You would have to start pretty early in the year to get a jump on Chad Stevicks.
The manager of the Runnings farm and fleet store in Gregory, Stevicks runs “the circus,” the store on opening day of ring-necked pheasant hunting season, Oct. 20 this year.
He starts the preparations in February. Now, his racks of blaze-orange clothes are ready. He’s got pallets of shotgun shells in the back, ready for a deluge of hunters. It’s nearly go time.
The town of Gregory, like Stevicks, is no stranger to the yearly ritual of getting ready to host pheasant season. But during the season, Stevicks might be the busiest man in town.
Black Friday is usually the biggest sales event of the year for most retailers. But not here. Not at Runnings.
“Ours is pheasant season,” said Stevicks.
Welcome to Gregory, “the ground-zero of pheasantdom,” according to a sign under a large pheasant statue at a town crossroads (so dubbed by Fortune magazine in 1992). It’s a town that works hard to defend the title as South Dakota enters its 100th year of offering a pheasant hunting season.
The state has earned its reputation as home to a bounty of pheasants. The annual harvest in the state regularly averages more than 1 million birds, according to the state Department of Game, Fish & Parks.
Gregory is a bull’s-eye inside the bull’s-eye. It is one point in South Dakota’s “Golden Triangle,” an area defined by the prime pheasant hunting country between Gregory, Winner and Chamberlain.
Here, the color of money is orange — blaze orange. Here, in just a few months, hunters — mostly out-of-state hunters — will infuse millions of dollars into what would otherwise be an economy struggling with all the current woes of farm country. Here for many, hosting hunters is no longer a supplement to farming. Farming is now the side gig.
Hunters are allowed to start downing birds on private preserves seven weeks prior, on Sept. 1. While the hunting season may last to Jan. 6, and preserve hunting stretches to the end of March, weather usually dictates a shorter hunting season that runs from September to November.
These are the area’s golden months, and with this year’s pheasant count indicating good hunting, Gregory aims to cash in.
“Needless to say, it’s a pretty good boom for the area, and it trickles down to everybody,” said Scott Anshutz, mayor of Gregory.
Just outside of town is Biggins Hunting Lodge, where the Biggins family runs a busy hospitality, game preserve and hunting service.
It’s one of about three dozen lodges in Gregory County. Hunting lodges here have not only multiplied in the last few decades, they’ve gotten more ornate, their offerings more swank and full service.
Pheasant season in South Dakota is now far more than it used to be — a family hunting event, a place for old friends to meet up again for a day or two of hunting. Now you’re more likely to see families running the local hunting businesses than out themselves, in the fields for fun.
Gregg Biggins and his wife, Be, own Biggins Hunting Service. Biggins can trace the evolution of the hunt just by relating his own story. For years he hosted acquaintances at his home. But those friends brought more friends, and soon, Biggins found himself being more of a guide and hotelier than a fellow hunter.
And then, the gift that changed everything. A so-called friend left Biggins a present to thank him for his tireless work on their behalf.
“He left me a cheap box of candy,” Biggins said.
No more. The next season, Biggins was charging to guide and lodge hunters. This was the early 1980s. Hunting lodges were still a new concept in the area, but one that proved to be a good cash business for what otherwise was primarily an agricultural economy.
Those pheasants weren’t just fun to hunt. They were money in the bank, especially if you could build a lodge.
“You can have all the best hunting in the world, and people will come one day and leave,” said Jeff Johnson, a Gregory Country commissioner who also runs a pheasant hunting lodge. “But you have to build it and they will come. You have to have those lodges for them to stay. That brought the onset of all those lodges. And there are some pretty nice lodges around.”
Soon, out-of-state hunters weren’t just coming by themselves or in small groups. More and more large groups would come to hunt pheasant in South Dakota and relax in those nice lodges. More celebrities started showing up for the hunt: Kevin Costner, Peyton Manning, Kent Hrbek.
Pheasant hunting became a hot destination for a business retreat for companies or colleagues eager for bonding time away from daily life, the Argus Leader reported.
Last year, about 2,800 non-residents hunted pheasant in Gregory County, outnumbering resident hunters nearly 4 to 1.
Johnson told of one local farmer turned pheasant-season entrepreneur.
“He used to hunt to supplement his farming,” Johnson said. “Now he says, ‘I farm to supplement my hunting.’ That’s true for a whole bunch of these guys.”
Biggins added another, separate lodge to his property in 2005 to handle the growth in large hunting parties.
“We just kept getting companies and groups,” Biggens said.
In the open garage of the Biggins’ new lodge, hunter Judd Baker sipped his beer and talked about the day. Baker, who works in the construction industry out of McKinney, Texas, near Dallas, has been coming back to hunt pheasants in South Dakota for 19 years.
Baker first came with his dad, nearly two decades ago. Now, he’s here with his brother, Cole, and people he knows through work. This is a great place to strengthen relationships with some of his biggest customers, he said.
“You bring them here, you get away,” he said. “You take your top customers, you bring them away from the cellphone and the laptop.”
Hunting pheasants on the preserves is not necessarily a daylong affair. Maybe a couple of hours between breakfast and lunch, with plenty of time before and after to relax or chase other pursuits.
For many of these hunters, pheasant season is less about the birds and more about the buds.
“It’s a fun event, it’s not that, ‘gotta hunt all day, gotta shoot all day, gotta kill all day,'” said Anshutz, Gregory’s mayor. “It’s evolved out of that. More of a social event, truly. You get done hunting for a couple of hours and you sit around a fire and have a couple of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and reminisce.”
Entertainment doesn’t just mean target shooting, golf, hitting up Sissy’s Cafe in downtown Gregory or visiting Pete’s Taxidermy in nearby Burke. Entertainment means Dallas, population 152, just a 10-minute drive west of Gregory on U.S. Highway 18.
When people say “Dallas,” they mean Frank Day’s Bar and Restaurant.
The rest of the year, Frank Day’s is a local fixture, a bar and restaurant, serving beers and burgers surrounded by a museum’s trove of framed photos and boots of past visitors and denizens — famous, infamous and unknown. It’s been a local staple for decades.
But during the pheasant season, Frank Day’s adds a new, popular feature: It also opens a strip club in the back, with nude dancers.
Frank Day’s night side is a pheasant hunting season institution all its own.
Proprietor Shelly Day, daughter of founder Frank Day, runs the place. She houses the dancers, including many who come back year after year.
They’re a big draw. During the season, Frank Day’s sees between 200-500 customers every day, many from the 90 lodges Day estimates are within 20 miles of the bar and look to Frank Day’s for evening entertainment.
“To go from our regular state to that, it’s an adjustment,” Day said.
But, she emphasizes, people tend to behave. A pheasant hunter “is your dream hunter,” she said.
“We don’t even have bouncers,” she said.
Many local lodges bus their customers to and from Frank Day’s, but Day also runs a Tipsy Taxi service to make sure other patrons don’t drink and drive.
The crowds don’t just swarm Frank Day’s. They hit other businesses too, pumping cash into the town and the surrounding area.
Just ask Al Cerny, Gregory’s city administrator and finance officer, who has his own seat at the bar in the Gregory bowling alley. Or at least, he has a seat when it’s not pheasant season, he says with a laugh.
“It’s good for the establishments, but there’s times you walk in and say, ‘Boy, am I in the right place?’ Because I am the stranger and all these other hunters, they’re taking over my spot,” he said.
The orange crush is crucial to keep Gregory growing and its city budget strong. Cerny said the Gregory airport sells about 70 percent of its annual fuel sales just in the first several months of hunting season. Sales tax more than doubles in September through November.
The town had about 1,300 residents in the last count by the Census Bureau — roughly flat over the past decade. But compared to many struggling rural towns in South Dakota, it’s thriving.
Suzanne Braun, director of the Gregory/Dallas Chamber of Commerce, notes that five businesses have opened just this year. One, a boutique downtown, has already expanded and its owner could grow even more.
“She said, “If I won the lottery, I’d expand my business. It’s not big enough for me,'” Braun said.
The hunting business doesn’t just buoy the local economy, it keeps young people working here, or encourages them to move back. It fuels a town that is sustaining a critical mass of new blood and a core of professionals.
These are elements that would give the town hope even if hunting went away, said Gregg Drees. He’s a retired long-time manager of a local grocery and Gregory’s business and industrial development (BID) co-director.
Dress describes himself as one of what he describes as a “progressive group” of residents always looking for opportunities to grow a town already economically blessed by the pheasant season’s harvest.
“Would we die without it? It would make a big difference, absolutely. We would be just pretty much like any other town” except for that progressive group of local residents, Drees said. But “we’re not sitting still. We’re constantly looking.”
Back at Runnings, Stevicks, the store manager, is joking with staff and customers. It’s a few weeks before the traditional opening day and the store feels like a locker room before a big game — charged with energy and a knowledge of the fray to come.
The rest of the year, Runnings might be a farm and fleet store. But during pheasant season, especially at the opener, it becomes something else.
‘It’s like old home week,” Stevicks said. “We are part of the tradition.”
And while the tradition of pheasant season might have evolved over the last several decades, Gregory aims to be ready for what the season still means: big money, with a side of thrill.
“There’s just this excitement in town,” Drees said. “It’s lively again. It brings everybody back in.”