Pheasant Hunting in the Land of Infinite Variety

25d6f003-c776-4b52-8b5d-34a891ddf3f1 Photo by Logan Hinners / Pheasants Forever

By Andrew Johnson

Everybody knows South Dakota is the Pheasant Capital of the World. 2018 marks the state's 100th pheasant hunting season. More roosters have been shot here than anywhere else on the continent. Period.

But South Dakota is not all the same. In fact, the last four words of the South Dakota's state flag pledge – Land of Infinite Variety – also describe the Rushmore State's pheasant hunting opportunities.    

The biodiversity found in South Dakota is second to none, and the ability to chase huntable numbers of wild roosters in a wide variety of landscapes and habitats is one of the reasons South Dakota remains the world’s premier pheasant hunting destination. It's like four states in one. 

With that in mind, here’s a rundown from east to west of South Dakota's primary pheasant regions and the opportunities you can find in each.

1. Prairie Coteau

The Coteau des Prairies, or “hills of the prairie,” is the most dominant land feature in the easternmost part of the state. The coteau is a flat-iron-shaped plateau of sediment that was left behind by a glacier thousands of years ago. From its tip just across the North Dakota border, it spreads out to roughly 100 miles wide and gently slopes for well over 200 miles south-by-southeast until it blends in with James River valley lowlands and loess prairies down toward Sioux Falls.

The surface of this ecoregion is pocked with large glacial lakes and tons of small, seasonal wetlands, said Matt Morlock, acting director for Pheasants Forever in South Dakota. 

“In northeastern South Dakota, or the Glacial Lakes region, the coteau is more of a wetland-based ecosystem,” said Morlock, who grew up in Watertown, South Dakota, which sits smack-dab in the middle of the coteau. “The area is marked by a large abundance of cattail sloughs — more than other areas of the state. Those cattails and the upland grasses surrounding those smaller wetland areas are keys to not only producing birds, but also finding birds come fall.”

Brett Blank, a conservation foreman for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department (SDGFP), said it’s important to remember agriculture rules the landscape in the prairie coteau region. He said habitat provided by the area’s public lands is often the best and most consistent pheasant cover for miles around.

“To me it’s pretty simple — birds are going to be where the habitat is,” said Blank, who helps maintain habitat on over 40,000 acres worth of state Game Production Areas across northeastern South Dakota. “Pheasants are an edge species that like that blend of grasses, shelterbelts and croplands. That’s what they thrive on, so hunters should scout for areas with that mosaic of habitat.”

Blank also said suitable upland habitat can additionally be found across the region’s 40,000 acres of federal Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) that are managed by the Waubay Wetland Management District. What’s more, the region boasts thousands of acres of Walk-in Areas, which are private lands leased by the state for public hunting.

“When it comes to public land, if you’re the guy that wants to make a trip to South Dakota and do the work, you’re almost guaranteed to whack a rooster up here and probably have a chance at your limit,” Blank said. “But if you’re the guy that parks and only wants to walk 100 yards off the road, you probably won’t be successful no matter where you go.”

Both Blank and Morlock agreed that hunting in the coteau region only gets better as winter arrives, and they said hunters would be wise to consider the late-season opportunities found in close-quarters combat with tight-holding birds in heavy cattails. 

“With so many small chunks of cover spread out over the region, it’s been my experience the hunting gets better as the season goes on,” Morlock said. “Even after all the crops are combined, you still need that colder weather to help congregate those birds in areas of thermal cover. Late-season hunting in thick cattails with a close-working flushing dog can be an absolute blast.”

2. James River Valley

The western edge of the Coteau des Prairies drops into the James River Valley, where the famous pheasant towns of Aberdeen, Redfield, Huron, Mitchell and Parkston all reside. This ecoregion is often what hunters envision when it comes to hunting South Dakota, Morlock said. 

“The James River Valley has more corn strips, food plots and chunks of grass than further east,” Morlock explained. “I really look it as more of a traditional, linear setting where you can line up and take a walk in a straight line. That’s how it’s set up on both public and private lands.”

Sam Fryman, a Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist based in Redfield, S.D., who serves a five-county area in the James River Valley, said the landscape is predominantly flat, with a majority of it having less than 5-percent slope.

“There are still plenty of pothole wetlands, but not like on the coteau,” Fryman noted. “Larger tracts of CRP and larger cattail sloughs will be the main habitat types in the area and probably what people end up hunting most of the time. If you’re hunting in this area, don’t be afraid to walk. We still have plenty of birds, but you will have to put miles on your boots to go get them.”

Fryman said a popular public hunting opportunity in this region is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP. In South Dakota, CREP lands are unique to the James Valley Watershed, and currently more than 110,000 acres are enrolled in the program. CREP ground can be found north of Aberdeen all the way south along the James River to its confluence with the Missouri River near Yankton at the southern edge of the state. 

“A lot of the stuff that went into CREP were old Conservation Reserve Program practices that were based around wetlands, so there’s basically upland grass plantings around a wetland body,” he said. “They do make some decent habitat complexes, especially in the larger tracts of more than 30 or 40 acres, that have good mixes of nesting, brood-rearing and thermal cover.”

Fryman said one habitat factor often overlooked here is that acres enrolled in various facets of CRP require mid-contract management, where the grass typically has to be mowed or hayed. What’s more, in years of severe drought some CRP acres are opened to emergency haying or grazing so landowners can feed their livestock. 

“Two years ago would have been the first year for mid-contract management on CREP acres, so some of that ground will be continued to be mowed off for the next few years to come,” Fryman said. “Some were also mowed last year for emergency haying due to drought, but when that happens only half the field can be cut.”

Hunters need to keep these management practices in mind because CRP and CREP areas might look very different from year to year. However, Fryman said instead of lamenting the change, hunters should embrace it and use it to their advantage. 

For example, if half a CREP area is mowed, it can actually become easier to hunt because the amount of cover has been largely reduced. Plus, the edge created by the mowing acts as an additional flushing point for birds. Finally, mowing or grazing)will invigorate grassland habitat for the future.

3. Missouri River Corridor

Further west, the counties along the Missouri River corridor make up an area that can be seen as a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to pheasant hunting.

“Hunting in the counties that border the Missouri River can really encompass every style of hunting you can dream of,” said Isaac Full, a Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist who serves Sully, Potter and Walworth counties in the northern Missouri River corridor. “You can find everything from crop-edge hunting to the wide-open rolling terrain of the Missouri Coteau all the way to rugged, river-break country.”

Full said the sweeping vistas of central South Dakota are hard to explain to people who have never seen them, but he said the enormity of the landscape is an important aspect to bear in mind because it presents a completely different hunting dynamic than smaller-scale opportunities further east.

“It’s big country out here, where row-crop fields are huge — we’re talking full sections or over 640 acres of nothing but monoculture row crops,” he said. “That’s really hard for people to digest if they’ve never seen it.”

Full said pheasant numbers might drop off a bit the further you get away from row-crop production, but he said there’s a reason why Missouri River towns such as Mobridge, Akaska, Gettysburg, Pierre and Chamberlain attract thousands of hunters each year. 

“The hard reality is this is still an area where a wild pheasant bird hunt is a very real thing, where there’s still the potential to see flushes of old, where 50 or a hundred birds get up,” he said. “That’s not dead in South Dakota, and there’s no reason why once you head west of the James River you shouldn’t be able to take a weekend and shoot six or nine birds. If you get out of the truck, walk and put a little time into it you’re going to have an opportunity to shoot your birds.”

For a unique public-land experience, Full said hunters could try the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ground that lines the Missouri River’s reservoir system. He said approaching the Corps ground and other public hunting areas along the reservoirs’ shorelines by boat can throw a curveball at unsuspecting roosters that are more accustomed to hunting pressure coming from the opposite direction.

“It’s definitely an off-trail, rugged pheasant hunt, and it’s really cool how there’s such a small area around the Missouri River breaks that almost mirrors central Montana,” he said. “You can’t go anywhere east of here and get that wild west upland experience.”

Back up on the high ground outside of the river breaks, Full said quality public hunting opportunities can also be found on the state’s School and Public Lands. 

“I really think they’re an underutilized public resource,” he said “They’re often heavily grazed though, so do your homework to find some with adequate cover. While you’re scouting for those, I’d also look for some Walk-In Areas that have infrastructure for water tanks and cattle. You can only carry so much water with you, so find a spot where you can hunt your way to a water tank that’s a couple miles out and then work the landscape.”

Also, don’t forget the 116,000 acres of public opportunity found on the Fort Pierre National Grassland. While this area is renowned for its sharp-tailed grouse hunting, areas adjacent to the croplands that are interspersed throughout the native grassland can hold solid numbers of pheasants. 

“You can head out at sunrise to hunt grouse, but keep your eyes peeled for pheasants and plan to hunt those later in the day,” said Full, referring to the fact that pheasant hunting doesn’t start until noon or mid-morning in South Dakota. “The ability to take multiple species, including Huns, on one hunt anywhere along the corridor is quite realistic. In fact, a die-hard pheasant hunter might change his mind on what he loves to hunt after flushing a covey of grouse.”

4. Western High Plains

Years ago, there weren’t many opportunities to hunt pheasants in the high plains of western South Dakota. However, as pockets of corn and other row crops have made their way west, so have pheasants.

“There are not as many pheasants as there are along the Missouri River, but we still have birds,” said Keith Mutschler, a SDGFP conservation officer from Perkins County. “People look and see all this public land and they’re disappointed because it’s not all pheasant country. It’s really hard for them to understand that not all of it is created equal here when it comes to pheasants.”

Mutschler said pheasants are often concentrated in slivers of cover that run through a coulee or along the base of a butte. He said a solo hunter or smaller groups of only a couple hunters fare much better than a large group.

“It’s a different style of hunting compared to East River, that’s for sure,” he said. “East River is much flatter and primarily a prairie pothole region with mostly crop fields. Out here you have to think outside the box and walk areas like creek bottoms that are more conducive to only one or two guys.”

Mutschler said careful consideration should also be given to dogs on western trips, as heat and treacherous terrain can really do a number on canines.

“A big issue we have out here is cactus,” he said. “A lot of people don’t think about cactus in South Dakota, but they can be really tough on a dog, especially if they don’t have booties.” 

It pays to have a pliers or mulitool handy in this neck of the prairie, as removing a barb of prickly pear cactus on the fly can help keep a dog in the game longer.

For hunters looking to get away from it all, SDGFP conservation officer Ross Fees from Faith said hunting way out west is worth considering.

“The thing most people enjoy is there’s not as much pressure, so if you’re willing to travel and put in some time, hunting pheasants this far west can be awesome,” Fees said. 

Fees mentioned pockets of birds can be found in select portions of Perkins and Meade counties, as well as areas of Ziebach and Dewey counties, to name a few. Further west and south of these counties, though, you’ll run into the sage-brush steppe, Badlands or Black Hills, where the only pheasants you’ll likely find are hanging on a wall as decorations.

“The birds out here are few and far between, but in spots the hunting can be pretty good,” Fees continued. “Looking across this country, it can hide a lot in terms of habitat. We don’t have the big sloughs or stands of CRP like they do out east, but there are a few pockets of ag land and cover. Some are good, and some are bad — it’s hit or miss. You just need to take the time to find the good ones.”

LAND OF INFINITE VARIETY ... those four words are perhaps the best way to sum up South Dakota's pheasant hunting opportunities, which are almost as endless as the colors found in a rooster's feathers. 

Who better to write about South Dakota’s rooster regions than a native son who lives the upland lifestyle year-round? Andrew Johnson hails from Dell Rapids.