column By: Scott Cummings | October, 21
Now outside, everyone receives Brandon’s safety instructions in kindergarten fashion. It’s a good thing; lust often tempts us to override common sense and manners. In a moment, you’ll see why.
At the first parcel’s edge, two handlers strategically stagger themselves between hunters. The lead guide makes the nod to proceed, then bellows, “Hunt ’em up!”
Stohon, my rookie short-haired pointer, joins three spirited Labs — blacks Red and Tucker and yellow Sadie he is infatuated by. Frantically traversing the towering cornstalks, rays of sunlight illuminate the golden jail cells that seem to stretch indefinitely.
“Hen, hen, hen. Don’t shoot,” interrupts our concentration.
You take a deep breath as adrenaline floods your body, look to either side for fluorescent orange and reset your cadence. A familiar whistle precedes my command, “Stohy, come!”
Amongst the cacophony of rummaging, he checks in before ramping back up.
Diagonal beams of neon yellow intersect with trotting game birds ahead, and the iridescent hues of kelly green, violet and fiery copper tones refract like an intermittent strobe. The anticipation of harvest now becomes intoxicating after I spot a scarlet wattle up ahead. The sounds of crunchy stalk leaves zipping across our waxed vests and boots suctioning off the mud beneath echo between my partners.
Whoomph, whoomph, whoomph drums to my right.
“Roos-ter!” exclaim the guides. I spin to locate the overhead flush and squeeze off the finishing shot to a North Carolina man’s expletives.
“Stohon got him!” clarifies our search, and as we exit that parcel, Brandon directs us to unload.
Our bus driver shakes her head and giggles. Margaret Korzan, aka “Toni,” also the owner, counts the birds for limit and makes sure both the guides and the hunters are cared for. And when you think you’re safe whining about a missed shot, she’ll take her jab at you with a perfectly timed zinger and a wink. She grew up with six brothers and graduated from MIT with degrees in chemical and nuclear engineering, so you hold your tongue.
Mecca: South Dakota
South Dakota is the Holy Grail for wild ringneck hunting, thanks to excellent habitat and painstaking conservation and management efforts. Home to more than 7.1 million wild pheasants, it consistently rests atop all rankings for bird counts and harvests as North America’s premier trophy destination. In 2019, hunters bagged 829,501 birds during the pheasant season. Brule County claims one of the state’s premier locales at a density of 200 wild pheasants per square mile, far better than others.
“Our CRP program is strong here. We’ve been able to reduce soil erosion, enhance water quality, increase hatch rates and hold birds throughout the hunting season. Our strip plantings of sorghum, milo and corn, with proximity to lakebeds and sloughs, are ideal tracts for the entire life cycle of our pheasants,” says Korzan. “Some of the shelterbelts, like the dense cedar strips you hunted, provide a great escape from wet fields and heavy snowfalls.”
If you’ve never experienced the strategy of a driven hunt, that is, a line of dogs and their handlers methodically pushing a field upwind one parcel at a time until it empties both coveys and single runners, you need to.
A pheasant’s instinct is first to hide, then run and finally, take flight. “Impossible” best describes the one- or two-man task of dropping a dozen birds at once. Most outfits rotate hunters down the cornrows and grass tracts to even out the action and bounty throughout the day. Walking the edges 100 yards ahead, flankers help contain against jailbreaks. Older gents jump at the chance to “block” at the end of a parcel, posting up downwind. The young and sturdy get the daunting task of combing the entanglements till exotic fowl rocket out each agricultural expanse.
That second afternoon I limited out end blocking on just one drive. The sounds of four hunters and two guides trampling forward sent several hens and one cock out to my right. Aiming to his front half, I swung through, and I dropped him at 25 yards with my Dickinson Plantation 20-gauge side-by-side. No sooner had I reloaded with no. 4s, I spun back to my left and took a double at 10 ahead and 20 yards farther out. Not thirty seconds behind flushed three more roosters as I waved them a safe flight.
And, yes, Korzan was there to congratulate me and capture the photo I’ve always dreamed about.
Dakota Prairie Lodge and Resort
This resort is dog friendly, and Stohon stayed in my room. While guests should bring a portable cage, Toni offers the cleanest kennels I’ve ever seen.
Between private and leased land, guests have access to 12,000 acres of varied habitat for dove, ringnecks and waterfowl. For September only, dove hunts are offered until waterfowl opens mid-September and ends mid-December. Duck lovers put in for the state waterfowl draw in July and wait; extra over-the-counter licenses pop up towards the season opening, as hunters are now allowed to return unused tags.
And then the world’s most significant migration of upland hunters descends upon the pheasant capital for the Oct. 16 opener. The season ends Jan. 31, so there is plenty of time to get there and limit out on your three roosters a day.
I chose to split some days into morning ducks and afternoon roosters. Migratory duck hunts over the “prairie pothole” depressions have put this state on waterfowlers’ bucket lists. Our guide Mark busted tail to set us over a different locale and group of decoys each day according to scouting and wind patterns.
Gerek replied, “Try watching him on the field. It was amazing!” What a small world.
All new for this December to January time frame, coyotes will be heavily furred and offered for early morning pickings. Do remember that the open plains are unforgiving when it comes to weather. Dress in layers as your hunt in Utopia may start with 20 degrees and snow (even in October) and heat up to 65 by day’s end.
In addition to knowledgeable guides and insatiable dogs, your stay includes lodging, three delicious buffet-style meals a day, an open bar, shells, clays, fantastic mudroom, gun racks, vacuum-sealed game prep, gym, cigar room, salon, laundry facilities, business center and all airport and field transportation.
You heard that right. Your job is to get there and back home. The lodge staff will even pick you up at airports if needed. Remember, Mount Rushmore is a three-hour drive if your schedule allows.
Come summer, another 5,000 acres will be dedicated to prairie dog hunting, and you can smoke as many varmints as possible. Walleye fishing in the nearby Missouri River seems to be a favorite exercise for summer groups when weddings and corporate retreats aren’t booked. Both activities come fully guided.
Korzan is relentless in her marketing during the off-season of spring and summer. You may have seen her at past shows like SCI in Las Vegas; Dallas Safari Club; Great American Outdoors Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Indiana Deer, Waterfowl and Turkey Expo in Indianapolis; Wisconsin Dells Open Season Expo; Dixie Deer Classic in Raleigh, North Carolina; International Sportsmen’s Expo in Denver, Colorado. With Covid somewhat behind us, she added Birmingham, San Antonio and Kansas City to the 2021 tour.
With so many repeat clients, Korzan doesn’t need to travel at all. She does it because she loves to meet new folks, and if you’ve met her, you’d understand; she was made for this lifestyle.
Witnessing the incredibly dry forecast of summer 2021, some clients debated bagging their fall waterfowl trips. Korzan never flinched. “The way I see it, not as many potholes filled up with the rain. The ones that did make our honey hole strategies a whole lot easier,” she reminds hunters. “Ducks have to land somewhere. And if they don’t, there’s always ringnecks.”