Chasing prairie chickens in the Fort Pierre Grasslands of South Dakota is an experience worth trying. Once. Maybe more. But definitely once.
Especially when you are just a few miles (relatively) from these massive grasslands and their flocks of prairie chickens.
That was the situation we found ourselves in last Friday after two days of hunting pheasants near Highmore, SD.
After seeing hundreds and hundreds of pheasants. the idea of chasing prairie chickens seemed particularly appealing when proposed by Dave Nomsen, the policy guru for Pheasants Forever.
So it was that a group of the Pheasants Forever staff set off to the 116,000-acre Fort Pierre Grasslands (operated by the Forest Service) with myself and my buddy Springer in tow. The Grasslands are located west of the Missouri River, an area that makes you feel as though you are truly entering the west. Prairie dogs. Rattlesnakes. And vast open spaces of grass and little else.
I have great memories of my only previous visit to Lyman County and Snake Den Lodge in Presho, and so was more than willing to return.
Even so, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s important to note that none of us had a clue what we were doing. Springer and I had shot prairie chickens once before in Kansas (completely by accident). And during my last visit to Lyman County with Alan Harn and his crew, a prairie chicken was shot (not far from the grasslands, as it turned out). Bob St. Pierre of PF mistakenly thought that meant we knew something about these relatively rare grassland birds that once blanketed the country but that are now only hunted in a few states.
He was wrong.
Even so, we somehow managed to get within eyeball distance of a decent flock of prairie chickens. The birds flushed off into private land and we could only watch and dream.
Not long after that, Anthony Hauck of PF (my young bearded buddy) flushed a bird wild at 100 yards and pondered taking a poke, thinking that’s as close as we’d come to these flighty birds. No question, late-season prairie chicken hunting is no easy thing. We walked for miles during our hunt, much of it through 2-3 inches of snow. The walk tired dogs and hunters.
But Billy Hildebrand (pictured above with his hard-working Golden Retriever) saved the day a few miles later when he brought down a prairie chicken with one shot. The bird flushed near Hildebrand while he was standing, talking with St. Pierre. Hmmm. Maybe there’s a reason these prairie chickens are having a tough time of it: they’re dumb.
Hildebrand briefly earned hero status for his efforts.
That we never had another shot was OK. Just seeing all that grass and letting my little setter Hawkeye blow out the cobwebs was an enjoyable experience. That we actually saw chickens and bagged one was truly an added bonus.
The only irony of our visit is that we arrived with no knowledge of the area and probably did not hunt the prime grasslands. The grass we targeted was fairly sparse and snow-filled. After leaving the gang, Springer and I drove past some gorgeous grass 5 miles south of the area we hunted. It was also public ground. As always, it pays to scout any area. But since this was a last-minute, spur of the moment trip, that wasn’t really possible. Next time will be different. And I would like to make a return visit sometime.
UPDATE: The PF gang hit that same grass and saw lots of birds. Here’s the description from St. Pierre: “Yes, we went over the highway and found that there was no snow on the other side. The four of us walked in four different directions. I saw the most birds - probably 60 chickens and 50 pheasants, but managed to only get close enough for one shot. It was fantastic though . . . except for my pup also finding a porcupine! (Matt) Kucharski shot a sharptail and Anthony got a rooster.”
Now I wish I had hung around a bit longer. Oh well.
Click here for another article on the general area.
Overall the prairie chicken hunt was a nice mid-point for fantastic pheasant hunting in South Dakota and Iowa. I’ll have more about the Iowa trip tomorrow.
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South Dakota’s pheasant season runs through Jan. 3 and could offer a golden opportunity for hunters willing to brave the cold in pursuit of hot rooster shooting.
Brown County near Aberdeen typically leads South Dakota in overall pheasant harvest. Click here to learn more.
There’s also plenty of information at HuntFishSD.com.
The Grand Lodge in Highmore is located in Hyde County, not far from the Missouri River. Openings remain. Click here to learn more.
The South Dakota Office of Tourism also has information on hunting. Click here to learn more.
HIGHMORE, S.D.—The picture was perfect for any upland hunter.
Snow. Grass. Sorghum.
And then so many pheasants flushing into the air that you struggled to draw a bead on any one bird.
Afterwards, some estimated as many as 2,000 pheasants erupted from the food plots, grass, cut sorghum and tree plantings as our group of orange-clad hunters approached.
Almost as astonishing was that we managed just three roosters out of that feathered frenzy. But sometimes, when faced with an epic moment, merely watching is enough.
“I saw more birds in the air today that I have ever seen,” Champlin, Minn. resident Billie Hildebrand said. “And I have hunted a lifetime in Minnesota.”
“I hate to say it, but there were too many birds,” said Casey Weismantel of Aberdeen, S.D.
Only in South Dakota.
And this year, only recently.
While hunting in the Pheasant Capital of the U.S. is always better than anywhere else, many rooster boosters were frustrated in October and November.
“With all the crops still in and all the wet fields, it made it tough to get to the birds,” said John Luttrell, a dog trainer and guide from Clark, SD. “These last few days are the first time this year I haven’t had to wear knee-high boots to pheasant hunt. And three or four times the water went over my boots.”
That has changed in the past week, as farmers have been hard at the harvest, fields dried and frigid temperatures froze any remaining mud.
During our visit to Hyde County—organized by the conservation-minded folks at Pheasants Forever—we encountered no standing water or crops. Mostly we hunted sorghum strips planted in the midst of grass, though we also spent an afternoon flushing countless birds out of a picked corn field and walked a few shrubby shelterbelts. Anywhere we went birds were plentiful but wary, which is to be expected since the South Dakota season started nearly two months ago. Even so, everyone got their shots and their birds.
In two days with the crew from The Grand Lodge in Highmore, our party racked up 108 birds. That’s a three-bird limit for every hunter, every day. After the snow, Wednesday’s hunt was done by 2 p.m.
For lodge owners like Mike Solberg, though, the fast shooting doesn’t make up for what has been a tough year. Last summer Solberg lost 66 expected corporate bookings due to the ongoing economic downturn. That was true for many other lodge owners, as well.
And when news of the late harvest and wet conditions spread, some other hunters cancelled or postponed hunts. That’s a tough blow for South Dakota, which relies on pheasant hunting as its No. 1 tourism attraction.
In an effort to generate a late flurry of hunting business, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission considered raising the state’s three-bird pheasant limit to five. But the measure was voted down last Thursday.
Probably the biggest benefactors from that are the pheasants, which are obviously still around in huge numbers. That and the local hunters like Luttrell, who spends the remaining month of hunting season chasing birds with friends despite oft-frigid temperatures.
“The late season is awesome,” he said. “Last year the week before Christmas me and some friends from Minnesota hunted for four days and the warmest temperature was 15 below zero. And we got our birds every day.”
Only in South Dakota.
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With standing corn being blamed for just about every woe in the hunting world, I figured it was time to heap this onto the pile.
All my quail are in the corn. Actually, not all of them. This morning the dog and I spent a few hours walking through grassy spots in an effort to get in shape for an upcoming upland game trip.
I had no expectations of bird encounters, even though I’ve spotted quail in both locations several times this year.
Anyway, on the second farm the dog finally got real birdy along a grassy strip of foxtail and weeds. He pointed, then wagged and moved. Pointed, then wagged and moved.
I knew the quail were running. Problem was, they ran much faster than me. By the time I got within good eyeball range, the bird were flushing into a standing corn field across the road. At that point, the dog and I headed home, happy for the exercise.
But if there was a silver lining to the experience, it was this: A combine was working that field even as we hunted.
There is real hope, I think, for some decent upland hunting in mid-December when the bulk of the crops are out.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself.Story and comments
We were within a few steps of the truck when Hawk finally decided to offer the half-hearted point pictured above. Low tail. Not puffed up. And He took time to look me right in the lens when I pulled out the camera.
In other words, I don’t think he was serious about this point (which eventually yielded nothing but did come in an area where I have seen pheasant roosts in the past).
Sadly, Hawk’s approach to the upland opener mirrors that of most. Actually, he was much more intense than most. Few care about upland game in Illinois anymore. Hunter numbers drop every year, dramatically. And for the first time in a long time, I almost joined the majority and sat out an upland opener.
But even with warm weather, too many crops in the field and too few places to hunt, I still feel a compulsion to get out and stroll with the dog. Certainly he feels it. So if nothing else, today was a good chance to get Hawk some exercise and to remind him why we feed him all year.
And we did shoot one dove, early, after spending half an hour in the goose blind to start the morning.
But as far as quail or pheasants, I saw nothing. Not even a roost. Oh, I know the quail are out there. As more crops come out, we’ll find them. But I’ve got to be honest: It’s becoming more rewarding for me to go deer or duck hunting right now. My heart isn’t in Illinois upland hunting.
I hope that will change with the next 30-degree day or the first snowfall. But for now, my upland hunting motivation is at an all-time low.
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In what has become an annual event, the Department of Natural Resources sent me a postcard today to let me know I was rejected in the drawing for a free upland game hunting permit.
This is the third or fourth straight year I’ve received a rejection.
Needless to say, I was not pleased. Some of the best pheasant hunting I’ve done in Illinois has come on free upland permits at Pheasant Habitat Areas.
If you did not receive a rejection notice already, that may be good news for you.
And if you need a partner and a dog to join you, feel free to let me know.Story and comments