Even in a state like South Dakota, the top pheasant-hunting destination in the country, late-season, seen-it-all birds make for a difficult hunt. Wild flushes from a quarter-mile away before you can even exit your vehicle, educated birds that can evade both a perfectly positioned line of blockers and even the gifted noses of canines pose just some of the quandaries the upland hunter will endure–the weather is yet another factor that can poke holes in a road trip to the Dakotas in December.
Fortune smiled on me recently, as an invitation to hunt one of the hottest rooster-rich spots in South Dakota–the Aberdeen area–was extended to me. Located in Brown County, in the northeast quadrant of the state, Aberdeen is estimated to have more than 200 pheasants inhabiting every square mile.
You can witness flocks of up to a dozen (and sometimes more) working open fields and picking gravel along the road. So prodigious are their numbers, that a drive down the highway often feels like you’re playing a reverse version of the old video game “Frogger”; more of your attention is expended watching for and eluding pheasants zipping crossing the roadway than it is actually on driving. Plenty of ringneck carcasses litter the roadsides and vehicles around town sport smashed windshields and mirrors or have broken grills laced with feathers to prove that even the best evasion tactics often times fall short.
Before I was able to stalk the fields of Brown County, however, I had to make it to South Dakota from Washington state. Traveling during December in the Pacific Northwest, and to the Dakota territories no less, can be a crapshoot when it comes to weather; clear skies can quickly turn to white-out blizzard conditions from the passing of a storm off the Pacific or dropping out of Canada’s arctic.
Accompanying me on the road trip was my Dad. The companionship and shared drive time on the 2,600-plus-mile roundtrip affair was welcomed and appreciated. The day of our departure a snowstorm was indeed moving across my hometown in central Washington. Dad made it through unplowed Interstate 90 to pick me up.
We then faced the seemingly daunting trek over multiple mountain passes en route to South Dakota through Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
The roads, for the most part, however, were clear in Idaho’s panhandle and as we passed into and across Montana (there’s nothing like a state-line sign commemorating freeway fatalities to remind you to slow down on a snowy mountain pass; thanks Montana!).
Around the Wyoming line, however, winds picked up and snow was drifted across the roadway.
Snuggled in the back of the truck, and thankful for an insulated kennel jacket from Cabela’s, was my black Lab, Kona.
Every two or three hours we’d stop and let Kona out to stretch, drink some water and relieve himself.
After a night spent in Bozeman, Dad and I made it to Rapid City in western South Dakota. The plan was to leave Dad at my eldest sibling’s place while I ventured on to Aberdeen. This is where I began to have my concerns about the fabled Dakota winters (link: https://www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/gun-dogs/2010/11/sds-brutal-weather/). It was only snowing lightly in Rapid City, but sustained winds of 40 mph with gusts to 52 mph whipped the powder-dry ice crystals through the air and imbedded them in any exposed skin.
Thankfully, by the next day the weather had broken, and from all accounts never reached the eastern side of the state. I made it to Aberdeen, although I began to wonder if I would after I made a pit-stop at a gas/grocery station found in the middle of nowhere-South Dakota. The four-way stop had the store on one corner (which featured this sign in the bathroom…), a hotel on another and a small casino on a third corner. That’s it. Nothing else for miles except agriculture fields.
After reaching Aberdeen, I met up with Bob St. Pierre and Anthony Hauck from Pheasants Forever, Casey Weismantel with the Aberdeen Convention & Visitors Bureau, Joey Hockett from the state tourism office and a host of other outdoors writers.
The first day of hunting was spent at Johannsen Farms Outfitting, a working family farm of 6,000 acres located near the small town of Tolstoy.
When Eric Johannsen returned to the farm after attending college, he quickly figured out there wasn’t enough shares in the family agri-business to make a living at it. That’s when he started exploring the idea of incorporating pheasant-friendly practices into the family’s farming routine and offering hunting opportunities to the general public.
At Johannsen Farms you experience a fully guided hunt on property managed for wild birds. Wheat and corn fields, cattail sloughs, shelterbelts, CRP grasslands and milo fields combine to provide all the habitat roosters and hens need to live, eat and reproduce. The operation isn’t a preserve, where birds are released for hunters or to supplement wild stock, rather, Johannsen runs an all-wild bird affair.
The presence of proper habitat not only supports birds naturally found on the family property, in the late season it acts as a magnet and attracts birds from surrounding neighbors’ land. The three-bird limit runs $275 per gun/per day during the early season and $250 per gun/per day during the late season. Each hunt includes transportation to and from the field; professionally trained dogs (or you can use your own dogs); a sack lunch in the field or a hot lunch in the clubhouse; birds that are cleaned, frozen and read for transport; a round of clays and a free hat to boot!
What will impress you about the Johannsen operation is that: First, it’s an all-wild bird operation and there are literally thousands upon thousands of birds on the property. But while there are more birds than you’ve probably ever seen in one place in your life, these aren’t pen-raised, kick ’em up roosters. They are skittish, fast-flying birds; most of which vacate the opposite end of the field you’re working just as you set foot in it.
After you get over the number of birds found on the farm, and that they’re wild, you really begin to respect the management job Eric has done. Producing quality pheasant habitat strictly for a commercial hunting operation is one thing, but to create prime pheasant habitat in balance with a working farm is quite another. In addition to Eric’s habitat management, his stewardship of the pheasant itself is quite admirable.
While he has many thousands of birds, he only takes about 800-900 birds off the property per season. When he reaches that quota, the hunting operation is shut down and it’s back to farming full time. The almighty dollar, when it comes to pheasants, isn’t the bottom line at Johannsen Farms Outfitting.
With nearly everyone bagging limits at Johannsen Farms, tougher hunting was to be had the second day when we hit the public lands around Aberdeen. Fewer birds and sometimes less than adequate cover can be expected on property accessed by thousands of hunters and not always groomed for wildlife.
The best way to find quality public land is to pick up the current version of the South Dakota Hunting Atlas and drive by a couple of spots to get an idea if they’re worth hunting. Look for adequate food sources and cover, which in the late season consists of the thickest, densest grasses and other vegetation you can find.
Switchgrass and cattail sloughs provide some of the best late-season cover around, which means many of the state’s Waterfowl Production Areas are prime spots. Walk-in areas (of which there are more than 900,000 acres of in South Dakota), Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program lands (CREP) and Game Production Areas are also good bets; it all depends upon the habitat found in each section, however.
While our entire group worked a Game Production Area filled with cattail sloughs, we didn’t focus enough of our efforts on the areas around the frozen potholes. Instead, we minimally worked the sloughs and walked in a big line along a hillside and through some shelter belts. We only pushed up a couple of hens and jumped a coyote.
After working the large GPA, we broke up into smaller groups and went our separate ways. By the time my group made it to some CREP land, it was getting late and we only had enough time to hunt the property very quickly.
Upon arrival we saw a flock of pheasants out in the field. I quickly got Kona out of his crate and we all loaded our guns. Hunting the high, heavy grass, we managed to knock down three roosters between the four of us. Kona worked hard and found a winged cock that had buried itself deep under some matted grass. While Kona’s mouth and nose were bloody from pushing through the rough grass, you could tell he was enjoying every minute of it. That final-hour hunt was one of those moments a hunter remembers for a long time.
Two days of hunting just weren’t enough, so after my time with the Pheasants Forever crew I made my way to Tom Dokken’s farm in eastern South Dakota. Dokken, well-known as a dog trainer and inventor of the Dokken Deadfowl Trainer, as well as other training products, has also authored a beautiful book on training retrievers. He has his very own slice of pheasant heaven: a farm filled with cornfields, CRP, cattail sloughs and some wooded areas that are bordered by a large lake.
The entire time I was hunting his property, I felt as if we were the subjects in a wildlife painting or photo shoot; light snow was falling silently and had blanketed the cover, the dogs (Kona and Dokken’s Rookie) were working dutifully and there were a plethora of birds taking to wing just out of gun range.
Plowing through the heavy, late-season grasses and sloughs, we managed to put four birds in our bag. I should have had a limit, including a picture-perfect shot on a double-rooster flush right in front of me, but what can I say except…my shooting is horrid! The four cock birds with feather-duster tails were more than enough to make the day and that evening we had pheasant breasts and legs slow-cooked in the crock pot and paired with several different cheeses.
While hunting Dokken’s place, it again struck me as to how important proper habitat is for pheasants during the late season. Both Dokken’s property and the Johannsen’s land provided adequate food supplies and cover, from both predators and weather, and both places were sucking in birds from surrounding property that lacked those essential elements. Even on the public land, the birds were in very specific places: heavy cover.
On the second day we headed out to hunt public lands. He had a place in mind, and it turned out to be a Walk-In Area. Parking on the roadside, we hiked through a fallow field to reach the standing CRP and worked it thoroughly with Kona and Rookie. From there we segued into a thick cattail slough that held a multitude of hens, but no roosters. Working our way back toward the truck, we encountered several hens and watched a few roosters flush from the cover several hundred yards ahead of us–such is late-season pheasant hunting.
I did manage to knock down one bird that stayed ahead of the dogs and waited until the very last bit of cover had come to an end before he flushed; it was one of those bursts of feathered wings that take you by surprise because you don’t believe anything could be in those final few yards of scattered grass.
After four days of hunting South Dakota, Kona was dead tired but our mission had been accomplished: we had several roosters in the cooler and had enjoyed several others for dinner, as well as lunch, during the past days. Above that, as I returned to Rapid City to pick up my Dad for the trip back to Washington state, I had memories of roosters flushing ahead of great dogs and time spent with good friends in a place every pheasant hunter should plan a trip to–South Dakota.
Brian Lynn traveled across the West to hunt the best pheasant fields in the in the country. Tag along on his trip from Washington to South Dakota.