Pheasant Hunting Forecast 2022: South Dakota
South Dakota habitat rebounds, setting the stage for a good hunt this fall
By Andrew Johnson
Widespread drought was the headline item leading up to South Dakota’s 2021 pheasant hunting season. But in spite of the abnormally dry and poor habitat conditions found statewide, hunters still bagged just over 1 million birds in 2021.
“The drought conditions we experienced last year during the nesting and brood-rearing seasons probably hampered pheasant production somewhat,” says Alex Solem, an upland biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. “But overall, hunting was on par with what it has been in the past. Our long-term average is about 8 pheasants harvested per hunter, and last year we saw 7.85 birds harvested per hunter.”
WINTER, NESTING AND BROODING CONDITIONS
“South Dakota experienced another relatively mild winter last year,” Solem continues. “Areas in the primary pheasant range were below their average cumulative snowfall totals, which certainly helps overwinter survival for pheasants.”
Coming off a drought year, vegetation was stunted as spring arrived. But favorable weather arrived just in time for peak nesting season.
“In late May and early June, much of the primary pheasant range experienced timely rains followed by normal temperatures,” Solem reports. “This provided some drought relief and caused a positive response in available nesting and brood-rearing cover in most areas.”
Solem did point out, however, that portions of southeastern and west-central South Dakota continued to experience drought conditions throughout the spring, which could have hampered bird production in those areas.
“Outside of these little patches of drought, overall nesting conditions were good after a light winter, and we had enough rain throughout the year where we had great bug production,” says Matt Morlock, Pheasants Forever’s acting director in South Dakota. “We’re hearing reports of some big, nice broods that are looking really healthy, and I’ve been seeing a few as I’ve been traveling around the state, too. I’m excited. I am expecting a really good year this year.”
Darwin Weeldreyer, a landowner and habitat manger in Beadle County, reports similar brood sightings south of Huron in the James River Valley.
“Nesting habitat was good in our area, and the weather really cooperated,” says Weeldreyer, who is able to drive backroads most every weekend going to and from the property he owns. “Most of the broods I'm seeing are carrying a high number of chicks. I believe the first-nest success rate was high, which equates to larger brood numbers.”
FALL HABITAT OUTLOOK
“Heading into fall it’s the polar opposite of last year,” Morlock contends. “Most of the state is looking phenomenal for habitat, so hunters should know ahead of time that it’s going to look a lot different than it did a year ago.”
Morlock believes more habitat can actually make for a more challenging hunt, though, as the birds will be spread out and harder to corral.
“Remember, if you’re hunting big areas to focus on the edges of wetlands or where two habitat types meet,” Morlock says. “You don’t have to hunt the whole piece. Hunt the transitions where one cover type meets another.”
While overall the state’s habitat looks better than a year ago, dry conditions will once again play a role in how this fall’s hunt plays out.
“There are still areas within the pheasant range that are in some sort of drought status, and hunters need to be mindful of that and how it could influence the cover in those areas,” Solem says. “The Farm Service Agency did open emergency haying and grazing on CRP acres in most areas of the primary pheasant range in August, and hunters can expect some of those practices to occur on areas they may have hunted in the past.”
As far as haying goes, Morlock says I-90 seems to be somewhat of an unofficial boundary in the eastern half of the state, as there is noticeably more haying occurring south of the interstate than north. So, much like last year, scouting will be more important than ever to find areas of quality habitat that will hold birds.
“There is definitely some haying and grazing going on. It’s not at the same level as last year, though, and the further north you go, the less of it you see,” he says. “if possible, it would be good to put your eyes on what you plan to hunt just to make sure it still has plenty of cover.” Or: be prepared to put in some drive time working around your hunt area to locate good habitat.
Checking the U.S. Drought Monitor’s map of South Dakota from September 1 illustrates where drought is still lingering in some areas of the state. It bears repeating that the shaded areas, which are more prevalent in the southern half of the state, likely have CRP acres that have been mowed or hayed this year. This will not only impact CRP on private ground, but it also includes CRP acres found on publicly accessible Walk-In Areas and CREP lands.
East — Brookings and Moody Counties
Brookings and Moody counties are often overlooked, but Senior Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist Cody Rolfes says the area can be a sneaky good option for hunters willing to work for their birds.
“I have been hearing really good reports from around the area of people seeing broods, and I have seen quite a few myself,” Rolfes reports. “The cover going into fall is looking really good. Last year we had a ton of haying on CRP acres, but that hasn’t been the case this year.”
Rolfes points hunters toward the area’s numerous Waterfowl Production Areas that are well managed and often clumped up within a few miles of each other. Mixed in with some state Game Production Areas, he believes the area can provide good hunting if given the chance.
“Like I said, I know this isn't a go-to area for traveling hunters to pursue pheasants in the state, but there are still plenty of birds to be had,” he says. “Hunters shouldn’t be afraid to stop at a spot around here as they head west.”
Southeast — Clay, Hutchinson, Lincoln, Turner and Union Counties
As mentioned, the southeastern part of the state is currently experiencing varying stages of drought. Due to the dry conditions, a greater proportion of the region’s CRP acres have been hayed or grazed, and some grain fields have already been chopped for silage, reports Senior Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist Nick Goehring.
“As the fall goes on, I’d suspect the hunting to get better as birds congregate and they start to focus on wintering grounds,” Goehring adds.
However, don’t be discouraged if areas you planned to hunt were mowed this summer. Instead, Solem believes hunters should look at it as a glass half-full scenario.
“The haying in areas could congregate birds more in the cover that is left and create an edge that hunters can use to their advantage,” he advises.
Northeast — Glacial Lakes Region
The northeastern part of the state has seen substantial precipitation this year, which has refilled prairie potholes and sloughs. To that end, Morlock says hunters should pack the muck boots in case they traipse through soggy wetland edges or cattails before things freeze over.
It would be well worth the work, however, as preliminary bird reports indicate the northeast had a good hatch.
“Some friends of mine up in that area who pay attention are saying they’ve seen plenty of broods,” Morlock says. “They’re telling me birds are up anywhere from 25 to 40 percent on their land.”
East-Central — Beadle, Jerauld and Sanborn Counties
“Early season moisture along with some timely rain and showers in July has the native grasses looking really good,” says Weeldreyer. “The drier conditions in August and the early part of September have stressed food plots, but again, the early moisture allowed the food plots to put food out there for the wildlife.”
Weeldreyer says there is some emergency haying and grazing occurring in the area, which is something public-land hunters should keep in mind if they plan to visit the numerous CREP areas that dot the landscape of the James River watershed.
“Do some scouting to avoid areas that have been hayed or grazed,” he advises. “The habitat that is out there is going to provide good cover for the pheasants. With the recent drier conditions, some of the corn and sorghum has already been chopped, but if you look for that birdy cover, there is a good chance you will find birds.”
North-Central — Campbell, Edmunds, McPherson and Walworth Counties
Senior Farm Bill Biologist Tom Zinter says hunters should expect better habitat conditions and bird numbers this fall compared to last year.
“We were blessed with a great amount of spring moisture this year, which lead to the best nesting conditions that I can remember,” Zinter explains.
Based on what he’s seen and heard, Zinter believes the north-central region has experienced an above-average hatch this year.
“I have seen good brood sizes, and various chick sizes tell me there was success from initial nesters as well as re-nesters,” he says. “I heard reports of flushing broods coming out of all the new CRP plantings when they had their weed control clippings done this year.”
“All signs point to a great year of hunting here this year,” he continues. “Habitat still looks great going into the fall, especially compared to where things were at this time last year. There has been some haying and grazing on CRP, but nothing more than the typical managed haying and grazing that happens on an annual basis in order to keep those grass stands healthy. As it has been the past few years, there will still be pockets that have a lot more birds than others. With some pre-hunt preparation and planning it should be fruitful to get out and walk through some grasslands and food plots around the area this fall.”
Central/South-Central — Jones, Stanley, Haakon and Jackson Counties
In this region, Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist II Derek Hartl expects to see better pheasant numbers this fall and winter, based on habitat conditions and the number of broods he’s seen so far.
“While out visiting with landowners the past few weeks, I have seen a lot of pheasants in the road ditches — groups of 8 to 20 pheasants in one area, so there should be some good opportunities this fall,” he believes. “I am also seeing two different chick body sizes. Some pheasant chicks are almost fully grown, while others are still fairly small in body size. So come this fall there is a possibility that you might run into a few young birds while out hunting.”
New CREP Program
A new CREP program in the Big Sioux River watershed in the eastern third of the state is coming this fall, and the plan is to enroll up to 25,000 acres — all of which will be open to public hunting. The Big Sioux drains the Coteau des Prairies, a 200-mile-long anvil-shaped plateau in the eastern part of the state.
“The Big Sioux CREP program has hopes of offering contracts this fall,” Solem says. “However, there are a few steps left to fully implement this program. Whenever parcels are officially enrolled in the program, they will be available for public hunting opportunities. Unfortunately, these areas won’t be in GFP’s printed atlas, which was printed prior to their enrollment.”
However, hunters should note that when the program goes live, any new CREP areas will be added to the state’s online hunting atlas, which can be found using this link.
The online hunting atlas is also available through the state’s free GoOutdoorsSD app, which can be downloaded for free from the App Store and Google Play.
Morning Drive Time
Here’s another good insider tip: Grab a cup of coffee and bag of donuts, and use those daylight hours before 10:00 a.m. to drive around, looking for birds and habitat to hunt at opening bell … and later in the day too.
IF YOU GO
South Dakota’s general pheasant season is open Oct. 15 to January 31, 2023. Shooting hours are from 10 a.m. to sunset, and Central Time is used for opening shooting hours statewide. The daily limit is 3 rooster pheasants, with a possession limit of 15. The resident-only hunt (public lands only) runs October 8 – 10. September 24 to October 2 is the youth season (open statewide on private and public land, see regulations for rules regarding hunting public road rights-of-way during this season). Click here for details.