By Andrew Johnson
Roughly a decade ago when I was an assistant editor for some national hunting publications, I was lucky enough to attend the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show, or SHOT Show, in Las Vegas, Nev. It’s a massive gathering of anyone and everyone with ties to the outdoor industry, and it’s traditionally held in January each year when new products are unveiled.
During the show my job was to gather as many media packets from vendors as possible, and while I was making my rounds and checking out all the new guns, gear and other gizmos, I stopped in at the booth of a popular fiber-optic sight manufacturer.
After we exchanged pleasantries, the man who was working the booth, who also happened to be the company’s CEO, asked where I was from.
“South Dakota,” I said.
“Ahhh … Nirvana,” was his reply. “I’m a die-hard bird hunter, and that place is heaven on earth.”
I was stunned. Not because this guy said he liked South Dakota, but because he used that word, nirvana.
For years I had been trying to come up with one word that would describe growing up as a hunter in South Dakota, and it took this gentleman all of three seconds to hit the nail on the head. I guess that explains why he’s a CEO and I’m not.
Nirvana — a Buddhist ideal of a transcendent state that leaves behind all the woes of the world — seemed pretty accurate then, and I believe it still applies today for people, both residents and nonresidents, who want to escape from their daily lives and chase pheasants in the great, wide open.
And so it is each fall when October arrives and tens of thousands of bird hunters descend on the state’s pheasant fields for three straight months in hopes of bagging a rooster or three.
When it comes to destination-oriented pheasant hunting, it seems like there is South Dakota … and then there’s everybody else. This isn’t meant to be a knock against other states or regions, many with rich pheasant hunting traditions of their own. It just simply is what it is.
With that in mind, if you’re planning a hunt in the Dakotas this fall, here are 10 things you should remember, and not all of them deal directly with pheasant hunting.
1. Mind Your Manners
If you visit, please remember you’re our guest, and we’re happy to have you. In fact, we basically kick the door wide open during pheasant season and tell folks to come on in and join the fun.
Pheasant hunting has evolved into a vital part of South Dakota’s economy, generating upwards of $170 million dollars each year, thanks in part to nonresident hunters and their families who travel here to hunt, shop and eat, spending money along the way. However, if you were to ask many residents, they would more than likely tell you the pheasant hunting tradition is priceless and a dollar amount can’t be tied to it.
That said, it’s a tradition that is not only highly regarded, but also highly protected. So, while you’re here, we expect you to protect it, too. Granted, we want you to have have as much fun as possible, but that doesn’t mean we expect you to leave your manners behind and disrespect, damage or discredit the resource in any way.
Respecting the land, the landowners and the wildlife is something that, in turn, will garner mutual respect. Also, remember that the words “please” and “thank you” go a long way out here, where a firm handshake still means something and common sense holds special value.
2. Be in Shape
If you visit, please be in shape. I’ve been on a number of hunts where hunters who were not physically prepared lost out on some prime opportunities simply because their legs couldn’t take any more punishment. This goes for dogs, too.
Pheasant hunting takes work, and it’s amazing how many folks think that as soon as their vehicle crosses over the state line and into South Dakota that pheasants will start automatically falling in their lap. Yes, there are plenty of pheasants to go around, but half the fun is putting in the necessary work to find them — and this means lots of walking, often through thick cover that can really take a toll on your legs, hips, back and arms.
Some high-end hunting operations have pristine, manicured walkways for their hunters to use, but this is more the exception than the rule. If you visit, prepare yourself physically so you can get the most out of your hunt, regardless of what type of terrain or matted cover you may encounter.
If you plan to visit, make sure the first time you fire your shotgun isn’t at a wild rooster that’s trying to break the sound barrier as it flies away from you. If you’re making the investment to head to South Dakota, take the time necessary to sharpen your skills prior to your hunt.
A pheasant isn’t the toughest upland game bird to hit, but I’ve seen more than one rooster run an entire gauntlet of accomplished shooters without getting touched by a single BB. Pheasants have been clocked at speeds up to 45 mph, and if they have the strong Dakota wind at their back, I’m sure they could top 50. Gauging how much to lead and then follow through are important on every shot, and they each take practice to refine.
It’s easy to get frustrated on a pheasant hunt, especially after a couple misses. Combat this trend by practicing enough to where you’re confident in your shooting capabilities before you even step foot into the pheasant fields.
4. A ‘Limit’ Is Not the Point
If you visit, curb your expectations for limiting out each day. Taking home a limit of birds is a wonderful thing that should indeed be celebrated, but too often people don’t consider the day a success unless they hit that magic, arbitrary number that constitutes a limit.
If you’re more worried about how many birds you shoot than savoring the experience, you’re missing the point.
5. Early vs. Late
The third Saturday in October is the traditional opener for South Dakota’s pheasant season, and the first two weeks of the season is often when most nonresidents flock to the state. It’s also when most residents take to the fields, so, at times, it can feel a bit congested.
Warmer weather is likely the primary reason many people choose to hunt early, but don’t let warmer temps fool you into thinking it’s always better hunting.
If you’ve never considered hunting later in the season, I’d encourage you to give it a try. December is my favorite time to hunt pheasants, largely because there isn’t as much pressure and more land is available.
By that time of year, the amount of cover pheasants have at their disposal is substantially reduced. The crops are long gone, and there is usually a blanket of snow that has drifted in or packed down grass stands to the point that they’re no longer suitable to hold birds.
To me, that’s a win-win situation. Less pressure and less cover means more opportunity. It might be a bit chilly at times, but late-season hunts when the birds are congregated near remaining food sources and quality habitat are often the best hunts of the year.
6. Do Something Else
If you visit, plan enough time in your schedule to do something other than chase pheasants. I fully understand the whole point of coming to South Dakota on a pheasant hunting trip is, well, to hunt pheasants, but taking a break to learn about the state and the people who call it home will only add to your experience.
I’m not talking about heading all the way to Mount Rushmore or anything like that. Rather, do something simple that will break up your day and make it more enjoyable.
Take a drive and see some new country, or head into town to the local cafe to try the hot beef sandwich. Head to a high school or college football game, pick a team to cheer for and have some fun. And if you’ve never seen a 9-man football game, you’re missing out.
If you’re new to the state or if you’re hunting in a new location, go to the South Dakota State Historical Society’s website, history.sd.gov, and check out the state historical marker program to see what fun facts you can discover nearby.
According to the website, “the historical marker program identifies historically significant buildings, sites, structures, objects and districts. The markers are mounted signs, often located along the roadside, which contain information on the history of the resource. Markers spark further interest in local history and can call attention to historic preservation efforts. They are well-documented histories, easily accessible to the public and reflect the importance a community places on its heritage.”
Quite often, you’ll be able to locate a half-dozen of these markers within 20 miles or so of where you’re shacking up, and a quick drive through the countryside after a couple days of hunting might be just what the doctor ordered for sore and tired legs.
7. Defer to Kids
If you visit and there are kids in your group, do whatever you can to help them out, even if it means passing on slam-dunk shots so they can have a chance. This might seem like a no-brainer for some of you, but it happens quite often when even veteran hunters are so charged up they take shots they normally wouldn’t take.
While I was growing up, we hunted on a family farm near Forestburg, S.D. A friend-of-a-friend of the family from Minnesota would often join the hunt, and he would shoot all the birds he could, even if it meant he had to shoot them out from under my nose. There were days when I couldn’t even get a shot off with my Winchester single-shot .410 before he unloaded both barrels of his fancy over-under 12-gauge at the bird.
Don’t be that guy. Take your shots when they come, but remember that kids are the future of our sport and you shouldn’t rob them of their opportunity. We’re all in this together, and we need to encourage more kids to get involved in hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits. Fostering their development and love for the outdoors should be a priority, regardless of where or what game you’re hunting.
8. Don’t Give up on Public Land
If you visit, don’t be fooled by the perception that private land is always better than public land. More importantly, if you’re concerned about the cost of hiring an outfitter or paying for a guide just to get access to private ground, don’t give up on public land as an option.
There are over 5 million acres of public land in South Dakota. While not every public acre out there will have birds on it, there are plenty that do.
If you visit, the state has some valuable public land resources you can put to use for free. Each year the state prints a public-land hunting atlas that breaks the state down into easy to understand sections that list all the public land. To make things even easier and more efficient, the atlas is available online on the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department’s website, gfp.sd.gov.
The SDGFP Outdoors app is an invaluable tool for the public-land hunter. You can download the app on your smartphone or tablet to view digital maps of public areas. Combine the maps with the GPS functionality of your device, and you can erase all doubt as to whether you’re on or nearby public ground.
9. Make Time for Pictures
If you visit, bring a camera. Don’t rely on your cell phone’s camera. Instead, bring a point-and-shoot digital camera that you can easily carry in your pocket while hunting for impromptu, in-the-field photos.
Camera phones work great, and they’re becoming more and more user-friendly. However, many still lack the stabilization and lens versatility that can really make for some clean, crisp shots, especially if you need to zoom in or pan wider to capture the setting.
Remember, not every picture has to have a dead rooster in it. Stop in the field and take pictures of your family and friends. Take pictures of the fall sunset and sweeping vistas that you might not see back home.
If you shoot an exceptional, full-color bird, take a picture immediately before its feathers get matted down and before the bird stiffens up. Make sure to include the background where the bird was shot in the photo to fully capture the memory.
At the end of a long day, it’s easy to forego taking pictures in an attempt to get back to where you’re staying for a hot shower and meal, but bear down for a minute or two, smooth the feathers out on your birds, wipe the blood off their beaks and take a meaningful picture that best represents the day you had.
Taking an extra five minutes to set up a shot you can cherish and share with friends for years to come will often be the best decision you make your entire trip.
10. Leave It Better Than You Found It
This last tip is simple: if you visit, plan to leave things better than you found them.
If you see trash or debris in the field, ditch or on the road, pick it up. If you can help a landowner out, no matter how big or small the task, do it.
If you have any chance to support a local fundraiser or charity, consider giving back to the community that’s your second home during pheasant season.
I hope these simple tips can help you make the most out of your trip. Safe travels, and we’ll see you this fall …
About the Author: Andrew Johnson is the editor of Outdoor Forum. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @OutdoorForumMag.