At 1,197 miles from beginning to end, this might be one of the longest stories I’ve ever written. It begins in a dusty cornfield outside of Platte, South Dakota, and ends in the lush green North Georgia mountains on the Toccoa River.
Let’s start at the beginning, in October 2014. A line of fluorescent orange-clad hunters made their way down the corn rows, led by a set of dogs, nose to the ground. The mass approached the end of the cornfield. Watching closely I could see the occasional blue-red head of a rooster pheasant darting sideways through the rows. Much like the road runner escaping the wily coyote, ringneck pheasant much prefer to escape predators on foot, rather than taking wing.
They don’t ever like leaving the cover of cornfields, cattails or hedgerows, however. The line of hunters was squeezing this cornfield like a sponge, forcing any pheasants hidden there, toward open ground. Finally, when the hunters and dogs squeezed hard enough, the first pheasant flushed.
“Hen, hen, hen,” screamed the nearest hunter.
The law doesn’t allow the taking of hen pheasants, only roosters. However once the first pheasant flushed, panic coursed through the corn like an electric current. I heard the tell-tale cackles of a rooster pheasants taking flight and a second later it rose above the cornstalks, looking, and sounding, much like a black hawk helicopter. Its escape route carried it across my left shoulder. I spun in the dirt, the over-and-under shotgun barked once and Britney, my retriever, almost caught the falling rooster on the way down.
Fast forward nine months … a light mist hovered over the cool, green water of the Toccoa River, just outside McCaysville, Georgia. My friend, and trout guide, Joe DiPietro has good eyes. Therefore he had no problem tying a #16 pheasant tail nymph on a 2-pound tippet. I, on the other hand, who hadn’t touched a fly rod for months, had great trouble casting said nymph. Rather than settling soft like a feather, my lures plunked down like hail stones hitting the water.
Perhaps, however, I was simply fascinated — knowing that the feathers which adorned my lures were once running free across a South Dakota cornfield. I’ve made an annual trek to the Mount Rushmore State every October for five years. And every time, without fail, my fly-fishing friends beg, “Bring me some pheasant tails and hackles please.” In all too many cases, the plastic baggies holding said feathers sit in a drawer at my house, awaiting the pickup that never comes.
Last fall, however, I sent my pheasant feathers to Joe, who I knew would make use of them — and perhaps share the bounty with me.
“The parts of a pheasant tail feather imitate the parts of a mayfly body very well whether it’s on the surface or in the water,” said Joe. “I’ve tried all different kinds of similar type material and none seem to work as good as pheasant tail barbs. There is just something about the way they look in the water.”
After months of schedule conflicts and uncooperative water conditions, Tuesday was finally bounty-sharing day.
“You can’t go wrong with a pheasant tail nymph on the Toccoa River,” said Joe. “Pheasant tail feathers are excellent for tying a number of different types of flies, but the bottomline is that a pheasant tail nymph is probably one of the most effective flies on earth for trout. I use it almost every day on this river.”
The first trout to sample my South Dakota pheasant tail, enhanced by Joe’s fly-tying abilities, was an 8-inch brown trout.
“They’ve put a lot of these in the Toccoa,” explained Joe. “They’re doing very well. We’re getting some natural reproduction and last year the DNR folks shocked up a 15-pound brown.”
It wasn’t too many casts later when a bigger brown sampled the wares. The fly rod leaped in my hands in tandem with the hefty brown clearing the emerald water. I was very sad, however, when later in the day a huge rainbow trout executed a similar jump, spitting the pheasant tail nymph back at me as if to say, “Take that!”
Joe doesn’t hunt much, but said he gets most of his fly-tying material, “From kind hunters who are willing to share with me.” He is also especially partial to the feathers from the flank of wood ducks. As he sweated and rowed not-so-gently down the rock-strewn Toccoa, I put that next on my list of “feathers to get for Joe.”
On each cast of the pheasant tail nymph, I could imagine the rooster it came from, flushing from the corn — and Britney returning it to my game bag. Of course the meat was tasty, but it was especially satisfying to see parts of the ringneck travel full circle — from the South Dakota corn, to a cleanly released trout swimming back to the bottom of the crystalline Toccoa flowing through North Georgia.
Learn more about Joe DiPietro and the Toccoa River HERE.
Learn more about South Dakota pheasant hunting HERE.