Call it a COVID-conscious pheasant hunt, for old guys.
Old guys are more susceptible, in general, than younger folks to serious complications from the novel coronavirus. That’s why this year we canceled our annual pheasant hunt on the second Sunday in the main pheasant season at the Nick and Mary Jo Nemec farm near Holabird.
I wrote about that a bit last month, with some lament. But a week after the date the hunt would have been held, I joined three creaky jointed hunt regulars at the Nemec farm for a much-scaled-down version.
Just the four of us, aged 69 to mid-‘70s, with a couple of dogs and our shotguns, meeting at the Nemecs' for a pheasant hunt against a backdrop of COVID-19 concern.
It did not begin with the usual coffee and donuts and an hour or two of close conversation in the Nemecs' dining room, as hunters arrived. Nor did it conclude with the annual chili feed in the same dining room. That was pheasant hunting BC: before COVID.
Instead, Rapid City twins Terry and Larry Mayes and former state Game, Fish & Parks Department Secretary John Cooper of Pierre met me out front of the Nemecs' farm home, where Nick was working on grain storage.
He didn’t have time to hunt, dealing as he was with delayed harvest obligations. But he joined us for a half hour or so as we stood and chatted a COVID-safe distance apart and Mary Jo — a health-care provider who treats COVID patients — called out a greeting from the porch.
Rather than an arm-in-arm, elbow-to-elbow group picture, I climbed up in my pickup bed and captured the small group gathered briefly below, with space in-between. Then we were off on the hunt, an activity that makes a lot of sense to infectious-disease specialists including Ty White, director of infection protection and control for Monument Health in Rapid City.
“In the outdoors, social distancing is a lot easier. And it seems like you guys were doing a great job there,” White says. “That six feet is still important outdoors, trying to do that. And it’s a lot safer to be outdoors and enjoying our beautiful countryside and doing some hunting, which is a great activity these days.”
From the farmyard, we drove slowly a quarter mile or so down a section-line trail to the first hunting spot, taking two pickups with passengers riding on the tailgates. And for a while, one driver and tailgate riders was the procedure.
But when we moved a longer distance, we rode inside two pickups, one driver, one passenger. And here we erred. Though it was only a few minutes’ drive each trip and we kept windows open, we didn’t wear masks.
We should have, White noted, gently.
“It does help to have the windows open. And I’d continue that as much as possible,” he said. “But I would have you mask up inside the pickup, even for a short drive. The mask is really important, especially in close quarters, because it breaks that chain of infection from person to person through droplets.”
It’s called source control. And the mask you wear is more valuable to the people you’re with than it is to you.
“When you talk or, of course, when you cough or sneeze, you’re going to create respiratory droplets,” White said. “And the mask is going to provide that source control, so you don’t expose people to those respiratory droplets.”
White says time inside vehicles is typically a key COVID risk for people who have outdoor jobs. The same is true of hunters.
“Mask up in a vehicle,” he says.
Also, in conversations before, during and after the hunt, keep the 6-foot-minimum distance, even with all that fresh outdoor air moving around you. White recommends masks even in those situations, for an added layer of protection.
A good two-ply cloth mask works fine for that, since the idea is mainly to control your own respiratory droplets. But surgical and other masks are good, too, as long as they don’t have exhalation valves or vents that could allow droplets to be released.
So, we did OK with the social distancing before, during and after the hunt. But we needed to mask up more, especially while in vehicles with others.
It’s a different world with COVID, one requiring more attention to details. But with some attention to social distancing and a mask included with the shotgun and shells, you can have a safer hunt and still bag some birds, too.