Memorable Pheasant Hunting in South Dakota
By Ed CarrollIf Dillon Springer intended any salacious humor or double entendre, it was lost on me amidst the expectations brought on by our surroundings on that early October morning. Dillon’s wirehair-Lab mix, Ruger, jumped down from his box in the back of the Suburban and hit the ground hunting. One guide, one hunter, one dog, setting out for the much-anticipated first morning of a South Dakota pheasant hunt. We were surrounded by a patchwork of cover types: a windbreak of trees behind us, a food plot of milo before us and a brushy creek bottom winding along the plot’s far side. The habitats varied, depending on which way we pivoted from our starting point, into areas of 10 to 20 acres of ideal covers and edges.
“I call these our cock pockets,” Dillon told me with a smile, and my mind was totally on the dog and the pheasants and I knew just what he meant. We were in a garden of small-cover choices—perfect for small-group hunting. We turned toward the patch of milo, Ruger started to work the rows 20 yards ahead, and it was game on.
Dillon’s words struck me later, and I wondered if there might be a slang undercurrent to them . . . . There’s a matter of appropriate delicacy—of fowl nomenclature, I suppose—which is why we all call “Rooster!” when a long-tailed bird gets up in front of the line.I had come to the Springer family’s Buffalo Butte Ranch, in Gregory, fresh from hunting in northeastern Montana. The landscape had grown greener the farther east I’d driven toward this southern sliver of South Dakota, west of the Missouri River and close to the Nebraska line. (You can fly to Sioux Falls and rent a car for the drive of just less than three hours, and during my stay one corporate group arrived from Texas in a private jet that landed in nearby Winner, where ranch staff picked them up.) I was psyched for this style of hunt and for the contrast to the arid and thorny ground and ocher grasslands of Montana. The milo was waist-to-shoulder-high, green, fibrous and tough to navigate when your feet lost the row.
I knew I was a little under-gunned under the circumstances. In Montana I had carried my little 12-gauge Birmingham boxlock for its light weight and because it’s what I like to carry. It is more than a match for sharptails and Huns, and I even had taken a sage grouse that had held well for a point. But with low-pressure 21/2" shells filled with one ounce of No. 6s, I was well aware of my limitations for pheasants and perfectly happy to pass up shots beyond 25 yards. If Ruger stayed close and the roosters didn’t run, I’d get a chance at a layup—eventually.
In the milo, at least, we quickly saw how this early season game was going to be played. The crop was an impenetrable jungle canopy at about the level of the dog’s head, and Ruger would lose track of us and sometimes range out. During the three days I hunted at Buffalo Butte there were times when the connection between dogs and hunters was dropped and birds were flushed too far away. But the birds also could run among the stalks and seemed to feel little need to flush from the thick cover; I imagined them running ahead of the dogs just out of sight, and then doubling back and getting behind us. But if this was to be a cat-and-mouse game played between dogs and birds, so be it. After all, this was hunting, not shooting.
Toward the end of the first 200-yard walk we put up a couple of birds, both out of range. The second I chased off for good measure with an ill-considered salvo and, though I felt badly for my overzealousness and maybe imagined a flinch from a pellet strike, the bird stroked on without missing a beat and sailed toward yonder CRP.
When we reached the end of the row, we stopped for water, moved past a swath of withered cornstalks and started the walk back through the adjoining milo. The third rooster got up within range of the little gun—but barely—and stayed low and flew strongly. I was nowhere near quick or steady enough in the heavy cover, and my shot was a poke-and-hope and almost certainly behind. If Dillon was wondering why he’d wasted his honey holes on me, he was being politely quiet.
Hens flushed here and there or squirted out of the milo and kept running. Finally Ruger pushed up the rooster that I had been waiting for: about 20 yards out and climbing, as much rising as crossing left to right and going slightly away. I had plenty of time to mount and swing ahead, and I dropped the bird cleanly. The day always seems a little more fun—and the shooting more relaxed—when you have that first rooster in the bag.
We moved to the creek bottom to let the dog drink and cool off, as the morning was warming. We hunted downstream to a culvert and crossing, and then turned into a thickly tangled shelterbelt. One rooster eluded Ruger through the shady thicket and squirted out into the daylight beyond. We finished the windbreak in the direction of our original course and turned for the truck, catching the elusive rooster in the open. He flew straight away, and I anchored him with my first barrel—Ruger grabbing him almost as soon as he hit the ground.South Dakota’s heralded pheasant opener was still more than two weeks away, but Buffalo Butte holds a preserve permit for the 1,500 or so acres it manages extensively for birds and starts hunting September 1. The ranch comprises some 6,000 acres that includes crops, cattle grazing on hillsides, and the rocky butte rising hundreds of feet behind the main lodge that gives the property its name. It’s not what you typically imagine as a South Dakota landscape and offers an altogether peaceful and dramatic setting for being outdoors.
Dillon is the fifth generation of Springer on the land; his parents, Marshall and Colleen, farmed and ranched there before him, guiding pheasant hunters in a more casual way that extends back to his father’s father and beyond. In 2003 they committed to building the 4,000-square-foot main lodge and devoted themselves to managing for birds and accommodating hunters throughout the season. Dillon, 29, has been guiding for 10 years and now manages ranch operations. While he and Marshall still have crops to harvest as part of the mix, they no longer graze their own cattle. They put a lot of effort into the food plots and cover that sustain the pheasants and create the hunting experience.
Photographs by Ed Carroll and Derek Harwood/3plains.com
Around the lodge, especially, Buffalo Butte bears the genuine warmth and charm of the Springer family. During my three-day visit Marshall was often the host at cocktail hour and during meals. He knew many of the hunters who came through, as their repeat-visit loyalty has fostered friendships. For example, a group of six friends and family from Colorado who arrived at the end of my first day had been visiting annually for more than five years; the business group from Texas that flew in also had been hunting there for years. Colleen leads the kitchen, preparing meals with a small crew that includes Dillon’s wife, Rachael.
Dinners are family style as well—if you count perfectly grilled rib-eye steaks and thick pork chops typical family fare. Sides of veggies, green salads, potatoes, coleslaw and breads are served buffet-style, and guests and family sit down together at three large tables in the dining area off of the kitchen. The lodge’s soaring great room and lounge area were made for socializing, with comfortable leather couches and a hunting lodge’s proper outdoor theme; the deck beyond offers a miles-wide vista that caps a day in the fields perfectly.
Lunches are best described as “authentic.” Soups and sandwiches are served in a farm outbuilding where tractor and equipment repair gives way to folding tables and chairs. It was comforting to peel off layers of hunting garb and enjoy good food and camaraderie with no worries about what you tracked in with your boots.Food plots of corn and milo are interspersed with grasses and are in many places surrounded by creeks, cattails and marshy preserves that offer ample refuge and holding ground for fleeing birds. Most of the hunting is of the block-and-drive sort, and Dillon holds strictly to a pledge to not mix groups—so your group size largely sets your hunting style. I tagged along as an observer with the group of eight from Texas on the first afternoon and the group of three from eastern Oregon on the second. On my final morning I was invited to hunt with the group of six from Colorado, and the traditional drive was great fun for both socializing and shooting. A smaller group can more easily hunt the more “intimate” spots Dillon showed me the first morning.
This much hunting pressure certainly requires some pheasants that are reared elsewhere and released. The birds were plentiful but wary and strong. Each group has a three-rooster-per-gun limit, though accommodations can be made if a final drive puts the tally over that.
Early season conditions prevailed for the groups I tagged along with, and the pheasants took advantage of the thick cover. “I really love the late-season hunting more,” Dillon told me, adding that the walking gets easier after frosts help knock down the cover, and the birds grow more wary and cluster together later in the year.On my final morning, hunting with the group from Colorado, I carried a 20-gauge over/under for a little more “oomph” from its modern chambers. I tried to be a polite guest and the last to shoot at birds that flushed before our line, but it sometimes was tough to hold back.
My most memorable shot came when I was near the middle of the line and a rooster flushed well ahead, breaking out of the cover to our left and evading a couple of shots on his way. I waited politely until eventually given a chance, and my shot caught the pheasant rising about 40 yards out and 40 feet up. Momentum carried him well into the rows of corn in the next plot over.
But this ego boost was followed by a humbling moment shared by Jeffrey Gauthier, the hunter to my left in the line. A rooster that had held tight as the dogs passed lost his nerve when a Lab reversed course and flushed straight at us from 20 yards. It’s hard to say whether we or the bird were more flustered, as Jeffrey and I fought the impulse to duck and instead mounted our guns as the pheasant clawed for height. The accelerating incomer was rising at a steep angle as the two of us simultaneously fired, missed and watched him pass over unscathed.
“Damn, I just couldn’t get the muzzle swinging fast enough to get out in front of him,” Jeffrey said, popping out the spent shell. We walked on through the milo in silence as we recovered our wits. A couple of minutes later Jeffrey spoke again, saying just what I was thinking: “I wish I had that shot to do over again.”
Our guide, Steve Kayser, who had watched the whole thing, offered a consoling bit of philosophy that should come with every great day of bird hunting: “Isn’t it funny how the misses get stuck in your mind, but nobody remembers the straightforward shots on the birds that you hit. It’s the birds that you miss that stay with you.”
We did take a limit after more than three hours and lots of shooting, and the group was in high spirits as we headed to the barn for a hearty stew. Whether we remember the hits or the misses, the shots that nearly knock us over, or sharing the field with friends, clearly it’s the pheasants, the people and the landscape that keep hunters coming back to Buffalo Butte Ranch year after year.
Author’s Note: For more information on pheasant hunting in South Dakota, contact Buffalo Butte Ranch, 800-203-6678; www.buffalobutte.com.
Featured photo by Derek Harwood/3plains.com (top)