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A Reign of Pheasants
On a bright October morning, I climb aboard a small bus with a group of happy hunters dressed in various configurations of fluorescent orange. In the center aisle are vertical gun racks where the jovial friends have placed their finely crafted shotguns. On the floor between the racks are large Tupperware tubs filled with hundreds of shotgun shells-red for 12-gauge, yellow for 20. Like kids grabbing for candy on Halloween, hands reach in to fill the pockets of hunting vests with the plastic-cased, brass-bottomed shells loaded with No. 4 shot.
We stop at one end of a long, narrow field of red-and-white milo or grain sorghum gone to seed, uncut and standing in muted shades of brown and tan. At the direction of a hunting guide, three hunters line up abreast-one on the outside of the standing milo to the right, one on the outside to the left and one who is to work his way through the chest-high grain stalks. We stand silently. I hear a tantalizing, muffled barrage of shots in the distance. The guide is busy strapping collars on a pair of dogs, a sleek gray Weimaraner named Willie and a lithe black Labrador retriever called Mollie. The eager-eyed dogs are whining and shivering with excitement.
At the guide's signal we move slowly forward. "Barrels up," he reminds the gunners. "Shoot high."
"Get 'em up, Willie, get 'em up," the guide chants as he walks just behind the row of hunters. "Get those birds in the air. Make 'em fly. Come on, let's go-get 'em up!"
The brittle vegetation opens as a dull-colored bird rockets skyward. And another.
"Hen!" the guide yells and the hunters lower their guns from their shoulders.
Now the dogs are literally flying though the crackling thickets ahead, leaping into the air as if straining to see over the grain tassels.
"Rooster-r-r-r!" Extravagantly colored birds with long, graceful tails, rich copper bodies, red-waddled green heads and white-banded necks are suddenly everywhere, punctuating the whirring scene with their tinny nasal calls of kuck-kuck-kuck-kuck!
Guns spring to life: Boom! Boom! Boom! The dogs are racing. Acrid wisps of burnt gunpowder fill the air. The blue South Dakota sky is raining pheasants.
We are patrolling a corner of the 18,000-acre Paul Nelson Farm near Gettysburg, in the vast prairie pothole country in the central part of the state, of which roughly 13,000 acres are plowed and tended to grow soybeans, wheat, sunflowers and millet. The remaining land is devoted to carefully cultivated patchworks of "solid-seeded" or non-row corn and milo. Laced among these food plots are windbreak rows of drought-resistant cedar, plum and Russian olive trees, some 200 acres altogether. This agricultural mosaic-all part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program-creates some of the most inviting habitats in the world for ring-necked pheasants.
The spectacular game bird is native to the uplands of China. Farmers introduced it to South Dakota in 1908 and by the 1930s clouds of wild birds saved some Depression-era families from becoming vegetarians. Today it is the official state bird.
Paul Nelson told me that he was inspired by South Dakota's tradition of pheasant hunting and what he had heard about the quail plantations in the Old South. At first he invited a few dozen hunters a year; they stayed in a local bed-and-breakfast. Then in 1992 he converted a ranch-hand's house to guest quarters that have since expanded into a luxurious lodge. Today, it attracts 700 hunters a year who are prepared to pay for the very best, including the likes of Dick Cheney and former NFL quarterback John Elway. Corporate groups, 80 percent of which arrive by private jet, are a specialty.
An easy 45-minute drive west is Sutton Bay, a club built on a historic ranch dating from 1896. It offers members sporting clays and the run of 4,000 acres of prime habitat managed for ring-necked pheasant, chukar and Hungarian partridge from September 1 through March 31, the same extended season as at Paul Nelson Farm.
Sutton Bay is home to an 18-hole golf course that Golf Digest named the No. 1 new private course in the U.S. in 2005-a relaxing treat once you've bagged your limit of pheasants in the morning. The links-style Graham Marsh-designed course and Sutton's 16,000-square-foot lodge with two-story stone fireplace are perched on dramatic rolling hills with stunning views of Lake Ohae.
"A lot of people come here for the golf," general manager John Anderson told me, "but when they see the caliber of the hunting, it's a slam dunk. I don't think anyone else offers this level of experience."
Pierre Regional (South Dakota's capital, pronounced "Peer"), which has a 6,900-foot runway, and Gettysburg Municipal, which has a 4,400-foot runway.
Paul Nelson Farm, Gettysburg, S.D., www.paulnelsonfarm.com, (605) 765-2469 (rates start at $4,295 for three-day hunts).
Sutton Bay, www.suttonbay.com, (605) 264-5530 (hunting
by membership only; tours available for prospective members).
South Dakota Department of Tourism,
www.travelSD.com/thingstodo/hunting, (605) 773-3301.