South Dakota's blue sky contrasted sharply against a vast ocean of light yellow prairie grass. A legion of yellow and black Labrador retrievers worked back and forth through the waist-high grasses, closely followed by nine men sporting orange hunting vests and hats. Each carried a different type of shotgun with visions of roast pheasant or even a pheasant casserole.
Everyone was alert to any kind of movement. Pheasants run quickly, and blockers are needed out in front to discourage their escape. A careless shot could mean injury or even death to another hunter. Pheasant hunting can be extremely intense, a test for the experienced and especially the inexperienced.
Guide Jim Nelson, of the Gann Valley Ranch located in South Dakota's Buffalo County, held a safety meeting before the hunt started. He showed diagrams of how to approach certain fields and discussed when and when not to shoot and many other safety factors. Each hunter remembered his words and had shot several times that morning without close calls or problems. Nelson's meeting had been an excellent reminder of safety when hunting the wild pheasants that are always unpredictable.
I was a blocker on one drive and extremely grateful for Nelson's meeting. I stood my ground as dogs and shooters moved closer to my position, flushing an occasional pheasant from pockets of grass to calls of “rooster” or “hen." Hen meant hold your fire; they are not legal to shoot. Their brown feathers are easily distinguishable in flight from the bright colors of a rooster, but a bird flying into the sun can be hard to see and hunters from other angles have a better look. Pheasant hunting in thick terrain is a team sport.
I witnessed the effects of his meeting from a nearby hill while watching Adam Paul, a fishing tackle representative from Greensboro, N.C., flush a pheasant, take a quick glance to ensure the safety of his shot, then swing and drop his first bird. He had sworn to take that pheasant back to a taxidermist in the Carolinas and did. The frozen bird, wrapped in black plastic, accompanied him on the plane ride home.
The group stepped up to my position when one of the hunters stepped on a landmine. A desirable commotion of cackling and heavy wings erupted from the tall grass to my left. I looked up in time to see three rooster pheasants fly 20 feet over my head, and my brain registered a scene I will not soon forget. Their intense colors of red, purple, green and about every other primary color showed in the sunlight against the bright, blue sky. Cackling vibrated through my ears as they quickly made distance.
I could only watch. My limit was secured in my game pouch and I held an unloaded shotgun. But I would never have taken that shot. Shooting that close with heavy pheasant loads would only tear up birds for no purpose except ruined meat and a “POOF” of feathers
I looked up at the sound of a 12-gauge shotgun firing to see another rooster dropping at the bottom of a long hill. The other birds disappeared over a rise for future hunters to chase – or even a meddling coyote or fox in search of a meal. That last bird meant all nine hunters had their limit of three roosters each – a good day anywhere, yet average in South Dakota, where the pheasants are everywhere during a good year of pheasant production.
I crawled out of bed earlier than the other hunters that morning and took a stroll outside the lodge. I listened as two or three rooster pheasants cackled and no doubt fought across the gravel road, aggressive sounds that one can never hear too many times. Another pheasant cackled behind the house in a strip of timber. I had always heard that the Dakotas had healthy pheasant numbers, but was not prepared for the number of birds we found. I estimate that we saw 10 times more birds than our daily limits fly out of sight.
World-class pheasant hunting is reason enough to visit The Gann Ranch. But Nelson really sealed the deal.
“Want to go fishing?” he calmly asked the first afternoon I arrived. “For what?” I countered.”
“Oh, we have a little walleye fishery up here that you might enjoy,” he replied. “Oh yeah,” I said with only a hint of eagerness. I would have been much more enthusiastic if I had known what was to come.
Late that afternoon we stopped in the Crow Creek Lakota Reservation about 20 miles from Gann Valley to purchase licenses. Several noted my rain suit and asked if we were going fishing. I was happily surprised by the hospitality several Lakota showed.
Minutes later we arrived at the Big Bend dam that separates Lake Francis Case and Lake Sharpe, remarkable lakes that actually are the Missouri River. We fished below the dam on the Francis Case side.
“This is simple fishing,” Nelson said. “Just cast your Rapala into the current, let out line and reel in slowly. When water is released through the dam locks, the walleye go on feeding frenzies and sometimes the action is furious. Try to keep that lure in the heaviest current.”
Nelson hooked and landed a fine walleye almost immediately. I cast out about 10 times and felt a heavy jolt through my medium-action rod. A combination of current and a strong fish dragged line off my reel with ease. I hung on and enjoyed the fight while the fish made several desperate lunges for freedom. My biggest was 18 1/2 inches long, not a trophy, but perfect eating size – a fact well documented at lunch the next day. We limited out that evening and returned to camp. I did not think that anything could equal the pheasant hunting, but the fishing did.
The following morning I took another long walk to enjoy the clean, fresh air while my eyes feasted on the beautiful plains. I wondered how many buffalo and bands of Lakota once rode across this ocean of grass or if cavalry troops rode their horses through this area and how many unnamed battles were fought here that will never appear in our history books?
Their long-gone generation fought and died for this land where lush grasses flow in unforgiving winds. But the hunt goes on as hunters return to hear those strong pheasant wings make addictive thundering sounds just one more time and feel the stout run of a good walleye.
For more information about hunting or fishing in South Dakota, contact Norman Drake or Jim Nelson at 605-351-1198 or you can check their website at www.gannvalleyranch.com.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org