Open Season 2023 | South Fork Hunting Lodge
In the heart of western South Dakota lies South Fork Hunting Lodge. This Philip, South Dakota operation has combined pheasant production and a guided hunting experience for the past 23 seasons. Southfork is proudly operated by Brad and Carrie Kuchenbecker.
“I’ve always been an outdoorsman,” said Kuchenbecker. This was what drew him to South Fork, originally founded by Bart and Marcy Ramsey. “The Ramseys established the hunting preserve on their family ranch in 2000 and have built it up to what it is today,” said Kuchenbecker, “A personal and high-quality hunt with the best home cooking for miles. We are proud to carry that tradition on and build upon it.”
Over the years, Brad and his wife worked their way up into the operation and the Ramseys eventually passed the torch onto them. This year marks the Kuchenbecker’s sixth full season of running South Fork, with a goal of making their operation the destination for pheasant and turkey hunting. Part of the South Fork operation is a hunting lodge that facilitates guided hunting trips, while the other is a preserve for raising birds.
From Sept. 1 to March 31, South Fork offers guided hunts six days a week to visiting groups. With spring comes turkey hunting – one of the Kuchenbecker’s favorite times of year. “In the Early spring everything is starting to come alive. We get out at least an hour before the sun comes up, and as it starts to break everything comes to life. The human world hasn’t started their day, so everything you hear and see is crisp, Mother Nature is at it’s finest at this moment,” said Kuchenbecker. South Fork takes on 16 turkey hunters a year, usually in groups of four per weekend over a four-week period.
“Almost 90% of our customers are repeat,” said Kuchenbecker, “For one group, this year will be their 20th season in a row with us.”
This rate is a testament to the tailored experience South Fork provides to each individual group each season. Kuchenbecker says they never mix hunting groups, taking on only one at any given time. Carrie prepares three meals a day for the whole crew and they all sit down at the dining room table in their home. “After you’ve been here, you’re not a customer, you’re a friend,” said Kuchenbecker.
On the growing side of the South Fork operation, Kuchenbecker has state approval to release roughly 2,200 birds each year. To maintain this license they raise a majority of the released birds, but also purchase some adult birds when needed. They receive 1,800 day-old pheasant chicks from local hatcheries annually. The chicks eat and drink for the first time when they arrive in order to acclimate them to the environment in which they will grow up. Pheasant chicks are kept in a temperature regulated brood barn for the first six weeks. The birds enjoy free access to automatic waterers and feeders, fostering their healthy growth.
As they mature, the pheasants are given room to spread their wings in expansive fly pens. “Pheasants are wild by nature and very aggressive toward each other, so adequate space is essential to their growth and well-being.” said Kuchenbecker. The pheasants are turned out into these fly pens at six weeks old.
Birds are then released between 20-36 weeks of age, mixing the raised and wild pheasant population. Nature plays a vital role in the success rate of the South Fork’s bird population, with a mild winter allowing for healthy mating and integration into the wild population. However, the ongoing drought and its impact on the land and habitat have also posed challenges. Part of the property is dedicated to mating, brooding, and growing the wild population. After birds have successfully been active in the wild population for a season they are once again considered part of the “wild” population.
Millet and milo are grown on their operation for a grain source. Part of the crop is harvested and fed to growing chicks while the other portion is grazed by the wild pheasant and turkey population. Though yield quality of these food plots have declined in recent years from lack of rainfall, Kuchenbecker remains optimistic as he looks forward to the land’s eventual restoration.
Kuchenbecker’s love for hunting and the outdoors is what drew him and his wife to South Fork, but it is helping others hunt and enjoy the outdoors that has made it a calling and a career. “Watching others enjoy the outdoors, watching my dogs and my kids grow and use the skills they have obtained over the years – that is all I need,” says Kuchenbecker.