South Dakota’s blue sky contrasted sharply against vast fields of yellow tinted prairie grass. Labrador retrievers worked back and forth through waist-high grasses, closely followed by nine men sporting orange hunting vests and hats, each carrying a different type of shotgun.
Everyone was alert to movement on the ground. 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 shooter.
Veteran guide Jim Nelson, owner of Nelson Valley Outfitters, held a safety meeting before the hunt. He showed diagrams of how to approach certain fields and discussed when and when not to shoot and many other safety factors. Nelson’s meeting was an excellent reminder of safety tactics while hunting these unpredictable pheasants.
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 means 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 often have a better view. Pheasant hunting in never-ending fields is a team sport.
Adam Paul, a fishing tackle representative from Greensboro, N.C., flushed a pheasant, took a quick glance to ensure safety, then swung and dropped his first bird that would be shipped home to a taxidermist.
Another hunter took a step and flushed several birds, creating a commotion of cackling and heavy wings erupting from tall grass as three rooster pheasants flew 20 feet in the air, creating a scene to be savored forever. Intense shades of red, purple, and green with every other primary color showed in the sunlight against a bright azure sky. Cackling vibrated across the field as the birds quickly made distance.
I could only watch. My limit was secured in my game pouch and I held an unloaded shotgun. But I wouldn’t have taken that shot. Shooting close with heavy pheasant loads only destroys birds for no purpose except ruined meat and a “POOF” of feathers
The birds disappeared over a rise for future hunters – or perhaps a meddling coyote or fox in search of a meal. The hunt ended when all nine hunters had their limit of three roosters each – a good day anywhere, yet average in South Dakota where the pheasants are plentiful during a good year of production.
I crawled out of bed earlier than the other hunters the following 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. 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 Nelson Valley Outfitters. 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.”
“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 at the Crow Creek Lakota Reservation 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, elongated lakes that were once 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 your 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 proven fact at lunch the next day. We limited out that evening and returned to camp.
I took another long walk the following morning 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?
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 strong pheasant wings make addictive thundering sounds just one more time and feel the stout run of a good walleye.
Want to experience this trip? Contact Jim Nelson at: Nelson Valley Outfitters, 25890 389th Ave., Stickney, S.D. 57375 or call 605-351-1198. You can check their website at: www.nelsonvalleyoutfitters.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