Pierre, South Dakota: Big Public Land Habitat and Bird Numbers to Match

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Fort Pierre National Grasslands provide prairie grouse and good times to a motley Pheasants Forever crew

By Bob St. Pierre

There was an impromptu Pheasants Forever reunion just south of Pierre, South Dakota on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands last weekend. Six hunters from the greater Minneapolis & Saint Paul area traveled 400+ miles in search of prairie grouse.  

They also found a stunningly beautiful landscape, a community who embraces hunters, and a LOT of birds. 

Oh, and 116,000 acres of public land open to big-walking bird hunters.

FOR PAUL GODFREY

You’ve probably heard the acronym R3 in association with the need to bring a new generation of hunters into our passion for the future of habitat and sustainable wildlife. R3 stands for recruit, retain, and reactivate. My uncle-in-law, Paul, is what we call a “reactivated” hunter in 2019 vernacular.  

Paul spent some time as a bird hunter during his youth and 20’s, but hunting took a backseat when his kids were born. For the better part of 30 years, his shotgun was shelved for hockey sticks and figure skates. During the last couple of seasons, Paul has joined me on pheasant hunting trips across Minnesota and quail journeys to Nebraska.

This year, Paul entered the hunting season with a brand-new Brittany pup, Axel, a brand-new Benelli shotgun, and the enthusiasm of a 14-year-old on his first date. For Paul, the trip to Fort Pierre was his first and the beginning of a season of firsts. The grassland grouse did not disappoint.
  
Paul-Godfrey-and-Axel_WEB.jpg Paul Godfrey and his Brit, Axel, are all smiles after they bagged their first bird together -- a sharp-tailed grouse.

FOR MATT KUCHARSKI

Matt is one of my very best friends and hunting partners who also happens to be Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever’s vice chair on the organization’s national board of directors. Matt also enters this hunting season with a pair of young bird dogs. His 3-year old Lab, Nelly, is already showing signs of entering her prime and his one-year old adopted shorthair is a loveable athlete learning the game.  

For Matt, the trip to Fort Pierre was his first serious effort to learn about prairie grouse and to crack the seal on a season that will take him from the North Dakota/Canadian border all the way to the Arizona/Mexican border. As you’ll hear in the podcast, he’s also very proud to have proved that flushing dogs can absolutely hold their own with the pointing breeds on the big prairie.

Matt-Kucharski-and-Nelly_WEB.jpgMatt Kucharski and his young Lab, Nelly, share a moment’s rest with their first prairie chicken. 

FOR MARILYN & CLYDE VETTER

Marilyn also serves on the Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever national board of directors and is the chair of the organization’s strategic planning committee. With her husband, Clyde, the Vetters own and operate Sharp Shooter’s Kennels where they raise and train some of the finest German shorthairs in the country. This was their annual sojourn to Pierre where they’ve traveled most of the last two decades each hunting season in search of prairie grouse and pheasants. 

For the Vetters, the trip to Pierre is always a reunion with friends who own Sharp Shooter’s pups or also belong to the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) with them. They gather during the day to run dogs and hunt birds, then celebrate in the evening with barbecues on the prairie.  

IG8A0567_WEB.jpgClyde and Marilyn Vetter displayed some sharp shooting over their excellent German shorthairs.
   
FOR JOHN ZEMAN

Zeman loves big running bird dogs and following them atop a horse. There aren’t a whole lot of places in the country where John can run his dogs for miles unencumbered by roads, fences or barbed wire.  For John, the Fort Pierre National Grasslands is one of those places that afford him the freedom to saddle his horse, release his shorthairs into the wind, and ride. 
 
Zeman_WEB.jpgZeman covered lots of ground atop his horse, Buckwheat, behind big-running Louie who delivered a staunch point and expert retrieve on this prairie chicken.   

FOR ME

When you listen to the On the Wing podcast about this trip, you’ll hear two recurring themes from Fort Pierre Grassland hunters. 

First, it’s a gorgeous place to hunt. If you love big horizons and big sunsets, then don’t bother putting Fort Pierre on your bucket list . . . put it on your every year list.

Second, unlike the thick ruffed grouse woods or the heavy cattails and CRP habitat of the pheasant fields, the short-grass prairie allows you to watch your bird dog’s every move. You can see their nose to the wind, tracking sent, quartering the cover and working the birds. It’s a setting fit for a bird dog ballet and admission is the price of a hunting license. 

For me, going to Pierre every September marks the opening of the upland season for me and the beginning of my favorite four months.

Esky_WEB.jpgEsky was pretty proud after a successful point and retrieve of this prairie chicken.
 

If You Go

Prairie Grouse: The Fort Pierre National Grassland is one of the few places in America that a bird hunter can bag a sharp-tailed grouse and a greater prairie chicken on the same walk. Heck, sometimes on the same flush of birds.  

Pheasants: Did you know that the greater Pierre area generally boasts the second most pheasants-per-mile during the South Dakota Game Fish & Parks annual August roadside survey? True to form, Pierre registered 2.9 pheasants-per-mile this year, which was only surpassed by Chamberlain’s 4.85 pheasants-per-mile mark.
  
Hunting License: Resident South Dakotans can hunt pheasants and prairie grouse for the entire season for the extremely affordable small game license price of $33. Non-resident hunters get two 5-day periods for a $121 non-resident small game license and that covers pheasants, prairie grouse, Huns and quail. 

Suggested Hunt Plan: A great plan for a non-resident is to hunt Fort Pierre in September for prairie grouse then return after pheasant season opens for your second 5-day period. With this year’s wet spring and summer, it’s likely the harvest of crops will be delayed later than normal which could make late November and December especially productive for late season roosters across the state.
  
Hotel: Governor’s Inn – Pierre is filled with terrific dog-friendly hotels, but I’ve been going to the Governor’s Inn the last few years because it’s a very nice and clean hotel that features doors from each room direct to the parking lot which makes hotel stays with bird dogs so much easier. The Governor’s Inn also features a bird cleaning table outside, a continental breakfast, and a hot tub for a post-hunt soak.  

Eats: Mad Mary’s Steakhouse & Saloon – I’m a self-admitted foodie. I enjoy cooking wild game and eating local foods. And when in South Dakota chasing birds all day, you better find yourself a big hunk of beef to replenish the body. I found that delicious New York strip covered in blue cheese crumbles with a side of garlic mashed potatoes at Mad Mary’s in downtown Pierre. It was easily among the top 5 steaks I’ve had in my life!  

Drinks: RedRossa Italian Grille - Conveniently located next to our room at Governor’s Inn, RedRossa offers a wide selection of beers, affordable prices, and a very fun atmosphere to relive the days highlights.  
 

For More Information: 

Pierre, South Dakota
South Dakota Bird Hunting
Fort Pierre National Grasslands