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State Spotlight: South Dakota

Not only the pheasant capital of the world, this state offers bird hunters a mixed bag opportunity.

State Spotlight: South Dakota

(Author photos)

The matched pair of gaudy birds rose — BOOM BOOM — and fell as one back into the cattails they’d rattled from a fleeting moment before. As my dog searched for each, I savored the moment. That island of calm was solace on a roiling sea of tall grass battered by gale-force wind. The place, the birds, even the gentle drift of cattail fluff were a microcosm of all the lessons I’ve learned the hard way in 25 years of hunting South Dakota. But you don’t have to.

That’s the first lesson: conditions rarely resemble the stirring accounts in magazines and television shows. Blue sky, staunch dogs, deadly shooting skills and easy walking seldom combine on a visit to the Mt. Rushmore State. There’s usually one or more factors working against you, from weather to crowded fields, to pre-season bird counts cloaked in secrecy, to arcane licensing schemes. And yet, South Dakota is still the best state to visit if you want a decent bird hunting experience, particularly if your quarry is pheasants. Your charge is to overcome the annoying inconveniences and persevere. It’ll be worth it.

I’ve walked the ground where the first successful introduction of ringnecks took place near Redfield, SD. It’s not special, by any means, but for being Ground Zero in a phenomenon that unleashed a tidal wave of nationwide interest in the vividly-colored, challenging quarry. (I missed on the only shot I took.)

And while Phasianus colchicus is the towering tip of a hulking iceberg, there is a lot more lurking beneath the surface. Pull out your map, follow along, and let’s visit this intriguing state — and state of mind — from left to right.

Black Hills

Unsung and hard to find, there are a few ruffed grouse in this miniature mountain range. They don’t get much attention from hunters due to their scarcity, but if you’re doing the whole Mt. Rushmore-tourist-roadside attraction thing, why not brighten your visit with a day tromping the woods? The usual habitats from timber cuts to the few aspen stands in the region are worth exploring; infinitely better than futilely pounding buttons on another video poker game in Deadwood.

Going north from the Hills, the Northwest corner may as well be in North Dakota, except it holds little promise for prairie birds. Rolling hills, forested tracts and some public lands are available but ruffed grouse numbers are sparse. Save your time and precious gas money for an eastward drive. Here’s where Hun numbers are strongest, though the diminutive birds should always be considered a bonus. One productive area is the Grand River National Grassland near Lemmon, in northwest South Dakota.

West River

The prairies west of the Missouri River are dominated by cattle, Indian reservations and billboards for Wall Drug. As you approach the river, prospects improve. Along the river and north of Pierre lies massive Lake Oahe. Squeeze between the Cheyenne Indian Reservation and the river to find slices of Corps of Engineers land that look much like the bulk of this prairie-rich state. Breaks roll down to the river, craggy draws bisect the river’s course, and where there’s grass there’s pheasants and sharptails. Access is limited, but worth the effort. While you’re up there, another sharptail hotspot is Perkins County in the northwestern part of the state.

South of Pierre, the real fun begins. Ft. Pierre National Grasslands is a vast sea of grass laced with gullies, ponds, and checkered by private ground. Water sources support myriad wildlife, including pheasants, sharptails and prairie chickens. Bisected by state highway 83, take potluck on the entry points, exploring likely spots for each bird species. My hunting stories from the Grasslands are sharptail-heavy with a sprinkling of chickens. I’ve never seen a Hungarian Partridge. The sharptails called in sick one day, but my old wirehair still froze in ankle-deep water, nose drilling into the cattails along a pond edge. The one and only pheasant I’ve ever seen on the Grassland towered skyward … until my buddy’s shotgun aborted the flight.

On another hunt, my loyal horse did the flushing on a small bunch of birds (kids, don’t try that at home or anywhere else). Only when I found it before the setter could, did I find a prairie chicken resting on the grass, wings outstretched, gently placed as if by a taxidermist.

East of Hwy. 83 along Interstate 90 you’ll find pheasant hotbeds such as Presho and Vivian; going farther south are perennial contenders including Winner and Gregory. All have a wealth of public-access ground. Sharpies and chickens are less common in this intensively-farmed region, but the bright side is, anywhere agriculture butts up against public ground, you may find well-fed ringnecks.

East River

Cross the Mighty Mo and you’re in the heart of pheasant country. The closer to the river you are, the better your shot at sharptails, which dwindle as you move deeper into ringneck territory and more ag-oriented land. Follow state highway 281 both north and south, and the number of publicly-accessible acres jumps dramatically. Charming small towns you’ve read about in the magazines welcome visiting hunters: Chamberlain, Wolsey, Huron (world’s largest pheasant statue), and Mitchell (world’s only Corn Palace) among them. Corn and soybeans predominate, but grassy prairie, CRP and a few watercourses harbor pheasants. The fact is, you can concentrate on the southeast corner of the state and bump into long-tailed birds just about anywhere.

Want a bucket-list hunt? Find ground along the James River. Outfitters and biologists will tell you pheasants don’t need water, but, two boisterous Labs pushed a ringneck out of a buffalo wallow and over that murky stream, cackling a taunt as it beat wings for the next county. It fell at the crack of a gun, landing halfway across and pursued by both dogs who shared the retrieve. I’ve pushed a dozen birds out of riverside tangles and fields nearby. Maybe you can too.

Don’t neglect the northeastern sector, what’s really a tag-end of Minnesota’s lake-y ground near Watertown and Aberdeen. You’ll find more cattails, pocket-sized ponds and plenty of public access, albeit in smaller pieces and more scattered. There will be more trees, smaller patches of grass or CRP, and fewer hunters.

If you’re playing a numbers game, Huron, Aberdeen, Mitchell and Brookings harbor the largest concentrations of public-access ground. For sharptails, Marshall, Day and Grant counties in the northeastern part of the state should be on your radar.

Prime Habitats

Throw a rock in any direction in South Dakota and you could hit a gamebird. Throw it into the right spot, and your chances grow exponentially. In a state as massive as this, you need to narrow down your choices. Finding amenable habitat is the key.

For pheasants, some type of agriculture is the golden ticket. Access to a rich food source such as corn or soybeans is a no-brainer. There is ample walk-in ground adjacent to off-limit crops that also offer bird-friendly attributes from tall grass to winter cover.


Cattails in watered country are also prime, serving as cover, shade, bugs for chicks, and offering what little water pheasants may occasionally need. Shelterbelts too, offer shade early in the season and a buffer from wind and snow later. (I will never forget the adrenaline rush of a covey of sharptails thundering from a tree row!) Folds in the landscape will accumulate moisture and brush at their bottom, valuable protection from predators.

Sharptails are pure prairie birds. Just remember that “prairie” encompasses a number of characteristics, from downright flat grasslands with stalks long enough to bend in the wind, to the buffalo berry stands that appear on slopes and in gullies at random like children’s building blocks. These elusive birds hang on the tops of the gentle hills all season long, so lace your boots tight and make the climb. Early in the season, shade is a sharptail’s best friend, so seek out isolated stands of trees or brush, low-lying snowberry patches, even gully walls. Late season, birds aggregate in larger family groups and it’s hard to put a sneak on them – too many eyes watching for danger. A stand of alfalfa, even a few straggly clumps abandoned years before, will feed grasshoppers—which are sharptails’ favorite delicacy. In rough weather, sharpies will hunker on tree limbs, so if you’re stuck out in a gale, try them on your way back to the nice, warm truck.

Huns, too, love the grassy prairies, the vaster, the better. One distinguishing factor is the height of that grass: shorter than the stuff that holds sharpies and chickens. They can be found in or near agricultural areas, especially where there are shelterbelts and woodlots or old buildings and machinery. Huns are considered a bonus bird for most hunters, who drive all the way to South Dakota for the gaudier, larger, noisier ringnecks. Their numbers are dwarfed by pheasant and sharptail populations, even in their home territory.

Most of the prairie chickens I’ve shot were mistaken for sharptails (I’m color blind). They may not flock together, but they share similar habitat. If that’s a bucket-list bird for you, try the Ft. Pierre National Grasslands, practice distinguishing them from similarly-sized sharpies, and good luck.


If your primary goal is bagging pheasants and you’re solo or in a small group, bring a flushing dog. Keep him close, and cherry-pick the good habitat as you meander through an area. Got a lot of friends? There’s a reason so many outfitters assemble a mob scene of hunters, some marching, some standing – it works. Birds will skulk ahead of hunters rather than fly, thus the need for a boisterous Lab or spaniel. But even a couple guys can employ the traditional block-and-drive strategy, simply leapfrogging ahead a few dozen yards every so often in a big field. If you can encircle a patch of cattails or thicker brush and block escape routes, safety first and send in the dogs.


The same block-drive tactic works on shelterbelts too. One hunter on each side can squeeze birds to the end, where they’ll be more likely to flush for a hunter lying in ambush. And by the way, blockers should move a bit, even making a little noise. They’ll cover more escape routes, and could encourage birds to stop and stand long enough for the drivers to catch up and get shots along with the standers.

Like the blind hog finding the occasional acorn, even a lone pointer guy can get lucky. Like that fidgety kid in the back of the class, pheasants seem to have a wanderlust, and can be found foraging or basking in the sun in the grass near thicker cover. If it’s thick enough, they’ll stand still for a pointing dog. So don’t neglect the more open ground, especially if you or someone you know pushed birds out of that hellscape of cattails.

Sharptails are wary, constantly scouting their surroundings for sign of predators. They will often rest on the tops of hills, on the leeward side if the wind is strong. A pincer movement with hunters approaching the top from several points of the compass helps ensure someone gets a shot. In hot weather, seek out shade as described earlier. Crop fields are especially attractive. The first criterion in finding birds is to put one foot in front of the other. Chickens are as likely as sharpies when a bunch get up. Both will often hold for a pointing dog, and big-running dogs are a real advantage on a hunt that could cover ten miles in a day. The later in the season you get, the less likely it is that birds will politely wait for you to huff and puff up the hill. Close-working flushers limit the amount of productive ground you’ll cover, but if something flies, at least it’ll be in gun range.

A few hints that may put an extra bird in your bag: Sharpies have borrowed a leaf from the pheasant book: they will move just far enough to avoid hunters and dogs, then filter right back into their hidey-holes. If a patch of cover looks good, consider going back through it again. That chuckle you hear is grouse watching your north end as you trudge south. Some will ambush prairie chickens by hunkering in roadside ditches as the birds trade, sometimes miles, from feeding to roosting cover. If you’re a waterfowler, maybe you can tolerate the sitting still. Huns behave much like sharpies, often cooperating better for a pointer. Until they don’t.

Good to Know

Residents get a few days of pheasant season to themselves, the blaze orange tide of visitors piling in for the general opener on the third Saturday of October. Mid-September is usually the opener for sharptails and chickens. The daily limit for ringnecks, or a combination of grouse, is three. You can bag five Huns per day. Possession limits are 15 for all birds, including a mixed bag of grouse. Non-residents buy licenses in two, five-day blocks for about $120. The good news is you don’t have to wait until noon anymore the first week of the season. Start hunting at 10 a.m. Central Time (be careful crossing the Missouri River—some parts of the west side are in the Mountain Time zone) after a hearty farmhouse breakfast.


The state’s walk-in program, combined with public lands, is a true gift. From waterfowl production areas to national grasslands, there is more free ground than a hunter could cover in several lifetimes … if his dogs don’t give out first. A welcoming attitude pervades most communities, and many visitors’ bureaus will have lists of landowners who may provide even more access.

A few words about the South Dakota zeitgeist: thousands of hunters invade South Dakota in pursuit of pheasants, scattering millions of dollars in taverns, motels, restaurants and gas stations (okay, mainly in the taverns). In turn, local communities roll out the red carpet. You will be welcome, but please be a good guest. South Dakotans speak our language, they’re helpful and generous. They sincerely want you to succeed. No matter where you’re from, that will be a breath of fresh, corn-scented air. And where else will you find the world’s largest pheasant statue, the only Corn Palace, and Mt. Rushmore?

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