Tucked quietly into the Northeastern corner of South Dakota is Aberdeen, an unsuspecting city of some 26,000 that you may just miss if you’re not paying attention. What makes the small Northern Plains town famous, however, becomes obvious almost immediately upon arrival.
Whether you’ve got your radio tuned to the local country music station—Pheasant Country 103.7—or you’re driving past the Super 8 with a decorative blaze orange pickup truck and a sign welcoming hunters out front, you quickly realize the town has got one thing on the brain: pheasants.
But after a recent November trip to the pheasant mecca with Pheasants Forever, I also realized there are legitimate reasons for all that small-town quaintness and pheasant-driven frenzy. It has more to do with habitat and bird numbers than anything else, but there is certainly a town that’s hardwired for the rooster rush every fall.
With a combination of well-developed public lands and private outfitters with more birds than I’ve ever seen in my life, Aberdeen is within an hour of most of the great local hunting spots in the region. Whether you prefer the more manageable temperatures of early November or the bitter and blowing cold of December, South Dakota’s got your pheasant fix. I was there in late November after Thanksgiving and would have complained about the 20 degrees and 20 mile-an-hour winds had it not been for the hundreds of birds flushing before my eyes. Yes, it was worth it.
It's All About the Birds
First and foremost, what makes Aberdeen great is the phenomenal habitat, which in turn means a ridiculous number of wild birds. Because it's one of the last great bastions of habitat development—thanks in large part to groups like Pheasants Forever—that means pheasants have a place to thrive.
And thrive they do. Day one was spent hunting public land near Aberdeen, and in the first few hours that morning, a friend and I bagged three roosters. That’s a pretty sweet deal for a late-season, public land jaunt. With a trusty English setter named Blitz and a 12-gauge CZ Upland Ultralight, we trudged our way through hideously thick cattails, paying for every bird with the sweat of our brows. But again, it was well worth the effort.
Of course all land is not created equal, which was demonstrated visibly on day two. For the second go-round we made our way to Johannsen Farms Outfitting, about an hour’s drive from Aberdeen, where we met what could have been the promised land of pheasant hunting. On the first walk I saw at least 200 birds, all wild, which had me quite in awe.
Public or private, one thing is for sure—there’s no shortage of birds, which is about all you can ask of any pheasant hunting sweet spot. The only thing they can’t guarantee? That you’ll close your dropped jaw long enough to make a shot at one of the many flushing roosters on the horizon before you.
Guns, Birds and Steel
As with any genre of hunting, half the fun comes from playing with all the toys. Always enjoyable is the CZ Ringneck, a real side-by-side gem designed specifically for pheasant hunting. We had the great CZ Bobwhite with us, a quail/pheasant combo gun, as featured. I shot Federal Premium’s 12-gauge Prairie Storm in both copper/lead and steel loads. I was impressed by how much of a takedown load the Prairie Storm is, with 75 percent payload retention in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. Can you say TKO?
That means a majority of the birds we shot didn’t run away; they went down hard and heavy. The last thing you want to do in sub-freezing temperatures is to chase a bird that’s been wounded. Prairie Storm helps you avoid that predicament, as does a stellar bird dog.
Dress for Success
My only recommendation, should you choose the more wintery part of the season, is to dress for it. I quite happily chose lightweight duck gear—the Cabela's Dri-Band WindShear jacket and accompanying rain gear to protect against the blowing snow. I got a few funny looks the first morning I pulled out duck gear for an upland bird hunt, but by the end of the trip most others wished they'd had the same idea.
For the same reason, I left my uninsulated Danner Grouse boots at home, choosing instead the Danner Raptor GTX boots, which feature 400 grams of insulation. I've always preferred Danner boots for the simple reason that they're extremely well-crafted and made for serious abuse. My feet stay dry and warm and there's virtually no break-in time. That's hard to beat.
Built to Accomodate
As a hunter, more goes into a great hunt than just the birds. These are the secondary issues to be sure, but if the food and lodging aren’t comfortable, it just ain’t a place I’m going to return. One of the first things I noticed about Aberdeen was the sign at the Super 8 hotel that read: “Hunting Package… Free Bird Cleaning.” You had me at “free bird cleaning.”
I was a bit bummed when I found out that the elderly lady at the front desk wasn’t actually going to clean my birds (believe me, I tried), but there was a complimentary cleaning area no less. I was still a bit impressed.
And then there was SoDak Sports, a hunting outlet built in the shape of an igloo, where we picked up our licenses. Any time a giant igloo is involved in my hunting trip, I’m sold. It’s kind of like the world’s largest ball of yarn or the man-eating squirrel on the drive through Kansas—it gets me every time.
The City of Aberdeen, which played the welcoming co-host on the hunt, understands the role pheasant hunting plays in the local economy and is more than happy to welcome hunters with open arms. With something like 175,000 hunters shelling out about $250 million across the state each year, you better believe they take the business seriously.
Step Right Up, Walk Right In
One of the rare beauties of South Dakota, and the Aberdeen area in particular, is the availability of quality public land for hunting. Sure, just about every state has public land to hunt, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a spot where you’re not, well, hard-pressed by blaze orange on every side. You labor for a shot at a bird that may or may not come, which can be a more frustrating than rewarding experience.
Probably one of the happier moments of my hunt was pulling the trigger for the first shot of the trip, just moments into the first morning. Yes, watching that rooster drop stone dead—while completely shocking to me—was an incredible feeling. But maybe even better was the fact that I had the opportunity. Many times on public land hunts the mere occasion to shoot a bird never materializes.
All of this circles back to quality habitat, which is often erased by farming practices and general disregard for bird hunting. It’s understandable for the farmer. But groups like Pheasants Forever—as well as concerted efforts by many landowners—have worked to protect those precious habitat standards. That’s why there’s a plethora of quality public access hunting in South Dakota, making it a go-to destination.
How Now Shall We Eat?
One of the best parts of South Dakota for me was that they somehow dragged renowned wild game cook and author Hank Shaw along for the trip. Not only did we get to enjoy his company, we also learned a thing or two about how to dress and prepare a pheasant for the dinner table.
As he demonstrates in his book, Hunt, Gather, Cook, Shaw is an amazingly accomplished guide when it comes to turning your kill or catch into a gourmet meal. He was even brave enough to demonstrate proper plucking technique, barehanded in the sub-freezing temperatures of South Dakota. There's got to be some kind of medal for that.
The World is On Fire
One of the great challenges in any state is wise habitat management, which is where a group like Pheasants Forever comes in. Working to assist landowners in pheasant habitat, PF teaches best practices for growing bird numbers. This is one of the main reasons South Dakota has remained a world-class pheasant hunting destination, while states like Iowa have seen a sharp decline in numbers.
As you make the drive across the Great Plains, one thing you notice is the burning and removal of prime habitat as landowners clear the land. Sometimes it's to improve vegetation growth for the following year, but many times it means a complete removal of a habitat that won't likely return.
Working in Unison
As a hunter, when you have options like Johannsen Farms Outfitting, a wild bird ranch run by Eric Johannsen (left) near Tolstoy, S.D., it just makes life easy. With 5,000 acres of premium pheasant habitat on a fourth generation farm, I was dumbfounded by how many birds we saw in one day—probably more than I’ve seen in my entire life.
With a limit of three birds per day, it doesn’t take long to limit out—provided you can contain your excitement and knock down a few shots. On the other hand if you’re rusty, it's a great place to get plenty of practice.
Part of what makes Johannsen Farms Outfitting so special is that they utilize techniques like those championed by Pheasants Forever and their team of farm biologists. It’s simple: better habitat, better pheasant numbers, better hunting.
Take it to the Limit
Why is it so fun to hunt South Dakota? Because you actually have a legitimate shot at limiting out on birds (three a day). Like any place, a private outfitter is going to give you an edge, but that’s not to say it can’t be done on public land. We didn’t hit our limit the first day on public land, but then again there were a few birds that (cough, cough) managed to out maneuver our anti-aircraft artillery. Hard to blame habitat for that one.
By the final afternoon, I was completely satisfied and completely pooped. They tell me the dreams about pheasants soaring through the air will subside, but it hasn't happened yet. I don't seem to miss shots in my dreams, so I'm content with that for now.