When they yell “rooster” in South Dakota, you’d better be ready to shoulder your shotgun, look to the sky and swing on that green and red-headed cackling cock ringneck pheasant that just broke cover.
And chances are, he’s not alone.
This is something I heard and saw quite frequently last month during my first wild pheasant hunt with Halverson Hunts in Kennebec, S.D. Tom McIntyre, a staff writer for Field & Stream from Wyoming, who booked the hunt, told me how great the wing shooting would be, but I never realized how good.
As a New Yorker, I know that wild pheasants are few and far between, especially in the Northeast, and it’s hard to explain just how many pheasants I saw every day and everywhere. I even saw them in the backyard of a home in a housing development in Pierre.
How many pheasants are in South Dakota? According to their game and fish department, there are more than 12 million, and they generate more than $219 million annually for South Dakota. In terms of hunters, last year there were 78,000 resident licenses issued and 103,000 non-resident licenses issued, and they harvested about two million birds.
In 1908, a group of farmers purchased a pair of pheasants from Oregon and released them near Redfield. Shortly thereafter, they purchased 48 pairs and released them. The first official pheasant hunting season opened in 1919 for seven days.
Now let me tell you what three days of hunting wild pheasants in South Dakota is really like, and you’ll see why this area is considered to be the pheasant capital of the world.
On the morning of the first hunt, Steve picked us up at our hotel and we hadn’t gotten a mile out of Pierre when we started to see pheasants feeding alongside the road. By the time we had reached the lodge, I’d seen more pheasants, both roosters and hens, than I ever saw in all my years of hunting in New York state — and I hadn’t even gotten out of the truck yet.
Obviously, seeing all these birds made me even more anxious, and I wondered why our hunt was not beginning until 10 a.m. The reason was simple: The pheasants will generally spend the early mornings along the road edges, where they ingest grit and gravel that they retain in their gizzards to help
digest their food.
At the lodge, we met the other 18 hunters in camp who had traveled from all over the U.S. I noticed when I put my pin in the map indicating where I was from, I was the first New Yorker to hunt with Halverson. The 20 of us were divided into two groups, each led by two guides and three or four very well-trained Labrador retrievers.
Prior to the hunt, each group was given a thorough briefing on how we would be set up to hunt each of the fields. There was a heavy emphasis on safety. There would be no shooting of birds on the ground or at eye level. All shots taken must be at least from an 11 o’clock elevation. Guns were not to be loaded until hunters were in position, and as soon as the walkers finished moving through the fields and the group re-assembled, all guns should be unloaded. And lastly, all hunters had to wear hunter orange and safety shooting glasses.
The actual format of the hunt was somewhat different from the walk-ups most of us are familiar with. Four hunters were posted on the left and right edges of the two- to five-acre fields of milo or corn, and the remaining two on the end where the drive would end. These two are called blockers. When all are in position, the guides and dogs begin to slowly move through the cover.
After the briefing, each group was loaded on to a school bus where we met our guides: Big Joe Hutmacher, Carl Richards and four very anxious Labradors. When we arrived at the field, and before we got off the bus, Big Joe reminded us of the safety rules and used a grease pencil and board to diagram how we would hunt the field.
To say I was excited would be a gross understatement, both before and after that first flush of at least 20 cackling roosters and hens that broke from cover no more than 15 yards from me. And what did I do? Just stood there with my Beretta almost to my shoulder staring in awe — never pulling the trigger — but my fellow hunters did, and several were right on target.
While I was moving along with the walkers, three roosters flushed, one of which got too close and quickly became my first wild South Dakota pheasant harvest. He had just hit the ground, and one of the Labs was right there to retrieve him. When this drive ended, 16 roosters were shot including mine. I did, however, get to take three shots.
Our second, and what was to be our last. drive of the day was very good for me because I was able to collect the other two roosters I needed to fill my daily limit of three. And the 18 roosters taken here filled the group’s limit of 36. What really fascinated me was that from this three-acre plot of milo, we kicked up at least 150 pheasants.
Day 2 began with temperatures in the mid-40s, but by the time we reached the first field, it had risen to the low-50s, and the sun was shining. Steve Halverson and Jason Hyde were our guides for this hunt, and we were all very eager to get going. As we drove up, there were pheasants in the air everywhere. Ten minutes into the hunt, I dropped a rooster that flew directly over my head and then missed another that probably was really too high as it passed in front of me. Two misses later, and at the end of the hunt, I got lucky and downed two roosters about 15 yards out — the Beretta’s first double. Again, our group had limited by the end of the second drive.
For the 17 of us that hunted on the third day, it was probably the most exciting, and definitely the most challenging. Temperatures were in the low-40s with winds gusting up to 66 miles per hour. And those gusts were very close together. It is the first time I have ever been pushed around by the wind. There were times when I shouldered my shotgun and had to fight the wind to stay on target.
As for the leading of the birds when they flushed, Big Joe said that when they get up there, you may have to lead them by as much as 15 feet. And after several misses I found out that he was right. My first broke off to my right and stayed too low for a safe shot; but then the wind caught him taking him up high and straight away from me and No. 1 dropped to the ground and a waiting black lab.
On the next, I started to swing to my left and the gust of wind literally pushed me off balance, and I was unable to get the shot off. A total of 15 roosters were shot on this first hunt.
In the second field, we were a bit luckier, collecting 16; none of which were mine. But I did get three shots off that missed.
Still needing 20 birds to complete our limit we loaded back on the bus and drove about 11⁄2 miles to a large milo field. And on this hunt, we all got to see the value of the blockers. Only seven or eight birds were taken on the drive by the outside hunters and drivers, but when the group tightened near the end of the field, the action really got exciting. Roosters and hens that had probably been running in the tall grass ahead of the drivers and dogs, finally broke cover and the sky was filled with pheasants.
A big rooster jumped up right in front of me, but I had to wait for it to clear the hunter on my right and then the No. 5 shot caught up with it about 20 yards behind me. Turning around to face the field, I saw one way up, headed right for me, but he never got into range as another hunter’s shot caught up with him. But there were plenty for all of us and a few minutes later, I got my chance and third rooster of the day.
They were still flying around us when we stopped after reaching the 20 birds needed to complete our group limit of 51 and just stood there watching them.
If you’re a bird hunter, with or without a dog, you owe it to yourself to hunt pheasants in South
Dakota at least once. You can check out some of the pheasant action photos at halversonhunts.com.
Several years ago, I met Benelli’s shotgun shooting TV star, Tom Knapp, at the Shot Show, and took his advice about a new fiber-optic front sight for my Benelli. I use the EasyHit Sport Shooting Bead for all my small-game hunting, and used it on this trip. In all honesty, it has definitely improved my accuracy.
The EasyHit sight allows you to get a faster acquisition of your target and enables shooting with both eyes open. You can find the sight at www.tomknapp.net.
More from The Daily Gazette: