|November - December 2004
Volume 2, Number
Cover Photo Ron Spomer
Pheasants, lots and lots of pheasants, may be the best reason to hunt South
Dakota, but they arent the only reason.
drive around to the end of the field. When you see us, push through this milo,
Richard Kieffer shouted over the wind, leaning his head northwest to keep his ball cap
stuck on. Like most economically stressed farmers, this White Lake cattleman and grain
grower tries to squeeze a few extra bucks from his land by guiding pheasant hunters a few
months each year.
good at it, knowing where his flocks like to hide and flee. He leaves big fields of native
grass, cut and uncut crops for the wild birds and supplements them with big bunches of
reared birds before the shooting starts. Theyre part of the local fauna and just as
wild by the time hunters begin arriving.
Kieffers pickup stops at the end of the field, we walk toward it, collars turned up.
A lab and springer work across the rows until one rooster flushes wild, then another, then
six or seven hens. Fresh scent pulls the dogs forward. More birds take to the air. Hot
scent drives the dogs crazy. Someone shoots and misses. A dozen more birds spook, catch
the wind and blow past like shingles in a hurricane. The black-and-white springer leaps
above brick red stalks of grain, snapping at a long tail. An-other shot and the rooster
tumbles in a rattle of feathers.
as they say, all heaven breaks loose. Pheasant heaven. Birds jump from those strips of
milo like sailors from a sinking ship. Two here, three up there, a wily rooster from
behind, a dozen hens up ahead, 20 or 30 mixed birds and a misplaced sharptailed grouse
from the northwest corner. Guns pop. The wind roars. Welcome to the Pheasant Capital of
wasnt like this 140 years ago. Back then you had to make do with millions of bison
and prairie grouse, elk and grizzlies, pronghorn and bighorn. That was good enough for the
Lakota but not pioneering European peasant farmers. They preferred wheat and corn by the
sweat of their brows in neat square fields. They didnt want 1,800-pound bison in
their corn fields any more than todays suburbanite wants 2-pound prairie dogs in his
lawn. They were, however, more than willing to accommodate prairie chickens, sage grouse
and sharptails, but those grand natives slipped through their fingers like dust as more
and more grass melted before the plow.
happy coincidence, the new mosaic of grain, alfalfa and prairie hay fields suited another
immigrant, and by the 1920s German, Russian, Slovak, Swedish and Norwegian farmers were
coexisting happily with millions of Chinese pheasants. Theyve had their difficulties
since, but all have hung in there, perhaps understanding they need one another.
South Dakotans realize wild game and land on which to pursue it are components of the good
life and an economic juggernaut. In this prairie state, tourism ranks close behind
agriculture as the second biggest producer of dollars, and hunting is the biggest part of
that tourism. You can bet folks arent visiting in November for piña coladas on
this, the South Dakota legislature became the first to pass legislation protecting gun
manufacturers from lawsuits over criminal use of firearms. They began courting
manufacturers with incentives like no corporate income tax, no personal income tax, no
personal property tax and no business inventory tax.
South Dakota is home to Dakota Arms, H-S Precision, Black Hills Ammunition, Superior
Ammunition, Boyds Gunstock Industries, Cor-Bon Bullets, a Cabelas retail store
and more. The state boasts the seventh lowest cost of living index in the nation. The
average commute to work is 14 minutes, but thats only because so many Dakotans
prefer living 30 miles from town on Grandpas old homestead where they can raise a
pig, plant a garden, shoot off the back porch and let the dog run free.
here still believe idle hands are the devils workshop. South Dakotas high
school graduation rate is the highest in the nation, which is all the more remarkable when
you consider the distractions teens face: whitetails in the shelterbelts, mule deer in the
badlands, antelope on the rolling plains, ducks and geese in the prairie potholes,
cottontails in the brush, prairie dogs in the pastures, elk in the Black Hills, grouse in
the grasslands and coyotes nearly everywhere. Oh, and those ringnecked pheasants a
few million ringnecked pheasants. More pheasants per acre than anywhere else in the world.
What do you say we skip last period study hall and go hunting?
drought really knocked back our birds, but you can give it a try, Mike Weathermon
told us as we stood on his porch, not wanting to track mud into his house, despite his
wifes insistence it wouldnt be a problem. You remember where to
go? he asked. We remembered, sort of. It had been more than six years since our last
visit. The lanky young hay grower brought out some aerial photos. Everything you
hunted before, but Ive put in more trees and food plots, see, by this dam here. All
thats ours. Theres uncut milo all on this hillside.
Weathermon was right. His birds were down from the
mid-1990s. Instead of hundreds, only two or three dozen flew from an island of tall,
yellow kochia weeds near the end of a field of milo stubble and scattered into a vast
field of CRP grass divided by two belts of trees. Instead of picking long-tailed red birds
from bunches, we had to pick them off in ones and twos over a progression of points as the
dogs stuck and moved with the skulking birds.
kept my young springer, BooToo, as close as I could until his stub began vibrating a
warning. Then I jogged to keep up. Dave Lockwoods wirehair, Autumn, crept cautiously
from pool to pool of scent, Dave at port-arms behind. Alan Sands ranged wide with his more
freewheeling shorthair, Sassy, who held her birds from afar, head up proud.
leapfrogged ahead in small bands, suggesting a decoy party of Lakota braves luring
bluecoats into an ambush. The most damage these decoys could do would be to walk us to
death. They nearly did, but by sunset wed whittled their numbers by nine plus two
bonus sharptails that jumped at the edge of range from one of Weathermons milo and
sunflower food plots. If Mike says these birds are down, Id love to see what
this place looks like in a non-drought year, Alan said.
and grass left standing just for pheasants was rare in South Dakota 25 years ago. As a
result the states famous pheasant population reached lows no one had seen since the
first hunting season in 1919. Cafes and motels suffered. The legislature, sportmans
clubs, farm groups and Game, Fish and Parks cooperated to design and fund habitat
improvements, both spring nesting cover and winter shelter. Then the federal Conservation
Reserve Program funded set-aside acres that soon totaled 2 million. A bit of timely rain
and voilà! Flags were again flying high over the Pheasant Capital of the World.
try that shelterbelt, Jerry Rubendall proposed. We havent touched it for
a week. Rubendall, like Kieffer, raises cattle and pheasants, but he headquarters in
Mitchell near the big, new Cabelas store where eager nonresidents by the thousands
stop for shells and vests and boots and licenses from October through December, creating
the kind of bustling shopping spree formerly seen only before Christmas in the Corn Palace
most farmers, Jerry will drive to the end of the field and block, preventing a
mass escape of birds and saving us a long walk back. A mix of locals and nonresidents from
as far away as Hawaii step into the belt of trees, a wide strip of native grasses as tall
as their chins and another belt of mixed corn and milo. None of this cover has been
touched by harvest machine or cattle. On the downwind side, the cover cuts the wind in
half. On the upwind side, hunters coattails stand out like flags. And on both sides
whitetails and ringnecks flush, more pheasants in a half-hour than many hunters see in an
entire season. When everyone reaches Jerry, the hunt is over because everyone has shot his
three-bird limit. We can go down to the river if youd like, Jerry
suggests. Ive seen some partridge hanging around there.
years ago there probably werent a dozen farmers who charged a fee for pheasant
hunting in this rural state. Now many do. Its a matter of supply and demand. The
supply of upland bird hunting across the country has declined, and the demand for wild
birds, heck just a place to run loose with a dog and shotgun, has increased. You can still
knock on farmhouse doors and find land-owners wholl say have at it, no
charge, but pickings are usually slim in such places. Folks with great numbers of birds
often begin charging just to save wear and tear on their doorbells. Options for
pay-hunting fall into five categories:
1. -Day rate for trespass rights: varies from $30 to $150.
2. -Trespass rights plus transport and pick up in the fields,
perhaps a guide, dog and lunch: $100 to $300 a day.
3. -Trespass rights, guide service, room and board either
with family or in old farmhouse reserved for hunters: $150 to $400 a day.
4. -Full lodge with guides, dogs, wild and stocked birds, hot
tubs, saunas, gourmet meals, wine list and plush carpeting and thats just in
the dog kennels! $300 to $1,000 a day.
5. -A guide with access to leased land and lots of wild
birds: rates vary widely.
these options mean theres something for everyone plus the do-it-the-hard-way
cheapskates who dont want to buy anything more than gas, license and lunch. And they
often bring the lunch from home. No problem. South Dakota welcomes even these. Thousands
of Waterfowl Production Areas, Game Management Areas, Corps of Engineers reservoir
take-line land, National Grasslands and Walk-In hunting areas are open to the hunting
public, no charge. Unlike public hunting areas in some states, these are not usually beat
to dirt with all the birds pushed onto bordering private land. Many grow more birds and
provide better shooting than all the private lands surrounding them. You just have to hit
the right one on the right day.
Walk-In Area, the
white-and-black sign read. Right there along the state highway with pickups full of
orange-capped hunters whizzing by. Foot Traffic Only it read. The hunting rights of this land have
been leased with Wildlife Habitat development funds for your enjoyment. Respect the
Landowner and the Land! South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Now thats my idea
of a welcome mat. But surely it was too good to be true. It wasnt. Boo hit the
ground snuffling and had a rooster in the air almost before I had the gun closed. Two
shots brought a fat rooster to ground, and the happy springer fetched it back. Good
girl, good girl. Lets find some more.
neednt have wasted my breath. Boo was off and springing, her black ears flapping
here and there over the switch grass and bluestem, leading the way to a low swale tangled
with raspy wild sunflowers and whippy willow sprouts. But before she got there, her stub
tail started beating double time, and three sharptails launched into the wind just out of
range, cackling ducka ducka
duck as they flapped side to side, looking as if they couldnt keep their
balance. The fourth bird up, a youngster inexperienced enough to hesitate, was close
enough. The spread of No. 71?2 shot snatched it from the
autumn sky as its covey mates hushed and glided, rocked and called, alternating until they
blinked out against unknown depths of prairie.
downhill the ground got soggy. Cattails blocked the way, the kind of muddy, wet, dense
cattail jungle no one but pheasants and the dogs who smell them like to penetrate. And Boo
smelled them. A rooster flew up cackling, low and too far to risk a shot. Boo gave chase a
few yards, then started back, cattails vibrating a zig-zag line, puffs of down floating on
the air until another Crayola cock beat up through an explosion of down. The little 28
gauge swept past its beak and barked like a lap dog. The big bird crashed back, kicking up
another storm of white fluff that drifted silently while Boo wriggled for the retrieve.
times like this you know why you drive 1,500 miles in golden October to a land that rolls
forever under a blue sky arching to black space. The wind sweeps over you with a hint of Montana
snow and the earthy smell of a combine shredding corn from rattling stalks. You have the
whole day before you and room to roam. Your best buddy sits panting against your leg, all
smiles, her silky coat aglow in the sun, an auburn feather on her jowls and a gleam in her
eyes that says she knows the feeling too. Its as if youre 13 again and just
out of school, only better because its October and Mom isnt expecting you home
Pheasants would be enough on such a day, yet they are
but a small part of a greater compass. There will likely be geese commuting at sunrise and
sunset, great tornadoes of mallards swirling into corn fields, whitetails and mule deer
jumping from pockets of brush and coyotes howling at the harvest moon while you pluck
birds under a yellow bulb in front of the garage, the scent of apple pie wafting from the
kitchen. The dawn might bring frost on the hay bales and a flight of dark-breasted prairie
chickens gliding into a sunflower field, fox squirrels bouncing from cottonwood limbs or a
blizzard of snow geese settling over an indigo pothole. There will be kids in blue jeans
and letterman jackets standing by mailboxes, orange buses flashing red lights and
white-haired men in baseball caps pulling up to the Co-Op for coffee and donuts. Theyll
lift a single finger off the steering wheel as you pass. They know youre not from
around here. They know you have guns in your truck. And thats okay.