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It's a different bird than it was in October

by Chuck Dieter

Living in eastern South Dakota, we’re supposedly in a pheasant paradise. In actuality, pheasant hunting is extremely tough around here. There is precious little habitat left to hunt pheasants.

There is some great cover in the few state Game Production Areas and federal waterfowl Production areas. These spots get pounded by both residents and nonresidents from the start of the season till the end. Many private spots with habitat are either saved for family or are commercialized. It seems like there’s some new “Pheasant Lodge” popping up each year where you can shoot 3 cage-raised birds for $1,000.

What to do?

I usually only hunt pheasants a few times each fall on my 80 acres until December. November is a whirlwind of ducks, geese and deer, but by early December everything is done except pheasant hunting. So if I want to hunt in the December snow, I have to chase pheasants.

Hunting pheasants during late season in eastern South Dakota is especially tough for the freelance hunter. In order to be successful, hunters find themselves in areas where cattail marshes are interspersed with sandbar willows or cedars. Trudging through deep snow in these areas, I refer to them as heart attack sloughs.

These marshes are magnets for surviving pheasants all year, but are especially important in snowy, winter conditions. Pheasants head to these areas when ice starts to form, or even when there’s open water during November. They’re nearly impossible to hunt until ice is solid. There is no way I want to break through ice and freeze to death trying to get a bird.

One day about 10 years ago I was hunting the edge of a big marsh at the outer edge of the cattails while my Lab was working the heavy cover. Walking was pretty easy until I hit that weak spot and was up to my rear end in ice cold water. When I finally made it back to the pick-up, a normal person would have questioned my sanity. These days, I only go on a few of these late season treks because I’m not as young and spry as I used to be. Besides, it can be downright dangerous.

In the Dakotas, when there is snow, it’s usually accompanied by wind. Cattails sloughs catch most of the snow blown off surrounding uplands. This can make walking even tougher, but there are still pheasants hiding out somewhere out there. If you can get to the cover, you might have to follow deer trails to make it through. On a bright sunshiny day, flushing a big rooster out of snow cover is a memorable experience.

These tough winter hunts are great if you’re in good physical condition. Birds are concentrated in any remaining cover and you rarely see another hunter. Late-season South Dakota pheasant hunting can be great for a hunter who’s game enough to try it.

Shelterbelts are also one of the last hangouts for late season roosters. However, you need at least three people to hunt these tree rows. There has to be on hunter on each side and a blocker at the end of the trees. Often, the blocker gets the best shooting.

A few years back, we were on a late December hunt near Johnsonville, a pheasant paradise owned by the Johnson brothers. Carter Johnson, Chuck McMullen, and I were out for the day. Snow was deep, but there was good cover and plenty of birds. The problem was that I was always in the wrong spot at the wrong time. They had both limited, while I’d walked just as far with nothing to show for it.

For the last walk of the day, I circled around to hide on the west end of a thick, cedar shelterbelt. Carter and Chuck started from the east and slowly headed my way. It wasn’t long before birds started funneling out of the trees. In a few minutes, I had my three birds down. As they approached, roosters kept piling out of the trees. I’m sure I had point blank shots at 40 or 50 roosters.

Why didn’t we just hunt this spot first instead of waling cattails all day? I guess it would have been too easy. But pheasant opportunities are out there in these last days. It’s a lot more challenging, but being out there is the first step.