October 26, 2020
By Mark Kayser
Hunting doves stokes the wingshooting furnace to a degree, but prime upland hunting for grouse and pheasants is still weeks away. If you’re looking for a truly great bird hunt in early fall, consider a road trip to South Dakota. Prairie grouse season there opens the third Saturday of September, and with it comes the chance to pursue both sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens in a setting straight out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. You’ll get an early upland fix, tune your hunting dog and experience a true hunting adventure with limitless horizons on public lands.
Strategies and Techniques
Before you load up, study your quarry. You’ll be hunting two species that look a lot like a hen pheasant and that share some habitat with ringnecks. Know your targets to avoid a game violation.
Sharptails have a white underbelly and distinguishing v-shaped chest feathers. They also have a short, pointy tail as opposed to the long, tapering tail of a pheasant. The greater prairie chicken has a square-shaped tail when viewed in flight and brown, barred banding of the chest feathers. Both the sharptail and prairie chicken are slightly smaller than an adult hen pheasant. Early in the fall, prairie grouse tend to segregate from each other, but as autumn progresses sharptails and chickens may band together. Your daily limit of three birds may comprise any combination of sharptails and prairie chickens—two of one and one of the other or three of either one.
Early fall flocks are made up of young-of-the year birds that hold well for pointing dogs until they receive their wild flushing degree from hunting pressure. You don’t necessarily need a hunting dog for prairie grouse, but it helps. Retrievers and pointing dogs both perform equally well. Regardless, you need to be in good shape to hike miles of rolling prairie. You also need to go at your quarry with strategy.
Locate grassland tracts that haven’t been overgrazed. Pristine parcels adjacent to agricultural grain fields often have more appeal than a munched pasture full of lackadaisical bovines. Query locals checking cattle or those you run into in small-town ranch and co-op stores about flocks they’ve noticed.
Rise early on hunt days and use a binocular to scan distant horizons to locate flocks of prairie grouse flying from overnight cover to feeding or loafing areas. Mark landing zones and then check access possibilities.
When it’s go-time, avoid a full-frontal assault. Prairie grouse tend to lounge on high locations to spot danger early. Even so, they tend to watch from the sheltered side of a high ridge since commonplace prairie winds prod them to the leeward side. This means you may have to approach in a crosswind to avoid being spotted, and that impedes your dog’s ability to scent birds until the last few yards. Don’t worry, though, as September flocks tend to hold well for a close flush. If you bungle a flush or the birds launch early, watch where they go and don’t forget to use your binocular again. Observe where the flock disappears or lands. Hike over there and initiate another approach. Prairie grouse don’t have the sprinting traits of a pheasant; they tend to stay put or shuffle along at a leisurely pace upon landing.
Fortunately, South Dakota prairie grouse inhabit some of the largest tracts of public land found in the Mount Rushmore State. For a combination of both species, consider hunting the 116,000-acre Fort Pierre National Grasslands south of the capital of Pierre. The central corridor of the state, along the Missouri River, is the best habitat to find sharptails and prairie chickens living together.
Farther west, scout the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in southwest South Dakota for a primarily sharptail-focused hunt. This country includes badland formations along with grasslands spanning more than 597,000 acres. It’s located south of Wall, home of the world-famous Wall Drug.
To the northwest you’ll discover even more sharptail action at the Grand River National Grasslands. This bountiful public treasure includes nearly 155,000 acres outside of the farming and ranching community of Lemmon.
South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks is a leader in working with landowners to open private ground to the public. In addition to the plentiful federal lands, the state offers two excellent access programs. First is South Dakota’s innovative Walk-In Area program, which leased more than 1.25 million acres in 2019 from 1,400 landowners to provide public, walk-in hunting access. Much of that exists in prairie grouse country.
A second and relatively new program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP. It focuses totally on the habitat-heavy Conservation Reserve Program. Last year, more than 830 landowner contracts opened an additional 110,223 acres for hunting. Some of those were in the heart of prairie grouse country as well.
As you conduct your research, don’t overlook state game production areas and School and Public lands with public access. Farther west, you find Bureau of Land Management and National Forest lands with suitable habitat mainly for sharptails. The Custer National Forest, located in the northwest corner of the state, includes steppe habitat that sharptails utilize. Recent wildfire areas with new growth also support sharptails in these transitioning pine environments.
Use the SDGFP public hunting atlas to review public hunting access, locations and updates. The interactive program allows you to zero in on specific lands with detailed whereabouts. Plus, don’t overlook the help of property boundary identification information found on quality apps like HuntStand and onX. Combine these important tools to open a world of upland opportunities that could go overlooked by others. Most hunters look for the largest expanses of public land available, but sometimes the best hunting is on small parcels adjacent to prime agricultural areas.
A bit of phone time is also suggested with a call to government land managers. In addition to asking about general access and outlook predictions, query them on whether lands under their management include rest periods. Some agencies rotate grazing intensity and may even leave a pasture to rest for a year. These rejuvenated grasslands attract more prairie grouse due to their native state over a grazed expanse.
Tips for Travelers
South Dakota has been referred to as America’s Outback, but even so, the small-town atmosphere offers friendly, hometown charm. Motels in some smaller towns may have a 1970s character, but rest assured they’ll be clean, and café fare includes homemade appeal.
Pierre (pronounced “peer”) is the most logical jump-off point for hunters utilizing the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. The best lodging in town is at the Ramkota Hotel and the Governor’s Inn. Both are pet-friendly and have been catering to hunters for years. They understand early hours, and the Ramkota even has a game-cleaning room.
For dining, check out two of the best steak houses in cattle country. Just down the street from the hotels is Mad Mary’s Steakhouse and Saloon. The interior is casual Western, and you can’t go wrong with steak, prime rib or a juicy burger. A short drive out of town is the Cattleman’s Club. Sawdust covers the floor and the décor is simply the view of the mighty Missouri River as seen through huge panes of glass. Order a steak with mushrooms and onions. A simple meal in a simple setting that is simply unforgettable.
Moving west to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, you could stay in any number of towns, but why not visit Wall to see the world-famous Wall Drug? Wall thrives on Mount Rushmore traffic, so you might as well pick a motel like the America’s Best Value Inn, which is pet-friendly. Once you’ve checked in, slip on your walking shoes and visit the tourist mecca of Wall Drug. After you’ve checked out the mechanical cowboy bands and roaring dinosaurs, slide into the dining room for the comfort food of a hot turkey sandwich. Return in the morning for fresh donuts and nickel coffee prior to your hunt.
If you like rustic accommodations, reserve a cabin at the SDGFP Shadehill Recreation Area near Lemmon. If you want a big screen, consider the Dakota Lodge in Lemmon, which is also pet-friendly. For a return to yesteryear, grab a burger, fries and a malt at Al’s Grill and Concession. It’s the perfect way to end a long day in prairie grouse country.
Prairie Equipment List
Sharptail and prairie chicken hunting is like any other upland pursuit, but there are some gear considerations you might make for the prairie environment.
A 12-gauge is fine, but prairie grouse don’t require a lot of firepower. Your lightweight 20-gauge will likely suit you better.
Pack well broken-in boots with aggressive tread to grip the gumbo soil after a splash-and-dash rain event.
Bring along plenty of water or a bladder hydration system, plus extra for your dogs. The prairie is big and can be hot in early fall, with temperatures possibly nearing 100 degrees.
Brush pants or chaps are a good idea to thwart dried, sharp grasses.
A hunting vest with plenty of pockets or a small backpack is recommended to carry extra supplies like water.
Bring along first aid for you and your dog, plus a tweezer to remove irritating prickly pear cactus spines.
Consider snake boots or a rattlesnake vaccine for your dog if you fear these slithering reptiles. Most rattlesnakes avoid you, but you never know, and prairie rattlers inhabit the area.
Lastly, have a hunting app installed on your smartphone that shows property boundaries.
Identify Prairie Grouse Habitat
The prairie has an ocean sameness that Lewis and Clark and Laura Ingalls Wilder have famously described. Finding prairie grouse in this sameness can be challenging. First, look for swaths of prairie that have not been overgrazed. Prairie grouse prefer areas with grass short enough to peer over but high enough to offer concealment. Next, scan for public lands adjacent to deeded agriculture. Sharptails and prairie chickens will converge on grain when available.
During a heatwave, hunt shady draws with brush and locate all water sources. Shade plus water equals birds on a hot day. An afternoon pass around a brushy reservoir could result in an easy limit.