South Dakota is well known as the pheasant hunting capital of the world, but South Dakota, with its rolling prairie lands, also holds great habitat and numbers of prairie chicken and sharptail grouse. Prairie chickens used to be found all over the central US, but in the late 1800’s, as the population started to move from the East to the West, their numbers shrank dramatically due to loss of habitat. Prairie chickens need large areas of prairie grasses to live, and in today’s world, there are very few places that hold this type of habitat. South Dakota and Nebraska are the main two states with this habitat, and thus they also hold the majority of the population of prairie chickens.
As I started to plan our hunt locations where we would be traveling to for my upland slam this year, one of the birds that I was most concerned about was the prairie chicken. They are often known to be one of the toughest to get a pointing dog on, especially during late season. In fact, most of the late season prairie chicken hunting is done by hunting fields where chickens are coming in to eat, and the hunt is much like goose hunting. Knowing I wanted to go early season with my dogs, the choice was between South Dakota and Nebraska. In discussion of various options with Tony Witte and Jason Berger at WTA, they recommended Brett in South Dakota. He is well known to be one of the great pheasant outfitters we frequently use at WTA, but the area and habitat that he has also holds a great population of prairie chickens and sharp-tails.
There is something about hunting the Dakotas that brings me back to my youth, when we would load our truck up with our dogs and gear and do the straight thru drive from Michigan to the Dakotas to bird hunt. The Dakotas have miles and miles of ideal upland habitat and are a true bird hunter’s dream. We timed this trip into South Dakota to catch the opener for both prairie chicken and sharptailed grouse. This would give us the best opportunity to get our Brittany’s in on points. Our group of dogs that we now have, do not have experience in hunting this habitat, so there would be a lot of learning by both dogs and hunters if we hoped to be successful. We pulled into Brett’s lodge in southcentral South Dakota on the afternoon before opener. It is a great setting and we were welcomed by friendly people as we got everything settled in and the dogs fed. We let our anticipation build for the next morning.
The next morning, we focused on hunting prairie grasses that were next to standing crop fields, mainly of corn. As the morning passed, we must have pointed and put up over 50 pheasants, but not a single prairie chicken. Then, out of dumb luck, I saw a prairie chicken flying from the right to my left and instinct took over. A shot, and I had my first ever prairie chicken. Sometimes while hunting, you need a little bit of luck on your side, and we continued to hunt the same type of cover for the rest of the day. We put up over 200 pheasants by the time the day was over but there were no more prairie chickens or sharp-tails. That night, back at the lodge, we talked over the type of cover we were hunting and made the decision that the next day we would focus on prairie grasses that were next to cut ag fields. Perhaps our first day, the prairie chickens and sharp-tails were in the standing crops. Maybe, we needed to hunt the grasses alongside the cut crop fields.
That next morning, it didn’t take long for us to realize we made the correct choice. We were instantly in sharp-tails. After the first couple of birds, the dogs quickly picked up what they were supposed to do. One of the greatest pleasures I have is watching great dogs work and continuously learn while they are hunting in the field. After an action-packed morning, Dad had his limit and I had 2 myself. As we continued to walk the field edges and our dogs locked up in front of me, I was expecting another sharp-tail. As I walked in and the bird exploded from the grass, I saw the markings of a prairie chicken. A good shot and just like that, I had my pointed prairie chicken. The main reason we chose South Dakota was in my hand. He was an absolutely amazing bird and I will remember this point for years to come.
On our last day in South Dakota, we decided to again hunt prairie grasses next to standing crops. This was in an effort to try and locate more prairie chickens. Many times, when upland hunting, it all depends on what field you pick, on that particular day, to hunt. On our last day in South Dakota, we just got darn lucky and picked the field that held well over a hundred prairie chickens. It wasn’t five minutes after we hit the field that Shooter and Tiny locked up. What I wasn’t expecting as I walked up, was a group of about a hundred prairie chickens taking off from as close as 25 yards, to as far out as 100 yards. We spent the next hour following the dogs around and I was able to get my limit of prairie chickens. This field was why we picked South Dakota for prairie chicken. Our dogs were able to point unpressured prairie chickens.
I have to admit, as we packed up our gear and loaded our dogs up in our trailer, that this trip to South Dakota was one of the best upland hunts I have ever been on. Yes, we got into a ton of birds. But, the best part for Dad and me was watching our group of four Brittany’s from Michigan learn and excel at hunting the big prairie grasses of South Dakota. If you are looking for a great spot to hunt sharp-tails and prairie chicken, while enjoying a great lodge and food, give the team at WTA a call. We have got you covered!!!