GANN VALLEY, S.D. | If you like seeing a lot of pheasants in the air, you should try a late-season pheasant hunt.
Birds were boiling out of the tree belt and pounding their way toward a field of switch grass across a small valley and onto the hillside.
I estimated 200 pheasants were in the air at one time, most of them hens. And that's what I like about blocking a drive. You get to see all of the action.
Gun shots at the far end of the tree belt told me that there were roosters in the air, too. Not a bad start for the first five minutes of the hunt.
I watched Gary Howey, Hartington, Neb., move up the outside edge of the trees, his gun at the ready. Birds were beginning to come out the end already.
"Hen, Hen, Hen," I yelled. And then a long-tailed rooster, brilliant in winter colors took to the air. "Rooster," I yelled.
Gary swung his 12 gauge and fired. The big bird folded into the snow.
We were at Gann Valley Ranch, a pheasant hunting preserve located on 3,500 acres of rolling hills, native prairie, corn, sorghum, milo fields, CRP grasslands, food plots, tree strips and shelter belts. In other words, perfect pheasant habitat.
"Our birds are really bunched up right now," Jim Nelson, hunt manager, told us before the hunt. "We'll start in the trees and they'll move to the switch grass, then we'll walk that and they will move to the milo. We'll just follow them around."
It was beginning to look like that was a good plan. Virtually every bird leaving these trees headed for the switch grass.
You can say one thing about wintertime pheasants. They are bunched up and spooky. I remember one hunt several years back when Northeast Nebraska was awash in CRP grasslands. It was before dawn and we were at the convenience store in Hartington where we met a hunter from Minnesota who asked if he could join our party. No problem.
We pulled into the CRP field right at dawn and stepped out of the vehicles quietly, easing the doors shut. Our guest jumped out, slammed his car door and 200 birds took to the air and left.
More birds boiled out of the trees, more shots were fired and then it was over. We collected the birds from the hunters, threw them into one of the vehicles and crossed a small drainage ditch and headed for the switch grass.
Gary and I had joined a group of about 20 representatives of the meat industry who were at the lodge. Many of them were from Minnesota but others were from as far away as Ohio. I got the feeling it was an annual event for them.
The switch grass field was big, but we had enough hunters and dogs to cover it.
It seemed the majority of the birds had migrated to the northeast corner of the field. Naturally, I was in the southeast corner.
Pheasants just kept coming out of that corner and the shooting was steady. Bird after bird was falling and the dogs were kept busy on the retrieve. There were only hens on my side of the field and at the end they got up all around me.
"All these hens are wild," Jim told me. "We have not stocked any hens here."
That bodes well for next season if hatching and rearing conditions are good. There should be a ton of wild birds.
We filled out our limits on a long strip of corn.
I love blocking at corn fields. The birds run down the rows and group up at the end, sensing the presence of blockers. As the walkers advance, they have no choice but to take to the air.
And these are not easy shots.
There were a lot of roosters trapped between the walkers and the blockers and when they began getting up, I spent more time looking through my camera lens than over my shotgun barrel.
When it was over we reluctantly headed back to the lodge where photos were taken before we retired to the newly renovated farm house to clean up and visit with the other hunters.
On hand was Bruce Campbell of Brandon, S.D., who with his wife Kim have just published a cookbook devoted to rooster pheasant dishes. Their daughter Laurie Bertand did the food photography for the hard cover book printed in full color.
Bruce had told us he was preparing pheasant chili and three different servings of pheasant nuggets before the evening meal of pheasant lasagna.
It was some fine eating.
The next day we headed out again for a morning hunt. Lots of pheasants, lots of shooting. We were done by noon and on the way home.
Gann Valley offers all inclusive guided hunting packages with lodging on location. Depending upon the season, hunts can be made for doves, grouse, ducks, geese, coyotes and deer. Guided fishing trips are also offered.
For more information, visit their web site at: www.gannvalleyranch.com.