Pheasants, Prairie Grouse And Puddle Ducks Provide Plenty Of Shooting On The South Dakota Prairie By jerry thoms
Rolling hills, endless draws and mile-long fields of grain sorghum will hold upland game birds, while waterfowl will be found on man-made dugouts and natural sloughs.
For gun dog owners interested in hunting a readily available combination of plentiful upland game birds and waterfowl all in one day and all at one location, there are several top destinations throughout the Upper Midwest. One of these places is in south-central South Dakota on the Dick Smith Ranch.
"Excellent South Dakota Pheasant Hunting: Also sharptail grouse and prairie chickens," Smith's ad reads.
"Yeah, we do have some waterfowl on our ranch, but hardly anyone bothers to shoot them because most hunters come here for pheasants and sometimes prairie grouse," Dick Smith said on the phone when asked about the prospect of shooting both ducks and upland game on his property.
Though ringneck roosters and prairie grouse (which include both sharptails and chickens) are what Smith features in his advertisement, the prospect of working gun dogs on puddle ducks sounded good to Curt Shreve and Chuck Wilson.
Fort Pierre National Grasslands in central South Dakota has 250,000 acres of ideal habitat for sharptailed grouse and prairie chickens, and the area is open to the public.
Shreve, a Large Munsterlander breeder from Prior Lake, Minnesota, and Wilson, a Llewellin setter owner from Waco, Texas, both had wanted more details about this combination hunt before signing on.
Located a few miles from the little cow town of Vivian (population 148) and in sight of the east-west running Interstate I-90, Smith's cattle ranch is made up of the usual West River (that's the "Missouri River") landscape.
"On our place, we have mostly big pastures up to five miles square with rolling, grass-covered hills and long brushy draws covered by buffalo berries, kosha weeds and prairie grass. Across the flatter land, there are half-mile narrow strips of waist-high forage sorghum for cattle feed and along the hills and down in the bottoms there are big man-made dugouts and even some good-size natural cattail sloughs filled with water this year," said Smith.
"You can stay at the motel in town five miles away or right here in the ranch house," Smith offered. "Either way, once you're on our property, you can hunt on your own or hunt with my family and friends.
"And, if you want to, you can try some hunting on no-fee public property such as Fort Pierre National Grasslands just to the north of our ranch. Or you can go to some hunt-for-free Walk-In Areas in our region of the state," Smith said.
Shreve and Wilson signed up with Smith and made the trip to South Dakota the last week in October. Here's how things went.
Typical South Dakota Hunt
Start with an at-dawn bacon-and-eggs breakfast in the ranch house with Dick Smith, who will draw a map that starts at the back door and guides hunters and their gun dogs across the hills to the north and west of the ranch yard.
Pheasants are the most popular game bird throughout South Dakota, with ringneck roosters usually easy to find in likely cover.
"Head for these hills to give some prairie chickens and sharptails a wake-up call," Smith said. "Expect to see pheasants in these places along the ridges, but remember, according to South Dakota hunting regulations you can't shoot roosters until noon throughout the month of October," Smith cautioned.
"When you're over the hills, head toward this 10-acre dugout," Smith directed his hunters. "Come up from the south and go over the berm with your guns loaded and your dogs ready because ducks usually will sit in the pond grass close to the shoreline. You'll probably flush some mallards, gadwalls, blue-winged teal or wigeons. Shoot some, then watch the rest as they fly off to another pond either here or here or here," Smith instructed the hunters.
"See you back at the ranch house when you get here," Smith concluded. "And incidentally, supper tonight will be garden salad, roast beef and mashed potatoes with homemade apple pie and ice cream for dessert."
A variety of waterfowl, including mallards, gadwalls, blue-winged teal and wigeon, can be found on man-made dugouts and natural cattail sloughs in this part of South Dakota.
Driven Pheasants, South Dakota Style
"I've heard of party hunts for pheasants, but this is the first time I've ever seen one," said Chuck Wilson after walking with a dozen other shotgunners and a variety of dog breeds across a quarter-mile-wide, half-mile-long span of property made up of a patch of standing sorghum, an uncut hay field and a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) stretch of prairie grass.
"Probably 150 birds were pushed out of the cover by the walkers who shot at the roosters in range, while out-of-range pheasants flew down the field and up to the hunters standing as blockers," Wilson commented. "This is like a combination of English rough shooting behind dogs that work in front of walkers and driven pheasants where beaters scare up birds that fly over hunters waiting at the end of the field.
"It was a little scary at times, but certainly very effective in putting a lot of pheasants in the air and producing plenty of shooting opportunities," Wilson added.
Hunting Public Land
For any gun dog owner with a desire to walk really big country for ringneck pheasants and prairie grouse, there is Fort Pierre National Grasslands a few miles north of the town of Vivian. This 250,000-acre tract of public property, open to anyone with a South Dakota upland game bird and waterfowl license, requires "foot travel only" from parking lots along gravel roads that border
The Grasslands are heavily hunted for prairie grouse from the opener in the third week of September up to the opening of pheasant season on the third weekend in October. By the beginning of pheasant season, however, the pressure is reduced because hunters are more concerned about chasing roosters in other places.
A Llewellin setter from Texas hunted prairie chickens for the first time in South Dakota in late October on the Smith Ranch€¦while a visiting golden retriever from Alaska flushed and retrieved ringneck roosters.
Walk-In Areas are another opportunity for a mixed bag. Most Walk-Ins are multi-hundred, even multi-thousand acres of private land leased to the state for hunting. Access is free for any license holder. A free copy of Guide To South Dakota Walk-In Areas is available from any licensing agent.
Any Gun Dog Breed Will Do
"We certainly welcome any gun dog owners to bring whatever breed they have to hunt pheasants and grouse and to retrieve," Dick Smith said. He also recommends getting your dog prepared for long walks and fluctuating weather. Early in the season, October temperatures can range from below 30 degrees in the morning to highs over the 70s in the afternoon.
"We don't have many rattlesnakes on our ranch, probably because we don't have many prairie dogs," Smith said, "but we do have a few, so that is one hazard to always keep in mind when running a gun dog out here."
Experienced hunters in these parts of South Dakota, however, do recommend having an e-collar on any dog as a way to guard against dangerous curiosity about a coiled rattler. In addition, all dog owners should carry needle-nose pliers for pulling cactus spines or porcupine quills if encountered.
E-collars with remotely activated beepers are also recommended for keeping track of gun dogs when they disappear in heavy cover.
Degree Of Difficulty
"How hard is it to hunt on your place?" is a question some people ask Dick Smith before coming to his ranch.
|IF YOU GO|
|Though gun dogs and their owners can find a good combination of game birds on Dick Smith's ranch and in this region of South Dakota, there are many other places similar to Smith's in the Upper Midwest.|
The Dakota Outdoors Hunting Directory (free with a $10 per year subscription to the monthly Dakota Outdoors Magazine, 800-658-3063) gives a list and description of most all the commercial upland game bird and waterfowl operations in South Dakota and North Dakota. More than 400 guides, outfitters and lodges in both Dakotas are included, many with combination hunts for a variety of game bird species.
Black's Wing and Clay and Waterfowl (800-766-0039) is another publication that provides information on combination hunts for upland game birds and waterfowl all across the country. Phone numbers and websites for state game departments are included along with instructions on how to apply for licenses.
Most guides, outfitters, and lodges offering combination hunts for upland game birds and waterfowl are willing to have clients bring their own gun dogs. But be sure to ask about this policy. And be sure to have your pooch well trained and in good condition for what could be the hunt of a lifetime.
To speak to Dick Smith in person about hunting this region of South Dakota, call 605-683-4836 or 888-225-4326.
"Depends on what you want to do and how you want to do it," Smith said. For hunters with their own dogs, the possibilities include riding with Smith in his pickup or following him in their own vehicles to areas on the ranch where pheasants and prairie grouse can be found close to the draws and ravines or in the sorghum patches on the place.
"We can drive right up to most spots where hunters and their dogs can get out and walk only a mile or so to find birds and get some action. Early in the season, the birds are scattered all over and as a result this kind of hunt can take up a whole afternoon," Smith said.
Another choice, for those who like to walk and have dogs in good shape, is to just go out the back door of the ranch house and head off toward any cover that looks like it would hold game.
Duck hunts also can be done either way, with dogs and hunters sneaking up on dugouts and cattail sloughs to jump shoot mallards, gadwalls, green-winged teal or wigeon that sit in or close to the cover that lines these bodies of water.