IPSWICH, S.D. -- A rooster jetted out of the corn stalks as soon as Mike Ward and Jax, his German shorthaired pointer, pushed into the crop a quarter-mile away.
The bird flew low and straight, rising over a row of cedar trees that concealed two other hunters. One of them, Mike’s father, stepped out of the pines with a raised shotgun. He ended an otherwise crafty getaway with a single blast.
On a recent cold-weather hunt in the pheasant capital of the world, our group of four wing shooters enjoyed too few of those successes. The wild birds we sought on private land in McPherson County were light in number for the second year in a row.
With gigantic losses of agriculture set-aside land that reared bumper hatches of pheasants as recently as 2007, the ringneck population in South Dakota has fallen well below the state’s standards for hunter satisfaction. It still dominates all other states as a natural producer of wild hens and roosters, but habitat losses are mounting every year as more and more grasses are plowed under to plant corn and soybeans.
The trend became personal this year when we arrived at 124th Street in Hillsview Township to see trees and brush from a familiar shelter belt piled high by a bulldozer.
It made us wonder if South Dakota’s pheasant hunting scene — already laced with nearly 500,000 farm-raised birds — will increasingly rely on artificial propagation.
“Shooting preserves are becoming more of a staple,’’ said John Cooper, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who previously served as cabinet secretary of South Dakota Game Fish & Parks. “It’s part of South Dakota’s pheasant opportunity now, but not a part of its heritage.’’
In some pay-to-hunt circles in South Dakota, it’s somewhat taboo to talk about the use of hatchery-born pheasants. Records kept by Game Fish & Parks show the industry is growing.
Last year, 214 private shooting preserves licensed by the state released at least 468,386 pheasants, up 21 percent from 2011. The total 2017 harvest of those birds — 283,254 — compares significantly to the 828,700 wild pheasants harvested in South Dakota last year.
Janelle Blaha of Game Fish & Parks helps regulate the industry. She checks on more than 100 instate commercial captive game bird breeders and additional out-of-state breeders licensed to supply the market.
In South Dakota, anyone can buy farm-raised pheasants and release them in the wild. But if hunters are paying to shoot those birds, the state requires preserve status.
Preserves can set their own bag limits and extend shooting opportunities beyond the limits of the state’s traditional season. But in exchange, they each must make a limited release of 600 pheasants — more if mortality is high — and tag each harvested bird as “wild” or “released.’’ The public-private partnership recognizes the fact that some wild birds get hunted out of season. In turn, South Dakota benefits from the preservation of good pheasant habitat managed by the preserves. Preserves can release hens, including bred hens, but hunters can’t shoot them.
Like Minnesota, South Dakota stopped releasing farm-raised pheasants decades ago.
Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said studies have shown the survival rates of stocked birds are “abysmally low.’’ In college, Cornicelli worked at New York state’s Ithaca pheasant farm.
“They get shot or eaten by coyotes and foxes,’’ Cornicelli said. “They are not very well adapted to the wild, that’s for sure.’’
At Ithaca, the roosters learned not to fly more than 8 to 10 feet off the ground because that was the height of the netting in their pens, he said.
Blaha said hunters on South Dakota’s public lands will only occasionally shoot a wayward, released bird. The telltale sign for most of those birds are remnant, oversized holes in the nose where anti-pecking blinders were mounted while the birds were in captivity. Other markings may include the clipping of a dew claw or the clipping of one toe — usually the middle one — back to the first joint, she said.
Josh Craig, a hunting guide who works west of Watertown, said his pheasant customers have experienced stellar shooting opportunities this season because his outfitting group has released hundreds of pen-raised roosters to supplement a strong base of wild birds.
“That way the hunters get their birds in a more timely fashion,’’ he said.
Wildlife biologists agree that farmed pheasants lack the instincts, cunning and flight skills of wild birds. But Craig said high-end pheasant farms are doing more to naturalize their birds by planting corn and other vegetation inside enlarged flight pens. Some operators release muzzled dogs into the pens to make the birds wary of predators, he said.
Those birds have a chance to live long on shooting preserves if the owners combine high-quality habitat with trapping programs to control predators, he said.
“We’ve come a long way from having to kick the bird to get it to fly,’’ Craig said. “I would venture to say our birds have a high survival rate.’’
On our annual hunt west of Aberdeen with family and friends, we lodged within 5 miles of South Dakota’s largest pheasant hatchery. Gisi Pheasant Farms of rural Ipswich produces upward of 800,000 roosters and hens each year, and its flight pens were still lively with market-ready roosters three weeks into this year’s season.
But Loretta Omland, supervisor at Gisi, declined to discuss the business.
“It’s such a touchy subject,’’ Omland said. “Our customers don’t want it out there.’’
The tiptoe treatment has to do with South Dakota’s reputation as the wild pheasant capital. Craig said he’s up front with customers to let them know he releases pen-raised birds, but he doesn’t dwell on it and he doesn’t say when the birds are dropped.
It’s true, according to one former supplier of tame pheasants, that some preserves prefer secretive deliveries, some in the middle of the night.
Said Omland: “We’re really confident about our business, and I’m proud of the way we do it. … But we have to zip our lips and honor our customers’ wishes.’’
Hunt not shoot
When each of our three hunting days just west of Gisi Farms ended with no one reaching his bag limit of three wild roosters, discussion turned to the day’s most memorable moments.
Hands down, top honors went to one solitary hour of field work by Jax on our final day. In that otherwise quiet window of time, the 17-month-old pup turned from vagabond flusher to focused pointer. She repeatedly stopped and lifted her right front paw over a covered hen or recently occupied grass. It was an instinctual, formative breakthrough for Jax, who worked alone with no other retrievers.
The pheasants had gotten the best of us, but each hunting day ended on the Big Sky prairie — leaning on our trucks and reflecting on our trials and tribulations as the sun set. Fine with us that we were away from the comforts of a hunting lodge.
Cooper, an avid waterfowl hunter and pheasant hunter, said it best. He longs for the return of South Dakota’s wild rooster heyday and won’t settle for shooting on a preserve.
“There’s a hunting challenge involved when there’s not a preserve,’’ Cooper said. “Give me three good dogs and four good guns and then beat your butt down by walking.’’