— By John Pollmann
Although it’s officially known as the Rushmore State, when it comes to hunting pheasants on public ground South Dakota could just as easily be known as the land of opportunity, especially for the solo hunter.
There are over 5 million public acres of land available to hunters in South Dakota, including those leased from private landowners, but not all of it is suitable for pheasants. Public areas targeted most frequently by pheasant hunters, such as Game Production Areas (GPA), Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA), Walk-In Areas (WIA) and acres of ground enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), vary in terms of quality habitat and opportunities.
After you sift through the chaff, however, you end up with a mound of public places to bag pheasants that is larger than most hunters’ calendars can accommodate in several seasons, let alone one year of stomping through the cover.
This is a good problem to have, and one that we shouldn’t take for granted. How you pare down the opportunities can present a challenge. And much like overcoming any challenge in life, it is important — and in this case quite fun — to tackle it head on.
Why Going Solo Works
For many hunters, pursuing the wily ring-necked pheasant is a social affair, but if given the choice on public ground, I’ll take my roosters one at a time, sharing the experience with my dog and the South Dakota sky.
As much as hunting alone is a personal choice, there is a tactical rationale behind it, too. It only takes a day or two of hunting on public ground before pheasants become conditioned to run or fly at the sound of truck doors closing, voices shouting instructions, barking dogs and the metallic ring of a gun action closing. Much of a pheasant’s advanced warning system becomes useless simply by reducing the number of those in pursuit.
More importantly, though, a solo hunter will find birds that a larger group won’t because he can look at an area from a different, singular perspective. A wetland edge or grassy fence line may not be big enough to attract a party of five or six hunters, but those slivers of cover are perfect for the solo hunter and a dog.
A lone hunter on his own often ends up targeting different terrain than a larger group. Sometimes the habitat demands it, and sometimes it’s simply because he can. Going alone allows a hunter a certain level of flexibility, allowing him to modify a game plan at any time and react immediately to where the birds are, and where they aren’t.
As an example, I was flying solo during a late-season hunt several years ago on a large GPA. A recent snow storm had dumped several inches of snow on the ground, but on this day, the sky was bright blue with an occasional cloud and a temperature that warranted only a sweatshirt under my Filson vest.
There were two vehicles already in the main parking area when I arrived, and I slowed while driving by and watched as a small group of hunters began trudging through a thick stand of cattails.
After crossing the fence a half-mile or so down the road, I angled toward the edge of a wetland, hoping to catch a rooster snoozing in the thermal cover.
Murphy, my yellow Lab at the time, lunged through the softening snow, leaving loping prints in his wake. He worked his way into the heavy grass and cattails only to bounce back outside into lighter cover. I took his change of course as an attempt to escape some extra work and directed him back inside. In spite of my efforts, Murphy continued to bump outside the cover, finally causing me to pause and look around.
The rolling hills surrounding this particular frozen wetland were covered with switchgrass thin enough to where you could see snow through the clumps of grass. Murphy and I began to quietly ascend the nearest hill, and almost immediately the steady rhythm of his tail increased. Soon enough I saw the fresh tracks of a pheasant in the snow, spaced close enough to suggest that the bird was not running from us. Murphy worked the hillside in earnest, finally reaching the crest and coming to a complete stop in front of a clump of switchgrass. A quick whisper from me was all it took to send Murphy into the cover, forcing a cackling rooster into the December sky.
While waiting for Murphy to bring the bird to hand, I looked down and saw a melted patch of ground on the south side of the clump of switchgrass. The bird was probably tired of spending time cooped up in the cattails, opting instead to sun himself on the grassy flat.
It was a scene that repeated itself two more times, and with a limit of roosters, Murphy and I angled back toward the truck.
Would we have done the same in a large group? I’m not sure. What I do know is that we changed our plan quickly, quietly and found birds where the other hunters weren’t looking.
Where to Hunt
Though they all fall under a generic public-hunting label, each GPA, WPA or other public area is unique to itself. That said, there are some general characteristics that a solo hunter can use to find more pheasants.
Game Production Areas are some of the more popular destinations for pheasant hunters, but all of the foot traffic they receive means that you’ll need to think outside of the box to be consistently successful.
How and where you enter the area are factors that become extremely important, but more than anything else, finding a GPA with a variety of habitat and potential hunting situations will give you more ways to find pheasants. Working the edges of different cover types or transition areas between feeding or loafing resources is a great way to find birds that have slipped away from the crowds of hunters.
Wetland edges and cattails are perfect for a solo hunter and a dog, and that combination makes Waterfowl Production Areas my go-to choice for late-season hunts. As important as it is to find a WPA with the thermal cover needed by a pheasant to make it through South Dakota’s brutal winter season, a hunter needs to make sure there are ample food resources nearby, too.
Often, wetland basins found nearest a corn or soybean field will produce better hunting (soybean fields are great, as the wind will often blow the snow clear and make life a little easier for pheasants looking for a meal). However, don’t ignore areas in the middle of a section, as hunting pressure will push birds toward places where only the hardiest orange-clad souls will go.
With over 1 million acres enrolled by private landowners, pheasant hunters have come to love the extra opportunities provided by Walk-In Areas around the state, as well as ground enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program within the James River watershed. The unique programs are a win-win for hunters and landowners, and these new enrollments have given pheasant hunters fresh places to chase roosters in some of the best areas of the state.
The key with both programs is to find areas that contain established stands of cover. And just like hunting WPA’s, areas with surrounding food sources are also going to provide your best chances for finding pheasants WIAs and CREP ground.
It’s All in the Timing
There is no better time than the final 60 minutes of the day to hit a public-hunting area for pheasants, and it is in that golden hour that a solo hunter can shine.
Some hunters I know will walk to the far corner of a public area just before the sunset to sit, wait and watch for pheasants flying in to roost for the night. This spot-n-stalk approach is made possible simply because a lone hunter can work quickly and quietly without spooking the birds. Also, the predictability of pheasant behavior at the end of the day lends itself well for the solo hunter who can target small chunks of roosting cover.
My favorite time to hunt pheasants on public ground, though, is after the season’s first snowfall when the habits of wildlife finally show themselves through telltale markings in the blanket of white.
My new yellow Lab pup, Buddy, and I hit one of our favorite WPAs last year at such a time, and save for the fresh sign of deer, rabbits and pheasants, ours were the first tracks to fall on the snow amidst cattails and heavy grass.
We hadn’t worked more than 75 yards from the truck before a long-tailed rooster flushed wild from the cover just out of range. Fighting the urge to move quickly toward the area where the bird had taken off, I kept Buddy close and we continued to work quietly ahead in hopes other birds would hold tight in the snow.
Our patience was rewarded with a power flush of several hens and one rooster that I knocked down in the canary grass bordering the wetland. The only other bird we saw that morning was another rooster that Buddy flushed from its hide in the cattails.
The bird that the young Lab retrieved was a dark-chested, long-spurred brute that had likely survived a hunting season or two. Finding a bird like that on a late-season public ground hunt seemed to add a special sheen to his bold, beautiful colors. He was a true trophy.
Every now and then I’m blessed to be extended invitations to hunt some of the best ground in South Dakota, but I don’t think I’ll ever tire of pursuing pheasants on public ground. I’m guessing those public-ground hunters reading this article know what I’m talking about — especially those who go it alone.
About the Author: John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.