If you’re a hunter who lives for those glorious fall days when the crisp air insistently says “pheasant time,” there’s no better place than South Dakota. It’s where American strikers can experience a bit of heaven on earth. The Mount Rushmore State remains a world-class destination for pheasants – and rightly so: the average annual pheasant harvest over the past 10 years is 1.2 million turkeys!
Because the state knows how important pheasants are to its economy (the neck pheasant is, after all, the official state bird), it makes sure that visiting hunters have ample access to public land. South Dakota also has easily accessible private land for rent from the state where you can enjoy your sport. These public lands include a variety of classic pheasant grounds, from rolling river bluffs, to wild pastures, even ditches and groves where hunters will enjoy free hunting (only a hunting license is required) on these public lands.
The state has also created several programs designed to give hunters access to private land. Walk-In Areas (WIA) are privately owned lands operated as farms and working ranches that are leased for public hunting access by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. No further permission is needed from landowners to hunt these areas.
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) areas are open year-round for public hunting. CREP lands are owned by private individuals who have enrolled them in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and signed a lease agreement with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department to provide public hunting. Right now, there are 74,000 acres of CREP in the James River Valley. There are currently 445 associates in the program. CREP is an outstanding pheasant hunting opportunity.
Game Production Areas (GPAs) are generally managed for the production and maintenance of all wildlife. Although certain areas are managed for certain species of wildlife, all wildlife benefits. South Dakota has approximately 730 Game Production Areas, totaling more than 281,000 acres. Of this, about 3,900 hectares per year are planted in food plots. There are also 1,600 acres of nest-covered GPA.
The best way to find these hunting areas is to pick up a copy of the South Dakota Public Hunting Atlas, which is printed each year in early August. This hunting guide lists all lands open to public access (federal) and state lands, as well as private lands leased for public access for hunting. It’s an invaluable guide, so don’t leave home without it. You can also always find the most up-to-date information in the Public Hunting Atlas online.
The state is also home to a host of guiding facilities and services. Here, hunters can choose from self-guided or fully guided hunting. Out-of-state hunters will find that a hunt can fit nearly any budget, another reason so many families and friends gather together in the fall to enjoy the ponds and farmland that create ideal pheasant cover.
I have hunted pheasants in South Dakota three times in the last ten years, and it is by far the best pheasant hunting I have ever enjoyed. Imagine walking through a cornfield half a mile long, dogs in front, tails up, on the track of birds running ahead of you. The hounds are calling to their charges, and the lines of hunters march in step, eagerly awaiting the noisy flush of a pheasant. The loud chirping of the bird is definitely music to your ears. When you reach the end of the row, the birds see the blockers. They now know they need to get on the air. That’s when it all breaks down with the birds blowing up and out like a Fourth of July Roman candle. It’s an incredible sight.
On another hunt I passed through thick grassland cover. This is a completely different experience than walking down a corn row. You’ll never know what you’ll bump into in the waist-deep grass, like the huge one bedded down right in front of me. It took my breath away.
To add to the adventure, hunting this terrain is really a game of hide and seek because you can’t track a turkey running on the ground. Some birds will sit tight as you pass, only to explode after you. At other times, they suddenly burst forward, seemingly out of nowhere. Such behavior will surely keep you on your toes.
It is said that when the ears of corn turn brown, South Dakota turns orange. Absolutely true. For more information go to HuntTheGreatest.com. More information is also available from South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks.
Made possible with the support of the South Dakota Department of Tourism and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.