"The Real Thing" can still be found.
Though a native Kentuckian, I lived in South Dakota for two stints totaling 12 years in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2000 I have returned each year to hunt pheasants on a variety of public lands, private lands, preserves and lodge properties, and to report the results in sporting magazines. (It was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it.) I've hunted from Murdo to Milbank, from Aberdeen to Alexandria.
It's all good.
These days, the thing that strikes me most about South Dakota pheasant hunting is how much it has changed over the last 25 years. One difference is unambiguously good for hunters: today there seem to be more wild pheasants in South Dakota than at any time I can remember. (That should be doubly true in 2009, thanks to a mild winter last year.)
However, other differences are more ambiguous. To summarize them, South Dakota pheasant hunting has become first and foremost an industry. The days when you could knock politely on a farmer's door and gain free access are mostly gone. In prime pheasant range, outfitters have made lease agreements on many of the farms with good habitat.
Moreover, some outfitters in South Dakota release a mind-boggling number of pen-raised pheasants onto their leases every year. I have heard South Dakotans release more pen-raised pheasants than the residents of any other state. I can't find statistical support for that claim, but my experience lends it plausibility.
On one memorable outing, I accompanied and photographed a party of 13 hunters, four dogs and two guides through miles of beautiful and variegated upland cover. They bagged a limit of 39 cock pheasants without flushing a single hen. Sound suspicious? I inspected the bag afterwards when no one was looking, and every bird had telltale flared nostrils, widened by blinders during adolescence. One chap said, without realizing how much he said, "Man, the bird numbers here are unbelievable!"
My chief purpose in this article, however, is not to criticize South Dakota pheasant hunting, but to recommend it. Because of my sincere love for the place, its people and its pheasants, I think it would be a great tragedy if South Dakotans allowed their pheasant hunting tradition to become little more than a commercialized trafficking in put-and-take.
So a question arises. Must we stick to public lands and cheap motels for a genuine South Dakota pheasant hunt? There's nothing wrong -- actually, a lot that's right -- with that kind of experience, but happily the answer is "No." Thus far, we can still scratch our itch for lodge-proffered luxury while enjoying the Real Thing. Here are four lodges where you can do exactly that.
E Circle E Hunting Lodge
This operation, run by father-and-son team Robert and Brian Emmick, achieves the kind of Swiss-clock organization and predictable quality to which many operators only aspire.
Whereas many South Dakota lodges put much of their budget into birds, the Emmicks put loads of money and toil into habitat. Their lovely 350-acre "Hill Farm" tract offers wild-bird-only hunting during the regular season.
The rest of their 4,000-plus acres of hunting land lie in the pancake-flat Missouri River floodplain, where the Emmicks have woven a quilt of food plots, shelterbelts and grassland. There they hunt a mix of wild and liberated birds from September through March. The Emmicks do buy a lot of birds, releasing 8,000 in a typical year; about 1,000 of those are hens released in April.
Hunting is good at E Circle E throughout the season. My own favorite time to hunt there is toward the end of the preserve season in March, when South Dakota gives you a second October on the back side of winter's brutality. At that time, no birds have been released since November, and the lodge is mostly empty. On one trip I shot 12 birds in four days of hunting, and they were all wild. I had to work hard and shoot straight for every one of them, but I had the place to myself. The food was great, and the lodge extremely quiet.
Price: $2,650 to $3,650 for 3 days/4 nights, depending on party size. (Larger parties get a discount.)
Ideal for: Large parties or corporate groups including newcomers to hunting. This is a very hospitable lodge for inexperienced hunters.
Cheyenne Ridge Signature Lodge
Cheyenne Ridge Signature Lodge sits atop a commanding ridge above the mighty Missouri River. The view from the lodge's back patio is breathtaking, and I enjoyed pre-breakfast walks down through rugged breaks every morning of my trip. It was November, and thousands of snow geese were rafting on the vast blue waters of Lake Oahe, a huge and walleye-rich impoundment.
So many interesting outdoor opportunities exist within arm's reach of Cheyenne Ridge, it's hard to keep your mind focused on pheasant hunting. If I could do my trip over again -- and I hope to, eventually -- I would go in October when the walleye fishing is still good. I would rely on the lodge to hook me up with a local walleye guide in the mornings, and I'd hunt pheasants in the afternoons.
Or maybe I'd hunt geese in the mornings. Or prairie grouse. No, wait; maybe I'd bowhunt for mule deer in the breaks west of the river. Oh, jeez, let's just go pheasant hunting!
Cheyenne Ridge offers two totally different worlds for the pheasant hunter. One world, which is by far the more popular with clients, involves abundant but primarily liberated birds on gently sloping agricultural plateaus. The other world falls steeply into coulees and canyons full of chokecherry and yucca, where the pheasants are plentiful and wilder than any I've seen in many a day. I hunted both worlds during my stay, and I must say I prefer the latter. But too much of that world will kill you and your dogs, especially if the weather is warm. It was good to have the gentler world as a backup.
Without exception, Signature Lodge is the most fully equipped lodge I've ever visited.
From the spacious gun cleaning room to the well stocked wine racks, the folks at Cheyenne Ridge do everything in high style.
Price: $3,995 to $4,495 for 3 day/4 night packages, depending on party size. (Lower price for larger parties.)
Ideal for: The sporting man or woman with considerable means, who demands the most deluxe and scenic pheasant hunting experience South Dakota has to offer.
Jeff Bird is an Oregonian with South Dakota connections, and he runs an international wingshooting business that offers everything from Baja brant to Swedish capercaille. He is especially passionate about wild pheasants, and he has committed his ToriLil Farm operation to the exclusive hunting of wild pheasants under general statewide regulations.
That means a season running generally from late October to New Year's Eve, with a three-bird daily limit.
In order to make such a commitment, Bird is absolutely fanatical about habitat. His ToriLil operation was the subject of a conservation article I wrote years ago in another magazine, so the fellow knows about good land and the wild things that live on it. He has been working on a new lodge at the ToriLil property, but it will not be finished for the 2009 season. Meanwhile, Bird's hunters stay in local hotels and eat at local restaurants.
While hunting at ToriLil, don't be surprised if sharptails or prairie chickens or Huns get in the way of a pheasant hunt. Don't you just hate it when that happens?
Price: $350 to $500 per day depending on group size. (Lower rate for groups larger than three.) Does not include lodging, meals or tips, which could total up to another $250 per day. Folks, that's an awfully good deal for the Real Thing.
Ideal for: The wild bird purist with a good pair of legs, to whom dog work is more important than the placement of salad forks and champagne glasses.
Grand Ciel Lodge
There are precious few places that I have loved enough to contemplate burying one of my dogs there, and one of those is a gentle rise north of Brad and Julie Boisen's Grand Ciel Lodge. It is a place where Rascal and I have spent some of the most healing moments of my life, and I would happily leave him there to wait for the last and greatest one.
I have saved the best for last, but "best" is admittedly a highly personal and subjective word. Honestly, Grand Ciel Lodge is not for everyone. Brad Boisen does not have a "pro shop" where you can buy gear and apparel, or a heated barracks for visiting gun dogs.
What he has is a cozy, 12-bed lodge with Old World interior style. And he has phenomenally authentic hunting for real pheasants on real farms worked by real people.
In the field, Brad carries a shotgun and he uses it. Brad does not function like a typical hunting guide. He's more like a hunting partner with a strong leadership personality. He passionately loves to hunt and likes to share the places where he hunts. If that style bothers you, go somewhere else. Personally, I like it.
You will likely spend the evenings at the Boisens' excellent restaurant in Plankinton, enjoying a deliciously eclectic menu while chatting with farmers and townspeople about life, politics, the world and other subjects. Last year I enjoyed a thoroughly intriguing conversation with an innovative local farmer who, as it turned out, has a master's degree from Purdue.
In all my lodge experiences, nowhere have I felt more like one of the locals than at Grand Ciel. Indeed, one of my chief complaints about some South Dakota outfitters is that they insulate their customers too much from the real rhythms of South Dakota life. To be fair, that is what most customers want.
Price: $2,500 for 3 days/4 nights. For years I've been telling Brad that he isn't charging enough, so if the price goes up, it's my fault.
Ideal for: Small groups of experienced hunters in decent physical shape, who can swing a gun well and converse with farmers over drinks.
All of the above lodges allow you to bring your own dogs, as long as they are well trained. No hunting operation wants unruly dogs running roughshod over a hunt. In most cases, you will be required to bring evidence of current vaccinations. Accommodations for your dog will vary. Some allow you to keep a dog in his crate in your room or in your vehicle; others require the dog be housed in the lodge's kennel building.