By Gary Howey
Heading north from South Whitlock, it didn't take us long before we spotted several herds of deer and antelope, but no pheasant habitat, sure, we were driving through rangeland, but in years past, when we made the drive, we had seen birds along these roads no matter what direction we drove from Gettysburg.
It was obvious, things had changed as Mother Nature and the price of corn and beans had changed the dynamics of land found throughout the upper Midwest.
Nearing the area, we planned to hunt, small parcels of habitat started to appear with a few pheasants feeding along the road.
When there was habitat, such as the area Chuck had, you were bound to see birds and we made our way into the field of Chuck's land, with excellent habitat, a combination of CRP grass, food plots, stock dams and shelterbelts providing what the birds needed to survive the long South Dakota winters.
Habitat, the way it lays and its quality are huge factors when it comes to healthy wildlife populations with a combination of several different plantings adding to the benefit the field would be to wildlife.
It was late season, off in the distance, birds were starting take wing, bursting from the cover of the grass, food plots and shelterbelts.
Approaching the first food plot, pheasants, both roosters and hens came up out of the food plots, one, two then dozens of birds as they erupted from heavy cover.
It was late January, when cameraman Andrew Zak and I made our way north to the Gettysburg, S.D. area. We would be meeting family friend, former Watertown native and successful lake Oahe and hunting guide Chuck Krause, Chuck Krause Guide Service (www.chuckkrauseguideservice.com) who we would be doing our hard water cast on Lake Oahe and a late season blast on his pheasant preserve.
Arriving after lunch, our plan was to hit the ice for some late afternoon ice fishing and then again the following day to do some ice fishing. Chuck had a group of friends from Watertown who would join us the end of the week for a late season pheasant hunt.
Chuck, Lewie Valentz and Duane McCullough and I would start the late afternoon fishing trip, punching holes in the ice just north of the Highway 212 Missouri River Bridge, which connected the folks on the east river side with the west river.
We were setting over forty-five to fifty foot of water, probing the depths, hoping to ice enough fish for a fish fry we were looking forward to enjoying the following evening.
It did not take long before it was obvious as to who had the hot stick, as Duane started pounding the fish before I had gotten my Vexilar Double Vision set up. He quickly set the hook and landed several eater walleyes as well as a huge catfish.
Shortly thereafter, Chuck pounded another big catfish and several walleyes, giving us a good start to the fish fry. We'd make three trips out on the ice, fishing a couple of hours each time and despite the sometime, gale force winds, where able to catch a nice bunch of fish, assuring the Saturday night fish fry would be a success.
As I mentioned earlier, we'd were scouting the area the Saturday afternoon hunt where we would be hunting, giving my cameraman and myself an idea as to how the land laid out, allowing us to formulate a plan on just how to best film the hunt.
The Watertown crew, Steve Horning, Bob Lantgen, Dick Linneman, Bob Graf, Jim Dehnert, Dennis Deville and Larry Longstreet arrived after lunch, to join up with Chuck, Lewie Valentz, Bob Truman, Rapid City and I for the afternoon hunt and after stowing their gear, we headed north.
Arriving, we laid out a plan and using late season hunting tactics, blockers, wingmen as well as both pointing and flushing dogs, we lined up for the first push through a milo food plot inside a grass planting.
Dick Linneman, two other hunters and I headed out to block the end of the field while the rest of the hunters spread out across the grass and adjourning food plots with Steve's, Bob Truman and Chuck's dogs working out front.
As with any late season hunt, if late season tactics are not employed, the birds will fly out, far in front of the walkers, out of shotgun range, escaping out the edge and the end of the field.
Blocking the end of the field is usually a good bet as pheasants, who love to run will out distance the hunters and dogs, blowing out the end of the field, ahead of the group, giving those blocking excellent shot opportunities.
When the first birds came up out ahead of the hunters, at a distance, they looked like pheasants, but something didn't seem right, as they came up slowly, chuckling as they rose, pumping hard to gain altitude, gliding and pumping again. It was obvious they were Grouse and since the season on them had closed, all we could do was to watch as they glided overhead.
The sounds of the shotgun blasts made it clear the hunters, making their way through the field were getting some shooting, with several of the birds, escaping, flying out ahead of the walkers between them and our wingmen before getting to the blockers.
On each walk, we added birds to our game bag; with very few getting away with many of the birds bagged at long range, making it obvious these boys could hunt.
These birds were educated, after being hunted during the long season, they had seen it all and were not about to hang around when they heard hunters and their dogs coming through the field.
When the hunters neared the end, several hens glided over Dick and I while one of the wingmen blocking with us, made a long shot, dropping a birds that came out the far side of the food plot.
We hunted several different fields, all made up of excellent habitat with each holding good numbers of birds, birds that flew well and were as wild as I have ever been fortunate enough to hunt.
On this hunt, we were able to spend time in the field with friends, shoot our birds, bring home our limit and have many excellent memories from a South Dakota late season pheasant hunt.
Some may say hunting preserve birds is not much of a hunt, on this; I would have to disagree, as there are excellent preserves out there, with many factors that have to be considered when we are talking about the quality of a preserve hunt.
Number one, as I have mentioned before is habitat, not simply grass and food plots the birds can live in during the season, they need habitat they can utilize throughout the year, for nesting, raising their young, roosting, surviving the hot summers and long South Dakota winters.
Excellent habitat is hard to find, the areas with good stands of grass, tree belts and food plots will not only hold the preserve birds, they will also attract wild birds as excellent habitat, is becoming hard to find.
Another factor when it comes to having a good hunting preserves hunt is the quality of the released birds, the way they are raised has a lot to do with the way they react once they hit the ground, birds with less human contact are more apt to better adapt to the wild.
It was not too long ago, when we drove, anywhere in the upper Midwest including Nebraska and South Dakota, when you would see birds everywhere, over the last year, seeing a pheasant in many parts of these states is a thing of the past.
Pheasants are tough birds; originally from China, survived the upper Midwest wet springs and winters since the early 1900, are prey for every predator on the planet, with the habitat they need to survive shrinking at an alarming rate
In many areas, the only place to see and hunt pheasants may be those, where hunting preserves have created habitat and stocked birds. With larger tracts of good quality year around habitat, predator control and good quality birds, some of these birds will survive to produce a brood next year, adding their numbers to those of the South Dakota's State bird, the Ringneck Pheasants numbers in the state.