Welcome to the Pheasant Hunting Mecca
November 20, 2019
South Dakota's milo fields tell stories of decades-old tradition.
For the past few decades, South Dakota has remained the mecca of pheasant hunting. Many know it as the pheasant hunting capital of the world, but for upland bird enthusiasts, it’s much more.
We were up before the dawn ready to go. The crunch of the frost on the grass and the howl of the dogs in the kennels down the road had everyone alert and eager to depart to the fields. With over 3,000 acres of prime private acreage to hunt, Scattergun Lodge has been in the pheasant business for more than 20 years. Owners, Chuck and Shelia Ross, have been in the outdoor business since the early 1970s. The Labrador retrievers have a long-standing lineage at Scattergun Lodge. In 1962 Ross ran his first field trial, and he has been hooked on Labradors ever since. There’s not a dry eye in the place whenever he pulls out a slide show of Bear, one of his beloved dogs.
With our Mossberg SA-28s and Silver Reserves, we were ready and anxious to tromp through the fields. The aroma of coffee wafted through the crisp fall morning and the gravel crunched as small bus after bus began piling up the drive with the dog trailers securely locked in behind them. We piled on ready to embark.
Gazing out at the rolling hills and watching the scenery pass by as we cruised to our first hunting spot, I couldn’t help but wonder how many dogs, birds and hunters had spent years tromping through these hills. When someone begins upland bird hunting, the main focus initially is the bird. Then it morphs into enjoying the scenery, relishing in watching the dogs work and the journey.
The engine cut off, and the dogs began to bark. It was time.
After a short safety briefing, my comrades and I eagerly began our work, cutting down the pathways behind our trusty four-pawed friends. Tripp, Batman and Rocky were leading the charge, a blur of fur and tails bounding across the milo fields as we carefully picked our way down the prairie. Crunch, swish, crunch as stalks crunched beneath our boots. The warm South Dakota sun rose from behind beginning to illuminate the fields.
“She’s feeling birdy,” Jake Eckert, one of our guides, remarked off to my left, as Tripp began zeroing in and casting steely gazes down a patch of thick switchgrass. Gripping my SA-28 tighter, all of the sudden two birds took flight.
“ROOSTER,” shouted our other guide Hunter Louden.
Boom. Whack. Boom. Boom. An eruption of shells. Two birds fell from the sky roughly 15 yards in front. Hoots and hollers as Batman and Tripp sprinted through the milo fields retrieving the birds.
The lodge is a preserve operation, which means limits are seven birds per hunter. While hunting wild birds, the limit is three daily. In order to keep it the mecca, South Dakota strictly regulates how many birds must be released annually to maintain preserve status.
As the day wore on, we hunted milo fields, hillsides and hedgerows to flush any rogue birds that had escaped the milo fields or were simply smart and hopped the edges to avoid detection. There was a mix of flurry. On some drives, we’d flush a handful; on others an entire covey of six to seven roosters and hens leapt skyward.
We strategically placed a blocker at the end of the milo fields as we worked, armed with the 12-gauge Silver Reserve II to block any of the birds that may run out the end and into the other strips. What’s truly awe-inspiring is to walk behind the dogs and watch them work.
“ROOSTER,” shouted Eckert. Batman, who was working directly in front of me ping-ponged into the air, eyes skyward watching for his prized bounty.
Boom. Boom. Down the bird fell as the large-bodied black Lab sailed through the milo at break-neck speed. Trotting back gleefully to the guides with the bird in his mouth, Batman dropped the rooster and looked at us eager for more.
The lodge is equipped with flushing retrievers that have been trained by Tom Dokken in Northfield, Minn. While some clients choose to bring their own dogs, the lodge has an arsenal of well-trained pooches that are as friendly as they are talented. A unique aspect of the lodge dogs is that they don’t stay at the lodge year-round. They have a fostering program, in which families volunteer to house and take care of the dogs during the off-season.
These impressive canines spend nine months of their year as pets and the other three as hunting machines.
“If we have proven anything,” Ross once wrote in an article, “it is the old adage, you can’t have a great gun dog and pet at the same time, is completely false. They are, in fact, better when they can do both.”
The History of a Mecca
Despite major hits to agricultural farmland, the mecca lost 1.8 million acres of grassland from 2006 to 2012. While pheasant numbers are not what they once were, they had rebounded in 2018 and the outlook was looking good. Iconic for their lush prairies that foster ideal environments for these speed-demon winged beasts, the Dakotas have become a destination and dream for upland enthusiasts.
Common pheasants, also typically called ring-necked pheasants, are native to China and East Asia. First successfully introduced in 1908, thanks to careful planning and also lush farmlands, pheasant populations boomed throughout much of the central United States. Pheasant hunting isn’t just a hunt, it’s a way of life that has brought friends and families together for generations. It’s supported an economic structure and tourism for decades, it’s what Stuttgart, Ark., is to duck hunters or Pike County to whitetail fanatics.
As my hunting companions and I traveled to Scattergun Lodge, a 3,000-acre ranch situated in Pierre, for the 2018 hunting season, pheasant numbers were on the rise for South Dakota’s 100th hunting season. The bird population had been recorded to be up 47 percent; the pheasants per mile (PPM) index was 2.47 birds.
If you’re looking for an all-inclusive experience, are new to pheasant hunting or simply want a trip that has a nearly guaranteed high success rate, checking out private lodges and guides such as Scattergun Lodge is the way to go. Our accommodations were five star, the food was simply divine, and the guides and dogs were impeccable.
If the DIY route is more your style, South Dakota offers a myriad of hunting opportunities. With over 5 million acres of hunting opportunities on public land and also private land leasing for public hunting, visiting gfp.sd.gov can help clarify specific hunting areas. According the South Dakota DNR, the land is 80 percent privately owned, but don’t let that discourage you from traveling to the pheasant mecca.
Many landowners enroll their property in “Walk-In Areas.” These are privately owned lands that operate as working farms and ranches, but are leased for public access by South Dakoata Game, Fish and Parks. No further permission is needed to hunt these areas. Of course, there is no driving allowed on walk-in areas.
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs (CREP) are open year-round to public hunting and fishing access. These are lands that are owned by private landowners that have enrolled them and signed a lease with South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. It’s a state-sponsored program that provides additional undisturbed habitat for wildlife and public hunting access.
Bureau of Land Management lands are open to the public, and the majority of these are located in the 13 counties west of the Missouri River. The majority of the vegetation is prairie grass and juniper woodlands. There are also game-production areas that are managed for maintenance of all wildlife. There are approximately 730 game-production areas throughout the state of South Dakota, totaling more than 281,000 acres.
Pheasant hunts can be brutal on the body, fighting through matted-switchgrass and stepping carefully to avoid holes or twisted ankles—all while keeping a keen eye on the horizon for the dogs to signal and birds to flush. The scattergun you take afield can also make or break a hunt. Consider these easy-to-field options from Mossberg.
SA-28 All Purpose Field
This gun’s mere 6.5 pounds and 26-inch barrel made it a breeze to carry for hours afield. The 14.5-inch length of pull, four-plus-one capacity and 2 3/4-inch chamber make it a pheasant-slaying machine. While I typically use a 20-gauge when wingshooting, this 28-gauge has me considering a swap. It comes with five choke tubes and made Hail Mary shots in South Dakota. It’s worthy of consideration if you’re in the market for an affordable 28-gauge. $675
SA-20 Youth Bantam
This little 20-gauge comes in a hair lighter than the SA-28 at 6.25 pounds; you know what they say, ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain. Its compact dimensions and short length of pull at 12.5 inches make it worthy for small-statured shooters and children. We spent the day before heading afield on the sporting clays course, and this 24-inch-barreled, 3-inch-chambered 20-gauge proved itself repeatedly. $675
Silver Reserve II Field Combo
The 12-gauge Field Combo comes with 26-inch and 28-inch barrels, which have corrosion-resistant chrome-lined chambers, making it well suited for a variety of upland birds. Svelte ergonomics and light weight make it great to carry afield. $1,197