You can tell from the time that you cross the border that South Dakota is a different kind of place. Not different bad, different good.
This sign was in the window at a convenience store in Mitchell, SD. Every gas station, hotel and restaurant welcomes hunters with open arms in South Dakota. Jodi Stemler photo
The very first gas station you stop at will have a "Welcome Hunters" banner. There will be blaze orange hats and gloves, shotgun shells stocked on the shelves, and of course you'll start seeing pheasant paraphernalia everywhere. After all, it is the state bird and I'm guessing it's the only state to bestow such an honor on a non-native species. But there is no doubt that without pheasants, the state would lose a little bit of its identity - and perhaps a lot of its annual income.
That's because pheasant hunting is big business in the state in large part because it attracts so many people from across the country. The South Dakota state report of the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation found that in 2011 there were 127,000 resident hunters and 144,000 non-resident hunters. Those hunters spent about $597 million dollars. But 208,000 of those resident and non-resident hunters were there to chase pheasants, so you can bet that pheasant hunting brought in a big chunk of that money.
Redfield, located just south of Aberdeen, welcomes hunters in Grand Style. Jodi Stemler photo.
I can see why. In early December, I joined Pheasants Forever and HuntFishSD.com for my first ever South Dakota pheasant hunt based out of Aberdeen. For two days we saw how good conservation practices translate to good habitat, which translates into lots of birds. And when I say lots of birds, I mean it. In one field alone on Johannsen Farms, we estimated that we flushed over 500 birds. At neighboring Stotz Farms, where owner Randall Stotz received the 2014 Habitat Steward Award from HuntFishSD for his conservation efforts, another 300 or more birds poured out of a field dubbed the "honey hole."
The author's husband and daughter fill her game bag on Stotz's Farm. Andrew Johnson photo with permission.
Both the Johannsen and Stotz families have implemented a number of conservation practices on their properties for many years (Stotz spent over 30 years as a member of the Potter County Conservation Board). Utilizing funding through the Farm Bill, they are protecting some marginal lands in the Conservation Reserve Program as well as implementing cost-share programs to make their farm more sustainable through rotational grazing, crop rotation, no-till and other conservation practices. This keeps their farm profitable, improves and maintains wildlife habitat - and produces lots of pheasants.
"Using what we have, we make every square foot of our farm work to its best purpose, whether that is for crops or for habitat or just letting a prairie pothole stay as a wetland," said Eric Johannsen during his presentation on his property. "We're in this for the long haul and our goal is stay consistently profitable. We don't get caught up swinging for the fences and risk striking out."
Jodi and her Brittany, Mesa, heading out of a field. Britney Starr photo with permission.
On the second day, we joined Dennis Foster with Dakota Pheasant Guide for a fast-paced hunt on a number of properties that his service has access to. Foster works with local farmers to allow hunters access to their farms and to encourage them to maintain quality pheasant habitat. You can join Dennis for a fully guided hunt or do a self-guided hunt on some of these properties. We traveled between a number of properties around Aberdeen and Redfield, and while the fields didn't hold hundreds of birds there were still plenty flushing throughout the day and hunters had the opportunity to shoot their three-bird limit.
I will say that two days was not enough. Late season hunts often mean that birds are grouped together in thermal cover to protect against the South Dakota cold. But they're more jumpy and most flushed well ahead of our big group - this didn't play as well into the game of our pointing dog. We still had plenty of action and it really was mind boggling to see the sheer numbers of birds. These truly were wild birds, and to me that was the most important part.
So it worked - what I thought was me checking off a bucket list item with a South Dakota pheasant hunt only served to whet my appetite. I want more and my family and I are already plotting our next trip. Aberdeen is a lovely town to visit and everyone is extremely friendly. South Dakota truly opens its arms to hunters and it's obvious why every gas station, hotel and restaurant promotes the princely pheasant. It should be on every hunter's bucket list, but then you'll be like me and realize you can't just do it once.
Details: South Dakota's pheasant hunting season opens in mid-October and runs through the first few days of January. HuntFishSD.com is your one stop source for travel information in the Aberdeen area including guides, restaurants and places to stay. South Dakota also has a lot of great public hunting opportunities from Game Production Areas (281,000 acres) to Walk-In Areas (1.25 million acres) to Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) properties. The James River Watershed near Aberdeen was a target area for the CREP program and over 82,000 acres of land was opened to public access this fall. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks publishes a Public Hunting Atlas that is a treasure trove of information for the do-it-yourselfer. Oh, and if you need more gear when you come to town (and really, who doesn't?) make sure you stop at the "igloo" at SoDak Sports and say hi to AJ.
In addition to being another of those very talented writers we're adding to The Outdoor Wire Digital Network, Jodi Stemler is President of Jodi Stemler Consulting and provides policy and communications expertise to the sportsmen's/conservation community and outdoor industry. Jodi lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and daughter (who joined her on this hunt and loved South Dakota too!).