Nothing tops a South Dakota pheasant hunt in terms of sheer popularity. Yes, Georgia quail certainly have a huge following, but the rooster reigns supreme as the king of gamebirds—and although great hunting for ringnecks can be found in plenty of other states, “SoDak” is the top destination. Yet for all its popularity, the pheasant is not the real king of the Rushmore State. That distinction goes to the region’s true primordial stalwarts, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens, which have inhabited the plains for thousands of years compared to the ringneck’s 200-year presence on the prairie timeline. (Sorry, Phez!)
Thousands of grouse and “chickens” are bagged every year by devotees who prefer these birds to pheasants. Thousands of others are taken as “bonus birds,” shot incidentally—caught in the crossfire, if you will—by hunters pursuing pheasants. The latter is possible because pheasants, grouse and prairie chickens coexist in certain types of habitat, making the number of bonus-bird opportunities more or less proportional to the amount of crossover habitat.
Firesteel Creek Lodge, in Isabel, South Dakota, is situated in the north-central part of the state, which is considered one of the better sharptail grouse regions in the US. The area also hosts a modest wild pheasant population that can be boosted to produce large numbers of birds with the kinds of habitat improvements Firesteel has implemented on the 200,000-plus acres it hunts. This combination of factors has resulted in some of the best pheasant-sharptail crossover hunting in the world.
“Although we have many guests who come specifically to hunt grouse,” said Firesteel owner and manager Mark Lindskov, “the majority of our schedule is booked for pheasant hunts, just because ringnecks are more popular. But due to the fact that we have so many sharptails living in our pheasant areas, many pheasant hunters end up bagging grouse. And because grouse are not as abundant in other parts of the state, some of those hunters are bagging their first grouse, which kind of makes them trophy birds. It ends up being the icing on the cake for a great pheasant hunt!”
Frequent Firesteel guest Lee Leone, of South Carolina, who has an extensive background pursuing ruffed grouse in New England, is big fan of the crossover experience. “I go to South Dakota to enjoy good pheasant hunting like everybody else,” Leone said, “but I am a wild-bird guy at heart, and no bird is wilder than a sharp-tailed grouse, which cannot be released from a pen like many other gamebirds. So, truth be told, I probably get more excited when I bag a grouse than a rooster!”
When it comes to popularity contests, the ensemble of long tail, sharp spurs, flashy colors and a cackling flush makes the ringneck a shoo-in every time. But sharptails and prairie chickens are formidable contestants too. Perhaps the best part of crossover hunts is that everybody wins.
Photos courtesy of Firesteel Creek Lodge.