All Aboard the Dakota Express

Extend your bird hunting opportunities by stretching the season limits.

THEY SAY BAD THINGS HAPPEN in threes. I don’t consider myself superstitious, but as the Green Bay Packers put the finishing touches on a Monday Night thrashing of my Minnesota Vikings, I began to ponder the possibility. Earlier that day, my guide had backed the outfitter’s field bus into the front of my FJ Cruiser, and the previous morning my Brittany took a skunk discharge to the face during the first hour of the first day of my pheasant hunt.

But there was also plenty of good fortune to go around. It was early September and I was afield in South Dakota’s pheasant belt. Hard-flushing roosters were busting out of the lush green cover in obscene numbers, and my Britt’s head was spinning around like the little gal’s in “The Exorcist.”

Did I mention it was early September? If you’re like me, there simply aren’t enough bird-dog days during the fall seasons. Work and family commitments, along with a host of other time and budget constraints, conspire to limit days in the field during this relatively small window of opportunity. What’s a boy and his dog to do?

One solution is to (legally) work outside of season parameters, which typically means visiting commercial game preserves. In South Dakota these operations may begin hosting hunts September 1— perfect for hunters who want to get an early start to the season and whip their dogs into prime shape for wild bird hunting later during the fall.

R&R Pheasant Hunting, near Seneca, South Dakota, is a four-star commercial hunting operation with a luxurious lodge and 4,000 acres groomed for topnotch pheasant hunting. At the invite of my good friend Kevin Howard, who does pubic relations for Browning firearms, I was one in a group of gun writers there to get some hands-on exposure to the company’s new autoloading shotgun, the Maxus.

By law, hunters on licensed game farms in South Dakota can shoot up to 15 birds per day, so operations such as R&R can set liberal limits, ranging from the state’s three wild bird bag limit on up. On this occasion, the bag limit was extended to the max so we could put the new gun through the rigors of a high-volume hunt—which meant lots of shooting and lots of dog work.

Preseason Tune-ups

Preseason tune-ups can go a long way toward ensuring a more productive season. Not only does it extend your days in the field, it’s a way to quickly condition your dog. And if you’re introducing a new pup to hunting, it provides a controlled environment with more birds than you’re likely to encounter under normal hunting conditions.

Full-scale operations like R&R— while worth the price of admission if you want the full-scale lodge experience— can be expensive. But preseason hunting opportunities come in all shapes and sizes … and with a variety of price tags.

There are means of getting your pups in the field for preseason warm-ups without breaking the bank. Local put-and-take game farms, where you pay per planted bird, are one good option. The ones I’ve been to charge $16- $19 per pheasant and $10-$12 for chukars. The beauty here is that I can arrange to have birds planted and then simply hunt them up, or place the birds myself. If I have specific drills I want to work on, such as introducing a new pup to birds, I can do so in a controlled manner. Some operations also have pigeons, available at a lower cost, for the expressed purpose of training during the off-season.

Another option is to work your dogs on wild birds (where the law permits) prior to the season. I’ve run my dogs out to the South Dakota grasslands in August numerous times, where it’s legal (within certain parameters) to work them on wild grouse.

If you have the facilities to raise your own birds and a place to work them, chukars and pigeons provide a good off-season workout. A few years back, I raised a few dozen chukars and used them to firm up my dogs during the summer. It was an inexpensive substitute for going to game farms, and if I had even an hour to spare I could work my dogs on live birds. Chukars and pigeons are hardy birds and easy to raise and keep.

A word of caution: Weather can be hot during August and early September. Be sure to keep your dogs hydrated and avoid working them during the heat of the day. I generally knock off during the afternoon after running my dogs for a few hours first thing in the morning. I take them back out for the final couple of hours of daylight, once temperatures begin to moderate.

As I motored home from Seneca (with my windows rolled down and my bumper wired up), I was excited by the prospect that bird seasons were only weeks away—and that my pup was better prepared for what lay ahead.

Cannonball Run

The first few weeks of pheasant season in the Dakotas and my home state of Minnesota were frustrating. Standing corn dominated the landscape and success came in small doses, mostly during the evening when I could intercept a few roosters heading to the roost.

So when Ken Jorgenson from Sturm, Ruger and Co. asked me to join him on a hunt in western North Dakota, I was in my truck before he hung up the phone. I’d hunted west of Bismarck before and knew that croplands give way to pheasant-rich CRP grasslands—perfect conditions for pointing dogs. I was anxious to get out of corn country.

It was evident from the get-go that North Dakota pheasant numbers were at all-time highs. The birds literally littered the ditches and field edges as we made the 2-hour commute from our motel to where we’d be hunting near the Cannonball River. We were in for wild bird hunting at its finest. My biggest concern was that we’d limit out before my dog even got warmed up.

In fact, I voiced that very concern when we hooked up with our guide, Randy Hansen, from Cannonball Country Outfitters. “Maybe we could hunt more marginal habitat with fewer pheasants so our dogs get more of a workout,” I offered. Randy looked at me like I had two heads.

On the drive to our first field, Randy gave us the lowdown on the unique nature of this pheasant operation. “Twenty years ago, a group of landowners along the Cannonball River pooled their land together and formed a corporation to manage their land for pheasants and to sell hunts,” he said. “They’d had some problems with slob hunters and trespassing, and wanted to get a better handle on who was on their land. But they also saw the influx of people as an economic boost for the local community, and southwestern North Dakota in general.”

Randy explained that as an added benefit, the operation actually supports public hunting. Money from the hunters who hunt the co-op amounts to $50,000 per year in out-of-state licenses that goes to the F&G department general fund, which helps fund the PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) program and provides opportunities for local hunters and out-of-state hunters who want to hunt public land.

It was some of the best wild bird hunting I’ve ever experienced. In the 2 days Ken and I spent hunting with Randy, we saw birds in numbers reminiscent of the soil bank days. I wore a smile all the way back to Minnesota.

I wrapped up my upland season with a couple day trips to a local game farm, an overnight hunt in South Dakota and then home to northern Minnesota during Thanksgiving to chase some grouse. By hunting prior to the season and then continuing late into the fall, I was able to keep my dogs in the field for the better part of 4 months.

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