Photo Essay: Making New Friends on a South Dakota Pheasant Hunt

Written by: Brett Ference

South Dakota Pheasant Trip

Brett Ference (far left) with his new pals in Timber Lake, South Dakota.

photo courtesy Brett Ference

I flew into Bismarck, got my shells and additional supplies in town, and headed across a rolling brown ocean to Timber Lake, South Dakota (Population 592), for the three days of hunting wild pheasants. As a New Englander, I was struck by the absence of trees and endless horizons, which made me feel whatever the exact opposite of claustrophobic is. I had been invited by a friend to come along on an annual trip he makes with friends from high school and a few other folks. The group comprised nine hunters, five English Setters, three Labs, one Springer, two Griffons, and one German short hair. We had rented the bunkhouse at KOW Ranch and complemented our accomendations with a 1972 Airstream camper, so everyone would have a place to sleep and we’d have additional cooking facilities. The group had made arrangements with a local rancher, where we could hunt his land each day for a nominal fee.

South Dakota Pheasant Trip

That’s the look of a hunting dog having a good time chasing birds.

photo courtesy Brett Ference

I was the one new addition to this annual trip and was a bit nervous about meeting the group. I am not sure what it is about hunting or fishing that can turn perfect strangers into instant friends. I have never known another situation where I have felt so instantly comfortable with people from different backgrounds, places, and careers than at a hunting camp. Within the first hour of everyone arriving, we fell into a familiarity with one another that only happens with friends you have known forever. After a dinner of elk burgers, salad, and plenty of beer, we discussed the plan for the day’s hunt.

South Dakota Pheasant Trip

Back at the bunkhouse was where the good eating and great camaraderie occurred.

photo courtesy Brett Ference

I had seen pictures and read stories about hunting these birds in the Great Plains, and the opportunity to do this with such a great group was everything I had hoped it would be and more. In South Dakota, you must wait until 10:00 a.m. before you go hunting, and after seeing the number of birds we spotted on the way in, I figured we would all have our entire limit of three roosters each by lunch, but that was not the case! Because of the very dry summer and fall, the birds were concentrated in the taller cattails and thick cover near where water had been and, in a few cases, still was. Even with the stealthiest approach and well placed blockers on the cover, the roosters found every hole in our attacking angles and made their exit. Easy shots were missed, and a few impossible shots were made. We hunted hard in the never-ending wind and got our last bird to fill our limit with only twenty minutes left in legal shooting time. The next days were similar to the first, but the wind picked up considerably, and there was sleet, frozen rain, and later snow to contend with. We worked tree rows that offered a bit better protection from the elements for us and the birds and still managed to either shoot our daily limit or come close enough to feel good about each of the three days we hunted.

South Dakota Pheasant Trip

On days two and three, the weather turned brutal.

photo courtesy Brett Ference

As I grow older, the joy I take from hunting has less to do with the animals in my game bag at the end of the day and more with the camaraderie and time well spent with friends in the field. While I pray the nervousness and excitement I feel every time a bird flushes never goes away, I find the best part of hunting to be the people it attracts. Those who will give you shells when you realize you left yours in the truck, continue to hold the barbed wire down to let you over the fence, make elk spaghetti and garlic bread, take a 20-second shower so everyone gets hot water, and let you know you will get them next time when you whiff on an easy shot.

Brett Ference is the product development specialist for Orvis Hunting.

South Dakota Pheasant Trip

For a New Englander, the wide-open country is intimidating.

photo courtesy Brett Ference

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