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South Dakota Ringnecks: History, Hunting and Hope | Dakota Pheasant Guide

As a native and having been raised right where the whole Ringneck revolution started right here in Spink County, South Dakota; I believe I can shed some valuable insight into where we have came from and where we are headed with the popular, plucky, and prettiest of all game birds.

History:

As the name would imply, the Chinese Ringneck Pheasant is not native to the U.S. They are a transplanted species that has found a home that has suited them perfectly well in the mixed agricultural lands of SD. My County Seat, Redfield, calls itself the “Pheasant Capitol of the World” due to the first successful introduction taking place nearby.

It all began as follows: In 1909, H. P. Packard, H. J. Schalke and H. A. Hagman, all of Redfield, bought pheasants and released them on Hagman’s farm north of Redfield. At that same time, A. C. Johnson released 25 pheasants on his ranch about ten miles east. Inspired by the success of these releases, the Redfield Chamber of Commerce joined in and sponsored the first large release of pheasants in the area.

In 1911, the South Dakota Department of Game and Fish continued the establishment efforts and released 48 pairs of pheasants near Redfield that were purchased with privately donated funds. That same year, the state bought 200 pairs of pheasants and issued them to farmers living along the James River in Spink and Beadle counties. A good base had been established and things would only continue to improve as the area steadily populated itself with human and avian immigrants alike.

The headline in the Sept. 3, 1913, Daily Capital-Journal in the State’s Capitol of Pierre read “The Pheasants are Coming.” The article stated that State Game Warden H. S. Hedrick had been notified that 5,000 Chinese ring-necked pheasants were arriving from a game farm near Chicago. After being displayed at the state fair in Huron, the pheasants in “families” of one rooster to several hens were to be distributed throughout the state, “the places of location being determined by the showing for natural protection and care which will assure the birds survival for the first few years.”

In 1919, the shots heard round South Dakota and now the World were fired when the first officially sanctioned season on pheasants took place on Oct. 30 in Spink County. Game wardens estimated that 200 of the pheasant population of 100,000 made the tasty transition from the field to the supper table. From this humble beginning, the population and popularity of the birds spread like wildfire across the prairie and has led us to where we are today.

Instead of choosing a diminutive song bird as our official avian, the big shouldered nature of folks out here on the plains favored a more vigorous bird for South Dakota’s symbol and the boisterous Ringnecked Pheasant Rooster fits that bill perfectly. It’s also interesting to note we are a bit rare (pun intended) in that we enthusiastically promote the eating of our unofficial mascot. The numbers have varied for a myriad of reasons over the years, but the allure of hunting them…has not.

Hunting:

The tradition continues and the hunting still remains quite good as we typically manage to harvest between 1.5 and 2 million birds every year. These are very substantial numbers, to be sure, and the birds still continue to prosper, despite challenges. The modern landscape is constantly changing, and at a sometimes frightening pace-both figuratively and literally.

Agriculture shapes this landscape and the times, they are a changing. Some things are good and some are not so good. Farm income is up dramatically. That is good as it is the farmer that directly supports our pheasant population and we darn sure like to see these hard working families do well for themselves. The bad is in that, quite frankly, human nature has intervened with a bit of greed and large amounts of marginal land (the kind pheasants love) is being put into row crop production in preference to small grains which provides more valuable nesting cover in pursuit of higher prices and in turn…more dollars.

As most outdoors people know, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been a huge boon for the birds; just as the Soil Bank Program was in decades past. With the increase in commodity prices there has been a direct correlation in the reduction of acres enrolled in CRP. This isn’t surprising as economics dictate that when the return on putting land into production far outweighs the Government payment, something has to give. That isn’t to say there aren’t still plenty of birds and plenty of opportunities to hunt them. There certainly are. Things are just a bit different now.

Public Land:

South Dakota does have an extensive amount of Public Land hunting opportunities with over 5 million acres of land available. This is in the form of Walk In Areas, Waterfowl Production Areas, BLM and Forest Service Lands, as well as School and Public Lands.   See Sidebar for resources on specific information and location of these lands as regulations can differ, such as the requirement of non-toxic shot on many of these properties. 

Please be aware that even with this much land, it can become highly pressured and that the pressure is even more pronounced in the first few weeks of season. And, much of this land is in the form of heavier cattail sloughs which make for great wintering cover, but are not as desirable for hunting spots until the weather begins to turn cooler around Thanksgiving. So, I would concentrate your efforts on a later season hunt as the land will see far less hunters and attracts more birds as the temperatures begin to fall.

Another suggestion that I would make is that if you are looking to go on a budget hunt and limit yourself exclusively to Public Lands; begin your search a bit further west than what is traditionally considered prime pheasant hunting areas. We are seeing many more birds further west each and every year. This is most likely because of the less intense farming practices and more grasslands for cattle. I would even go so far as looking for Public Land just west of the Missouri River. Plus, being these areas are largely off the radar of most hunters, there tends to be a drastic reduction in hunting pressure.

Private Land:

The vast majority of land in the eastern part of the State, where the bird population is highest, is privately owned. Free access to this land has been growing more difficult to obtain as much of it is leased out for hunting purposes. We also need to factor in that many farm families have close friends and extended family hunting on their land, particularly early in the season. If you are to hope to obtain free hunting permission to private land, I would recommend politely asking farmers to grant you permission later in the season as your success rate will be much higher.

A growing trend that I have been a proponent of is for hunters to pay a relatively small “trespass fee.” You simply pay for access to the land. This is a great option for those who have dogs and experience hunting and simply do not need or want the services and added expense of a guide. They just require some good unpressured ground to hunt and thus greatly increase their odds of success. There are a limited number of outfitters such as myself that can provide hunters with this attractive option and are worth checking out.

Lodges:

There are numerous options available concerning booking with an Outfitter. These can range from a Self-Guided Hunt where the land and or lodging is provided for you and your party is left up to its own skills to bag a limit. On the opposite extreme are Preserve Hunts with corporate type luxury accommodations including gourmet meals with fine wine and a very easy fully guided hunt over pen raised pheasants. Most folks choose to fall somewhere in between with a more affordable fully guided hunt over wild birds that includes comfortable lodging.

I would strongly suggest that you do your homework when picking an Outfitter in which to hunt with. Look for an operation that has a solid track record and reputation. Be sure and ask plenty of questions such as how many acres there are to hunt and how many hunters they entertain each year. Doing so assures that you are getting exactly what fits your expectations and there are no surprises when you arrive.

Hope: 

High commodity prices and subsidized federal crop insurance have in my opinion promoted land that would not otherwise support itself into being broken and put into row crop production. The reduction in CRP acres is the most visible and telling. It goes even further with some very questionable practices such as farming through section lines and in the ditches of county roads, removal of trees, tiling, etc. We do need to reform some of the “factory farming” mindsets into a more reasonable and sustainable “farm the best and save rest” style of thinking.

The good news is that we still have some common sense, conservation minded farmers who are true stewards of the land that has so generously provided for their families for generations. They get it, and take the approach that if marginal land was meant to be farmed, their Grandfathers darn sure would have done it. These folks and their pragmatic attitude and approach to farming will help us keep a viable base of habitat until the others wise up or the government either puts CRP payments in line with open market cash rents and or eliminates the incentive to farm marginal land.

A few may lament the establishment of commercial hunting operations, but the fact remains that land properly managed for agriculture and wildlife as these operations do is good for more than just them and their paying customers. It provides another valuable base of cover and food sources that not only help the birds all throughout the year, but vastly more importantly, during the heart of long tough winters. This helps add to and keep a sustainable population of birds available for all hunters on adjoining public and private lands.

Roosters and SD are synonymous, not to mention the economic impact pheasants have on the State. Governor Dennis Daugard knows this fact quite well and implemented the first of a number of summit meetings of all interested parties beginning late last year to address several issues. Not the least of which is continued loss of habitat. Farmers, hunters, outfitters, local businessmen, wildlife and government officials were all present and represented. Many viewpoints and ideas were shared in the common spirit of improving things for the bird that has become so dear to all of our residents and the influx of visitors we host each fall.

Topics discussed included, but were not limited to: tax issues, policies and regulation, funding sources and initiatives, private lands habitat, farm programs, public land management, predator control, and education and research.   See Sidebar for links to the full discussion and details of the priceless information relayed during this summit. These folks coming together to collaborate is inspiring and with this kind of genuine concern, I feel very confident that we here in SD are on the right path to ensuring a bright and pheasant filled future for our State.

Conclusion:

Bottom line is that our favorite bird is incredibly tough and resilient…they always have been and will remain that way That’s why they have managed to survive whatever Mother Nature and or Man have managed to throw at them. I have no doubt that we, and they, will continue to survive and thrive…side by side. It just seems to be the nature of the prairie and all of its inhabitants that the enduring and honored tradition of a good old fashioned pheasant hunt amongst family and friends will weather the test of time just fine.

Sidebar-Resources and Suggestions.

 Of particular note and interest to hunters is a complete rundown of the Pheasant Summit that I referred to in the text of this article and subsequent meetings. It’s well worth spending some time learning a full history of our birds and what we are doing to ensure their continued well-being. You will find it fascinating and chock full of fascinating information in both text and video formats. There is even an area where you can leave feedback and suggestions and I would certainly encourage you to do so. The direct link is http://gfp.sd.gov/pheasantsummit/default.aspx. The Panel’s final report of 25 pages can be found at this link as well and is due to become available to the public soon and may very well be by the time this is published.

To find valuable and up to date information and locations of all public lands available for public hunting in South Dakota, check out the direct link at http://gfp.sd.gov/hunting/areas/default.aspx. Here you will not only find not only rules and regulations regarding public lands but also downloadable maps and even an interactive GPS application for your smart phone.

While on the subject of hunting public land, I would like to share a suggestion that I am finding to work quite well-and in particular for first time South Dakota hunters-is to plan a combination Public/Paid Private land hunt. What this amounts to is hunting public land for part of your stay and paying a “trespass fee” for the other part. This allows new hunters to get a feel for both public and private land as well as keeping costs minimal. They can then assure themselves some less pressured hunting on the private ground and then be much better informed as to what style of hunt they would want to partake in future years.

A great resource for lining up a reputable outfitter that can cater to anyone’s preferred style of hunting would be to visit http://www.huntfishsd.com/. Be sure to check out the entire site and you can even register to win a shotgun while you are there.

Dennis Foster is a hunting and fishing guide from Mellette, SD. He welcomes questions and feedback and can be contacted through either of his websites. www.dakotapheasantguide.com or www.eyetimepromotions.com.