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Pheasant and grouse hunting in South Dakota

For those who don’t know – and I certainly didn’t – South Dakota is the American capital of pheasant shooting. In fact, some argue this state is the pheasant capital of the world: its residents are so enamoured that they adopted the ring-neck as their state bird in 1943.

It was thanks to a chance introduction at the CLA Game Fair last summer with Sean Finley – sales director at John Burrell’s High Adventure Company – that I found myself in this Midwestern state of coyotes and Mount Rushmore. Sean had invited me to try traditional South Dakota pheasant hunting (‘hunting’ is a universal term Americans use to describe all game shooting).

Within South Dakota is the pheasant ‘Golden Triangle’, an area famed for fantastic upland bird hunting, and it was to this region that I journeyed.

To Pierre

Although South Dakota is more than 4,000 miles from the UK, the state is easy to reach – one connection is needed to travel from London to state capital Pierre (pronounced ‘Pier’). On arrival I found Sean with ease, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise – Pierre has one terminal, if you can call it that. We headed north to the Cheyenne Ridge Signature Lodge and as we made our way I enjoyed unfamiliar scenery – vast plains and endless sky.

Large, luxurious Cheyenne Ridge Signature Lodge – Little House on the Prairie it ain’t.

Cheyenne Ridge Signature Lodge, which is named after the native American tribe that once controlled these plains, sits high on a bluff overlooking magnificent Lake Oahe. The lodge, run by Chris Lemaire, was built for pheasant hunters in 1994 and remodelled in 2005 to provide 33 beautiful en-suite bedrooms. Along with the usual amenities, the Signature offers a cognac and cigar lounge, fitness zone with sauna and hot tub, business centre and five-stand clay pigeon range.

The quarry

In South Dakota the ring-neck pheasant is king. Since the first successful introduction in 1908, the pheasant has gained in popularity as a sporting bird. Now, over 100 years on, the quarry has truly found a home from home. In fact, hunters harvest over one million cock pheasants annually in South Dakota – many of which are wild birds. State law prohibits the hunting of hens, which has enabled a significant wild bird population to develop.

South Dakota provides the opportunity to hunt other game birds, plus wildfowl, small game and big game. But for those of a wing-shooting bent, the most interesting challenges are provided by two native grouse species – the sharp-tailed and the pinnated grouse (known locally as the greater prairie chicken). These birds make up the genus Tympanuchus, which is found only in North America.

Springers are perfect for flushing ring-necks from the South Dakotan grassland.

South Dakota’s state game season runs from October 15 to January 1. But on designated preserves such as the Signature Lodge you may hunt from September 2 to March 31. In reality, the season usually ends in early December due to harsh winters. Furthermore, state legislation has established personal bag limits, which restrict hunters to three cocks per person per day on public land, but due to the Lodge’s preserve status, you are permitted to shoot up to 20 cocks per day at Cheyenne Ridge.

Significantly, each shot bird is tagged and registered at the end of the day, which leads to accurate hunting records. It is worth bearing in mind that a 20-bird limit is equal to a 160-bird day for eight guns. So you really can achieve an excellent bag if you shoot well. At Cheyenne Ridge you only pay for what you shoot, too, which promotes a relaxed atmosphere.

Upland hunting

South Dakota contains over 4.5 million acres of public land that can be hunted, plus large tracts of private hunting land. It is over such private land that Cheyenne Ridge provides high-class traditional American pheasant shooting. The preserve arranges walked-up sessions for teams of one to 15 guns and each trip is individually tailored.

For me, the plan was a two-man pheasant hunt with Sean, guided by Signature Lodge wildlife manager, Spencer Hagen. Following a safety briefing, Spencer explained we would walk in a line around 20 yards apart with Spencer five yards behind us. This would allow Spencer’s two springer spaniels to flush birds within range. The types of shots we would encounter most were going away and crossing, but when facing the wind we would need to be prepared for occasional driven birds.

A successful morning

We spent our first day hunting a creek surrounded by grassland – classic South Dakota pheasant country. I was struck by the lack of pheasant roosting cover. There was not a tree in sight, but my naivety seemed to amuse my hosts, who politely explained that Dakota pheasants jug in the grass, much like our partridge. Both Sean and I had chosen to shoot 12 bore Berettas provided by the lodge. We lined out in the first piece of grass to the west of a small creek, facing Canada. Well, not exactly, but it felt like it.

Fast and thrilling sport at its best.

As we worked our way north through the grasses, brush and cattails, we began to see birds moving ahead. I needed to pay attention. Just then the first cock bird of the day broke out 25 yards to my right. Despite my best intentions I missed cleanly with my first shot before dropping the bird with my second. It landed on the far side of the river, which meant we would have to pick up the cock on our return walk.

As we meandered along the creek, Sean shot a good bird going away. Meanwhile, I managed the first bird but not the second of a potential double. By the time we made the turn and headed back along the east side of the creek we had six cock birds in the bag.

For the return walk we made our way through fields on the east of the creek bed. The birds ran strongly in the tall grass but as we came to the end of the field the pheasants held for the dogs and we enjoyed some great sport. Spencer’s springers performed admirably, providing excellent shooting opportunities and seldom getting too far in front. By lunch we had 16 cocks in the bag.

Block and drive

After a delicious meal at the lodge we headed out for an afternoon of managed ‘block and drive’ hunting. This style of walked-up shooting involves using cover sections similar to our maize strips. Additional guns were placed at the end of the covers to block runners and shoot those flying forward as driven birds.

For this hunt, Sean, Spencer and I were joined by a second guide and two gentlemen from Georgia. As pairs, we took turns to walk and block. Sean and I blocked first – it felt like being an end gun on a driven line. We had free reign to shoot driven and crossing birds, but both teams had to be careful with birds that lifted between us. During blocking, Sean and I managed two good pheasants each. Then it was our turn to drive.

The moment we entered the cover a cock burst back between us but kept low and neither of us raised our guns. Then the action heated up. Pheasants rose thick and fast as Spencer’s dogs flushed bird after bird and Sean and I hit our stride. By the end of our drive, we had added 16 birds to the bag – a total of 36 cocks for the day. All too soon it was time to head back for dinner.

On to the grouse

For my second day I joined guide Kevin Marso to hunt grouse over pointers. We made an early start and headed out to grassland 40 minutes south of Pierre. Kevin was running a stylish German wirehaired pointer, who proved his perfect foil. I exchanged my 12 bore for a 20 bore, which I felt was a better choice for hunting over pointers.

Our first run took us over what seemed like perpetual prairie. The landscape was striking, despite being barren except for the grass. Kevin’s pointer worked diligently, casting long distances to reach promising cover. When a point was made we moved rapidly into position before the birds flushed. Occasionally, a point on scent proved fruitless but more often that not Kevin’s dog was on the money.

Early in our first run, two sharp-tailed grouse broke out. I hesitated long enough to miss my chance but did not regret it. I was simply delighted to watch these handsome birds disappear downwind into the valley below. After completing a four-mile loop we returned to the truck and headed east, empty-handed but full of enthusiasm. This was hunting in its finest form.

In South Dakota, hunting hen pheasants is banned, which has helped create a large wild bird population.

We arrived at a high ridgeline that Kevin felt looked promising. He explained that we would hunt the lee of the ridge, where grouse might shelter from the gusting wind. We hadn’t walked 100 yards before Kevin’s pointer locked up. Quickly, we moved up behind the dog and into position, then Kevin gave the signal and the sky filled with grouse. Having just acquainted myself with sharp-tailed grouse I realised that these birds were prairie chicken. But this knowledge didn’t help my shooting – I missed my first shot at a bird 25 yards out in the middle of the pack before redeeming myself with the second barrel. I had no time to reload; the pack of grouse had disappeared – instead we collected our bird, a cock grouse, and added it to the bag.

To our surprise, while Kevin was inspecting the first bird, a second grouse flushed, rising out to my left. Instinctively, I mounted my gun and dropped it. What a start! I could not believe that this bird had held tight. That meant I had two of the three prairie chickens that the state would allow me to take that day.

Full of excitement, we set off to complete our second run, and although we enjoyed a fantastic walk, we did not see further grouse until we had almost made it back to the vehicle. Then, to our complete amazement, a pack of nine grouse flushed only 50 yards from our starting point. They were out of range but that didn’t mar the day. We had enjoyed high-class sport and I was delighted with my bag of two grouse. It was time to head back to the lodge for some practice on the clay range.

A trip to remember

I departed the Signature Lodge the next morning. While the walked-up birds I shot may not have been as high as driven birds we see in the UK, they provided a different and no less challenging experience. Often I was presented with going away and crossing birds that were 30-plus yards away. Walked-up pheasant hunting in South Dakota is a special experience. Sean, Chris and the team at Cheyenne Ridge could not have done more to make my adventure memorable.

There and away

The best time to hunt in South Dakota is September and October. At this time of year the days tend to be clear and dry, plus you have the opportunity to combine a hunting trip with some Walleye fishing in Lake Oahe. Alternatively, consider taking a day out to hunt grouse over pointers.

Nightclub? Pub? No, it’s Cheyenne Ridge’s cigar and cognac lounge.

During November and December the weather is less predictable, although hunting can be exceptional. At this time, particularly in December, you might add a day’s duck or goose flighting to your trip.

To get to the Signature Lodge, fly into Pierre where the Cheyenne Ridge team will meet you. The best route is Heathrow via Minneapolis/St Paul in Minnesota. Flights run daily and start from £500 per person (round trip).

Equipment & pricing

The lodge provides without charge a range of over-under and semi-automatic Berettas, both in 12 and 20 gauge. Cartridges are also included and there is a well-stocked pro shop for last-minute purchases. Chris and his team organise South Dakotan non-resident small game hunting licences for each guest.

A four-night, three-day trip to the Signature Lodge starts at £2,000 per person, including single occupancy accommodation, meals prepared by an award-winning chef, unlimited use of the five-stand sporting clays course, and three days’ hunting with a five-bird daily limit. You can increase your individual limit to 20 birds a day for £850.

Non-shooting guests are welcome and charged a flat rate of £150 per day. Notable sites of interest include Mount Rushmore, Black Hills National Park and the historic town of Deadwood.

The High Adventure Company acts for over 40 hunting lodges worldwide, running hunting and shooting trips that include wildfowling, upland game, dove, big game and fishing.

For more on Cheyenne Ridge and other High Adventure destinations contact Sean Finley on +1 678 388 2205 or [email protected].

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