Beyond Pheasant Hunting: Upland game birds offer unique challenge on South Dakota’s prairies
On the rolling hills of the South Dakota prairie, adventure awaits. With a solid pointing dog and comfortable hunting boots, hunters can find a unique hunting experience. The targets? Sharp-tailed grouse and the greater prairie chicken.
While the state has become world-famous for its pheasant hunting, these native upland birds are scattered throughout the state’s prairie grasslands. The season runs mid-September until the first week in January, and South Dakota has one of the highest grouse and prairie chicken populations in the nation. The Fort Pierre area has the largest density of birds with hunters flocking each year to central South Dakota to take advantage of a one-of-a-kind hunt.
“South Dakota is one of the few states for hunters do experience a mixed bag hunt where they can shoot grouse, prairie chickens and pheasants in one trip,” said Travis Runia, South Dakota Game Fish & Parks (GFP) senior upland game biologist. “The state offers a tremendous opportunity for folks to enjoy the natural landscape of these expansive grasslands while hunting a native bird that can sometimes be very difficult to track.”
Dale Gates, GFP regional conservation officer supervisor, grew up hunting grouse and prairie chickens and enjoys the challenge of finding the birds nestled within the slopes and hills of the wide-open prairie.
“I started hunting these birds when I was a kid. It became a family tradition over the years,” said Gates. “We would travel to the Pierre area on the weekends, and I just got hooked. Now that I live here, I can hunt them on a daily basis. This is the only place in the nation that has the mixture of pheasant and grouse for people to hunt. Hunters can expect to put in a lot of miles as they walk through large expanses of grasslands.”
According to a survey conducted by GFP, there were 89,361 resident and 82,992 nonresident licenses issued that allowed holders to hunt prairie grouse (which refers to both sharptail and prairie chickens). Approximately 10 percent of residents and nonresidents were surveyed for the upland bird seasons. Based on survey responses indicating at least one day of hunting grouse, there were a projected 6,503 resident and 4,254 nonresident grouse hunters. A projected total of 35,790 grouse were harvested (25,847 by residents, 9,943 by nonresidents) during the 2014 season.
While not as popular as pheasant hunting — there were 1,199,803 pheasants harvested by 504,144 residents and 695,660 nonresidents in 2014 — grouse hunting is growing in popularity, and hunting grouse verses pheasants requires an entirely different strategy.
“With pheasant hunting, we hunt really thick cover, cattails, trees and corn fields,” said Runia. “Whereas with grouse, hunters will be walking through grass that’s not even knee high. The birds aren’t as easy to predict about where they will be, so it requires putting in a lot of miles to find out where they are at. Serious hunters rely on pointing dogs who can run 300-500 yards ahead to find the birds, while pheasant hunters typically use Labradors to flush the birds out of their hiding spaces.”
Runia said drought conditions throughout the state might have a negative impact on the grouse population, but he still expects plenty of hunters to travel to Fort Pierre to hunt these tricky birds.
“We had a pretty mild winter, which is great for pheasants, and as we got into the nesting and hatching season, weather was really favorable,” said Runia. “We did see some dry conditions occurring throughout the grouse range, but we won’t know specific population numbers until we conduct our annual survey later this year.”
Pasture management is vital to providing the best habitat for greater prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse.
“If it’s good for the herd, it’s good for the bird,” said Runia. “When rangelands are healthy, the birds have a healthy landscape to thrive, and a higher population of birds is a symptom of productive grasslands. With residual cover for nesting in the summertime, it allows these birds to nest throughout the expansive rangeland areas that the state has to offer.”
Gates says patience is the key to a successful grouse hunt.
“Some folks who come to hunt grouse are surprised by how much walking they end up having to do,” said Gates. “There really isn’t a lot of skill involved in finding these birds. You’ll find more birds the more miles you put in. A lot of guys will get frustrated right away, but it takes patience because you never know where these birds might be. Early in the season you’ll find them in shaded areas when its warm, and they tend to fan out to eat and roost later in the day. Sometimes they’ll be scattered on top of a hill, and other times, they’ll be tucked down in a valley. It’s a fun challenge for those who come to experience it.”
The limit is three birds per day in any combination. Both males and females can be shot as it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart, says Gates.
“To distinguish between the two species of birds, hunters can look for the distinct barring on the breast of the prairie chicken verses the whitish pattern that the sharp-tail has,” explained Gates. “The sharp-tail also has pointed tail feathers while the grouse is squared off. The sharp-tail is more vocal, as well, than the prairie chicken. Their behaviors and flock sizes are different, as well, and the more you hunt, the easier it is to understand these birds.”
As the hunting season draws near, Gates offers some advice to new hunters.
“Sometimes it can take all day, and you don’t see a thing,” said Gated. “Then all of a sudden, you walk over a hill and hit your limit. In the early weeks of the season, prepare for warm weather. Carry water for your dogs and ice to put the birds on right away. The September heat can cause spoilage early in the season, so be aware of that. There’s no doubt about it, these are challenging birds to hunt, but the experience is truly unique to South Dakota, and you can’t beat the views.”