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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.