Planning your trip for pheasant hunting in South Dakota – otherwise known as the pheasant capital of the United States.
The truck was packed and pointed east. As is the pup’s custom, she had parked herself in between us and the truck to make sure she wasn’t forgotten when it was time to load up. A final check of the packing list and we were on our way, setting off on our very first bird hunting pilgrimage. South Dakota or bust.
Our eastbound upland road trip from the West Coast took us through some of the most beautiful countryside that the United States has to offer. Pacific Northwest forests gave way to towering mountains, which faded into a sea of sage, which eventually led to the endless prairies of the Great Plains. We had arrived. Restless from the two-day drive and armed with a public lands atlas, we made our first stop at the Grand River National Grasslands and hopped out of the truck. The grass stretched on endlessly in all directions, as far as the eye could see. We looked at each other and shrugged – we’re in South Dakota, this must be full of birds.
An hour later we’d scared up a jackrabbit but nothing else, despite the mocking cackle of roosters in the distance. It looked nothing like the land we were used to hunting. The poor pup ran to the only tree in the county and searched around the base, expecting to find California quail. We were all way out of our element.
Our next stop took us to DL Fest, which is the annual gathering of Deutsch Langhaar enthusiasts in South Dakota for a weekend of club business and pheasant hunting. Here we were introduced to the concept of a driven hunt, which was completely unlike anything we’d ever experienced or witnessed. Lines of dogs and handlers pushed through the fields, one entire section at a time, and blockers were strategically placed to prevent birds from escaping. We worked methodically, moving in a large square pattern through the fields. For the first half mile, I wondered what exactly was the point of this exercise. The last 100 yards answered my question, though, when birds erupted out of the field like popcorn. It was simply mind blowing. If dogs get a dopamine spike on bird scent, then my pup was practically comatose with the rush. What a difference a little strategy makes.
As we headed back west with a cooler full of birds and memories to last a lifetime, we discussed the lessons we’d learned and how we’d approach our next South Dakota ring-necked pheasant hunt differently. South Dakota may be the nation’s pheasant capital, but that doesn’t mean you can get by without some careful planning and strategy.
Wild Game Recipes: Maple-Smoked Pheasant
Planning for a South Dakota Pheasant Trip
The planning – and daydreaming – of your South Dakota pheasant hunt can start long before bird hunting season is even on the horizon. To help focus your planning, consider the following questions:
- Will you hunt publicly accessible land or do you have access to private land?
- Are you targeting pheasants exclusively, or are you hoping for a mixed bag?
- Will you be there for early, mid, or late season?
Finding Pheasant Hunting Land Access in South Dakota
South Dakota has a generous land access program through a mix of public and private lands. Although the majority of the land in South Dakota is private, land access for the general public is managed through a variety of programs such as Walk-In Areas, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and others. All of this land access is published in an annual Public Hunting Atlas, released in August of each year. You can access the South Dakota Public Hunting Atlas online, download a copy of it to your phone for offline use, and pick up a paper copy wherever licenses are sold. It’s an invaluable resource for planning your hunt ahead of time and for enabling that spontaneous “hey, let’s stop here” moment when you’re out driving around. The offline mobile version is especially handy for that because it utilizes your device’s GPS data, so you can actually plot your current location on the atlas itself.
Choosing a South Dakota Pheasant Hunting Hot Spot
Your at-home pheasant scouting should start with the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks department. Their website includes detailed reports on harvest numbers by county and spring/summer brood counts. For GIS mapping nerds (you know who you are), you can dive deep into interactive maps showing hunting access programs and even recent harvest statistics. For example, you can see at a glance that the eastern half of the state overwhelms the western half in terms of pheasants harvested per square mile. It would be prudent to compare the harvest maps with the access maps to make a short list of the best possible opportunities.
Once you have a few spots in mind, it’s a good idea to call the local state biologists to gather some updated intelligence. A particular area may have had a promising forecast, but unexpected rainfall or flooding could have taken a toll on the bird population. Remember that they get called a lot, though, so plan your approach accordingly. Instead of asking, “Where should I go to hunt birds?” ask some specific questions about your target areas to show that you’ve done your research.
Don’t forget that South Dakota bird hunting offers far more upland opportunities than just pheasants, too. Hunters can round out their experience with sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens, Hungarian partridges, and even ruffed grouse in the forested area of the state. If a mixed bag is of interest to you, consider the prime habitat of these other species when planning your route through South Dakota.
Choosing a Season to Pheasant Hunt
Pheasant hunting season opens to nonresidents around the third week of October and runs through the first week of January. Check the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks website for exact dates.
In the early part of the season, you may find that some crops are still standing and access to private lands may be limited while the harvest is underway. Weather will be unpredictable – in any given year, October could still be relatively warm, or winter could be making an early appearance. Be sure to plan (and dress) for anything. The pheasants will still be fairly naïve and will not be nearly as wily as they are in later parts of the season.
In the middle of the season, you are likely to be ahead of major snowfall but past the point of warm autumn days. Crops will have been harvested, so the birds are likely moving into CRP or other natural areas in search of food. Roosters are starting to get wiser as they learn how to evade hunters.
By late season, you can count on accumulated snow and birds in survival mode. Food and shelter are the sole focus at this point, so birds will tend to congregate in areas that provide both of these needs. The roosters that have survived this long have gotten wise to the hunter’s ways, so be prepared with your best tactics and strategies. (Read: How to Hunt Those Veteran Roosters) If you’re willing to brave the elements, you’ll find that the end of the season brings far fewer hunter numbers. Just be sure to be prepared for hazardous winter conditions on the roads and in the fields.
Understanding the South Dakota Hunting Regulations and License Requirements
Your South Dakota hunting license can be purchased online and printed at home before you leave, which can save you valuable hunting time once you arrive in South Dakota. You’ll need a Non-Resident Small Game License to hunt any of the available upland birds. This license is good for two five-day periods of your choice. You’ll need to input the dates when you purchase the license. If you don’t have a second trip planned yet, it’s recommended to select the last five days of the season and adjust later if needed. You can adjust your selected dates to an earlier window, but you cannot postpone the dates once your license period has begun.
The daily limit for South Dakota pheasant is three roosters with a total possession limit of 15 (corresponding to your five-day license). Do not possess 15 roosters on the second day of your license! If you clean your birds, you are required to leave the head, a fully feathered wing, or a foot to prove species and sex of the bird.
You’ll also need to pay attention to the legal hunting hours and the time zone you’re in. South Dakota sits in both the Central and Mountain time zones, but all hunting hours for the state are reported in Central time. Pheasant hunting isn’t allowed until noon for the first week of the season and 10 a.m. for the remainder of the season. Note that prairie grouse and huns can be hunted from sunrise, so there’s a good opportunity to entertain yourself on other upland birds before pheasant hunting can begin. On the other hand, you could treat yourself to a relaxing breakfast and an extra cup of coffee – we won’t judge.
Packing Up for a South Dakota Pheasant Hunt
While you’re daydreaming about your South Dakota pheasant hunt, you should also be jotting down a packing list to avoid a last-minute panic. Here’s a starting point for your South Dakota packing list:
- License – pay and print ahead
- Electronic version of the South Dakota Public Hunting Atlas
- Shotgun and plenty of shells
- Comfortable, waterproof boots
- Variety of clothing layers to accommodate changing weather
- Dog kennel
- Dog bowls
- First aid kit for humans and dogs
- High energy snacks for humans and dogs
- Water bottles and large water jug
- Cooler for transporting birds
- Phone numbers for local veterinarians and animal hospitals
Also check out Traveling on the Road Long Term with a Bird Dog.
Arriving in South Dakota Pheasant Country
Pheasant fever strikes as soon as you cross the state line. Roosters may be standing along the side of the road and welcoming you to the pheasant capital of the country. Resist the urge to slam on the brakes and take off running after the first bird you see. Don’t worry, there will be more.
Stop into a sporting goods store to pick up a paper copy of the South Dakota Public Hunting Atlas if you prefer that over the electronic version. Talk to the staff about what they’ve been hearing and get a good recommendation for a lunch stop. You’ve got some last-minute planning to do.
Once you’ve picked your first spot, survey the terrain and make a plan for how to hunt that particular property. Your strategy will vary based upon the size of your hunting party, whether or not you have dogs, and the current state of the crops or vegetation in the area. Consider where the birds are likely sitting and identify their probable escape routes. Your approach will need to block those escape routes in order to get them to take wing instead of running away. If you don’t have a large enough party to have dedicated blockers, you could even park a car at the end to fool the pheasants into looking for another last-minute escape route. Above all, remember that these birds want to run away from you and your dogs, so some anticipation and educated guessing will help you to outthink their next move.
Don’t be afraid to pick up and move if a particular area isn’t looking promising. The birds certainly move around as the season progresses and as various harvest activities are taking place. If you’ve traveled any distance to get to South Dakota, you’re probably in the unfortunate situation of having to scout and hunt on the same trip. Don’t forget the scouting aspect – be curious and check out new areas as you learn more about the pheasants’ activities.
Things for the Family to Do in South Dakota
South Dakota is one of those states that truly rolls out the red carpet for hunters from all over the country. It’s easy to see why: according to the state’s 2018 Pheasant Economics report, pheasant hunters brought a total of $218.1 million into the state. Of that, $138 million was from non-residents. It’s an important part of local economies, so your visit (and your dollars) are definitely welcomed. This may feel strange to those of us from states where nonresident hunters are regarded warily, but in South Dakota, nonresidents actually represent the majority of bird hunters according to the annual reports.
Believe it or not, South Dakota offers many recreational opportunities besides just upland bird hunting. Extending the hunting trip into a vacation may entice other friends and family to tag along. The southwest part of the state is home to the Black Hills National Forest and Mount Rushmore National Memorial – both iconic and family-friendly places to visit. Badlands National Park offers a completely different terrain with spectacular vistas and countless wildlife viewing opportunities. Just outside of the Badlands, the town of Wall is an essential tourist stop with the famous Wall Drug store. You can easily spend a good part of the day exploring the nooks and crannies of this quirky roadside attraction.
Hunting pheasant in South Dakota is a lifetime experience for any upland hunter. It may not have the storied tradition of ruffed grouse in the Northwoods or the physical challenge of chukar in unforgiving Hells Canyon, but it’s an iconic hunt all the same. Brands like Dakota 283 found their roots in this pheasant hunting Mecca. The access is reasonably straightforward, the culture is welcoming, and licenses are priced fairly. Whether you’re planning a once-in-a-lifetime hunting trip or starting a new annual tradition with your hunting partners, you won’t regret the unforgettable experience of chasing birds in South Dakota.
Jennifer Wapenski is the Director of Operations for Project Upland Media Group, LLC and co-host of the Hunting Dog Confidential podcast. She has a lifelong passion for the outdoors, dogs, and wildlife; as an adult, she discovered that upland bird and waterfowl hunting were natural extensions of these pursuits. Jennifer lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two Deutsch Langhaars.