose
The Schmidt crew target their efforts on a patch of PLOTS land that's been designated a Youth Hunting Area. A cooperative venture between the Lake Region Sportsmen's Club, Pheasants Forever and the Game and Fish Department, the Youth Hunting Area is restricted to hunters 15 and younger from Feb. 1 through Oct. 31 each year.
Hunters of all ages can access the site from Nov. 1-Jan. 31.
According to Larry Schneider, president-elect of the Lake Region Sportsmen's Club, the pheasant release for the youth season has grown from 50 roosters in 2005 to 250 roosters this year. Schneider coordinates the release program.
The club this year also released 250 hens at the sites in June and 700 eight-week-old birds in July. Schneider said the club pays for the birds by prepping and selling deer hides through its Hides for Pheasants program.
Because it's a youth initiative, Pheasants Forever also helps fund the birds, which cost $9.75 for the roosters, $8 for the hens and $4.25 for the chicks.
It's mostly a put-and-take venture, Schneider said, but a few pheasants survive. And it provides hunting opportunities in an area that's on the fringe of North Dakota pheasant range.
"It's worth all the cost, it really is," Schneider said. "We're losing kids in hunting, and this is a good way to get them involved."
The club bands several of the roosters it releases before the youth season and young hunters who shoot a banded rooster can bring the band to the spring Pheasants Forever banquet for a chance to win a shotgun.
Last year, Schneider said, more than 75 youths attended the local Pheasants Forever banquet.
"It's so much fun when you see the excitement on the kids' faces and then when they come to the banquet," Schneider said. "That's what it's about -- getting kids involved in the outdoors."
Late and early
There was plenty of that excitement the previous evening in the Schmidt household, where bedtime came late as the young hunters readied their gear and plotted their pheasant strategies. It's a familiar drill for Tad Schmidt, who's been taking his kids afield for the youth pheasant season since oldest son Lyon was old enough to participate. The crew gradually expanded as the younger kids came of age.
"The night before season, it's like Christmas time, and everybody's staying up getting their stuff ready" Schmidt said. "It's such a blast for the kids."
Despite the late night, they're in the field at first light. The morning dawns gray and dreary and seems better suited to waterfowl than pheasants.
The first walk doesn't produce a bird. The pheasants were there, Schmidt said, but so were other youth hunters -- enough that he decides to cut the walk short and try a different part of the Youth Hunting Area a short drive to the west.
They've walked barely 100 yards from the parking lot when Shadow and Sparky get "birdy," tails wagging and noses to the ground.
"Get ready," Tad Schmidt says.
The words are barely out of his mouth when a rooster flushes, and moments later, the first bird of the morning is in the bag. A second rooster flushes a few feet later, and a third shortly after that.
Even as an observer, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement. No wonder Jael Schmidt, who also hunts ducks and geese and deer, says she likes pheasant hunting best of all.
"This is probably the most exciting thing because you never know what's coming," she said. "It's such an adrenalin rush."
Patience pays off
As a parent, Tad Schmidt said hunting with kids requires patience. But he enjoys the experience, even if it means sacrificing a few opportunities.
"I love it because of my love of the outdoors," he said. "I want to pass it on to them."
That commitment doesn't come cheap. The kids all participate in summer trap-shoot leagues, Schmidt said, and each goes through about three boxes of shells per week at a cost of $5 to $6 a box.
Throw in small game licenses, waterfowl stamps and deer licenses, and the costs add up in a hurry.
"It's expensive with five kids," Schmidt said -- son Seth, 11, isn't yet old enough to join them in the field. "But I'd rather spend the money on this than a night on the town -- any day. We hunt, pick family activities, and we go hiking in the summer."
Schmidt also preaches safety, a focus that's evident on this morning. One mistake, he says, could be a life-altering event.
"I stress there's no second chances out here, there's no saying, 'I'm sorry,"' Schmidt said. "I'll catch them doing the minor infractions, and I try to nip it in the bud."
But he's also quick to offer praise after a good shot and encouragement after a missed shot or any other time it might be needed.
The philosophy obviously works, and three young hunters have four birds in the bag when they begin their third walk of the morning and hit the pheasant hunting equivalent of a home run.
Roosters, it seems, are everywhere, and by 10 a.m., the crew is heading back to the truck with their limit of nine pheasants in the bag and a morning of good memories under their hats.
Kesad, the newcomer on his first pheasant hunt, sums up his thoughts on the morning in the typical understated way of 12-year-olds:
"Good," he says.
But to an observer, that one word reflects a morning the family likely will be talking about for many years to come. There've been good youth pheasant hunts, Tad Schmidt says, but none quite like this.
"This is not completely typical," he said. "This has been fantastic -- unreal."