Flushing Pheasants & Sweet-Handling Shotguns: South Dakota is for the Birds!
Updated: Feb 24
Note: An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star on Dec. 6, 2018.
Hunter Louden called loudly as a colorful ringneck pheasant flushed before his black Labrador retriever, an energetic young dog named “Batman.” Three Mossberg shotguns came up simultaneously, each shooter trying to quickly assess if the bird was breaking their way. The pheasant broke left, and Laura Kovarik swung on it, giving Batman another one to fetch up. It was one of many such opportunities over three days of hunting at ScatterGun Lodge near Pierre, South Dakota.
The three-day, late October pheasant hunt was a blast – literally. Our group of four included Gerry Bethge of Outdoor Life, Kovarik with Game and Fish Publications, freelance writer Mike Dickerson and myself. We had the opportunity to handle four different O.F. Mossberg & Sons’ shotguns including the SA-20 and 28 (20 and 28-gauge semiautomatics), the Silver Reserve II over/under and the 12-gauge 930 Pro-Series Sporting model. The Silver Reserve II also had two barrel options: 28 and 20 gauge.
South Dakota is renowned for its pheasant and other upland birds. Many people plan annual visits, often traveling with their own hunting dogs, depending on the destination hunted. Outdoors writer Gordy Krahn was hunting ScatterGun Lodge with another group at the same time as us and he brought his Brittany along for a workout. While you can bring a dog to ScatterGun, you don’t have to. The lodge offers guided hunts and has a kennel full of flushing retrievers, all trained in Northfield, Minnesota by Tom Dokken, inventor of the wildly popular line of retrieving dummies.
The hunts are classic, pushing through wide strips of thigh-high milo. The dogs, all labs, ranged out in front of our guides Jake Eckert and Louden, but not too far out front. The goal is to have the pheasants flush within shotgun range. Some birds held tight and flushed close. Others were runners, sprinting to stay ahead of the canines’ noses. We staged a blocker, a hunter often armed with the heavier 12-gauge gun, to deter birds from breaking cover and escaping. Some eluded us. Most didn’t. And, there were a few that seemed to have that magical protective force field around them that diverts lead pellets away from their feathers, no matter how “easy” the presented shot might seem.
We usually used two, sometimes three, dogs per drive, depending on the width and length of the patch of land we were pushing. All of the dogs were superb, a study in how quality flushing dogs work. Eckert's black lab Tripp was exceptionally well-trained and efficient. Chloe, a yellow lab that also gets the privilege of lounging around the lodge, was another highly intelligent and capable retriever. One of the highlights of the hunt was watching Batman's litter mate (sister) Kassie get out and begin asserting herself in the field. Eckert said she's always seemed to defer retrieves to the other dogs, but on one of our hunts, she seemed to crack the code and not only flushed, but retrieved the bird ahead of her willful canine teammates. It was a bit of a breakthrough and she received due praise.
Batman, though, was the real hoot. He expertly worked the milo fields. At the call of “rooster” or at the shot, he’d jump so he could see over the milo and get eyes on the flushed pheasant. This let him get a head start on making a retrieve – something he clearly lived for. Kovarik fell in love with him and joked about smuggling him out after the hunt.
An interesting thing about the ScatterGun dogs is that most don’t stay at the lodge year-round. When hunting season ends, they’re “fostered out” to families around the country, serving as pets. ScatterGun’s owner Chuck Ross said these dogs know when the seasons are changing. “The dogs seem to know when hunting season is getting close and they wait anxiously for the return trip,” he said.
Ross and his wife Sheila, an accomplished deer hunter who’s taken some impressive bucks off the 3,000-acre property, opened ScatterGun 20 years ago. She specializes in hunting big bucks on her birthday and tagged another heavy-racked whitetail this year. The lodge is a preserve operation, which means limits are generous: seven birds per day per hunter. The limit when hunting purely wild birds is three per day. South Dakota has strict rules about how many birds must be released annually into the habitat in order to secure preserve status. But that doesn’t mean all the pheasants we encountered at ScatterGun were released. We made several drives through natural terrain, from cedar-laden hillsides to overgrown hedgerows, that yielded mixed flushes of both hens (don’t shoot) and roosters. One such drive saw at least a dozen birds flush simultaneously out the side, a real jailbreak of what can only be called a covey of pheasant. South Dakota’s great upland bird habitat makes it much easier for released birds to “go native” and adapt and thrive.
Some people believe 28 gauges are under-powered for bigger birds such as pheasants. Tell it to the roosters the four of us added to our game bags. The key, simply, is taking a quality shot within range, ideally inside of 35 yards. Besides the affordable price, another beauty of that SA-28 is its weight. Lugging it for miles a day is a breeze compared to many heavier 12 gauges.
The SA-20 with walnut stock doesn’t weigh much more (both guns weigh just 6.25 pounds in the bantam model and 6.5 pounds in the full-size version) and both Kovarik and I toted one on many pheasant drives, capably folding flushing pheasants. Bethge and Dickerson initially preferred the Silver Reserve II over/under (weighing 7 pounds), but Dickerson switched up on the last day and carried the SA-28, dialing in on several birds.
We experimented with the various choke tubes available for the Mossberg guns. Each comes with a set of five ranging from improved cylinder to full. Using an improved modified tube in the 28 gauge seemed to help on those pheasants out at the 35-yard range, helping to concentrate the shot pattern. For me, it's a good thing I wasn't shooting a single shot gun because many of my birds would've gotten away. My first shot was mainly for "calibration," or so I rationalized. The second shot was often dead-on. We didn't have a lot of multi-bird flushes. Occasionally a pair would flush in quick fashion. On one drive, though, we (the dogs mainly) must've bottled them up because we had five pheasant erupt simultaneously 20 yards in front of us. Kovarik nailed one. I got another on the rise, then quickly swung my barrel skyward and doubled on a bird almost directly overhead. All of the shooting was fast action, but that one group of pheasant, flushing like a covey of quail, was exhilarating.
It's also hard to believe you can walk about six miles a day carrying a shotgun and still gain four pounds on a hunt but, yeah, I did. The food was that good. Several pheasant dishes are on the menu, including a delicious soup, a pot pie and a sweet and sour pheasant appetizer. The lodge shipped me my cleaned, frozen birds. I’ve already made the sweet and sour dish and it was a big hit at Thanksgiving.
The spacious lodge is set up for good times. The a bar area has a big screen television. There’s an upstairs game room, fireplaces and wild game mounts and memorabilia everywhere. “We’ll never have televisions in the guest rooms,” Ross said. “We want people to be upstairs, sharing stories, meeting new friends.”
This was my first upland bird hunt in South Dakota. I hope there are more in the future. Perhaps, in a couple years, I’ll load up the truck and take a little road trip with my Boykin spaniel Jameson. Ross said it's perfectly acceptable for guests to bring their own dogs, but the lodge won't assume any responsibility for the success or failure of your hunt. You need well-behaved dogs that won't range too far ahead and flush pheasants out of range. It's certainly manageable.
1. It is going to be windy. The question is how windy. The weather can fluctuate quickly. Like most hunts, the key is bringing the right layers of clothing.
2. The lodge has a very nice sporting clays course and a wobble-trap course. You can sharpen your eye before heading to the field or shoot a round in the afternoon after you get a limit of pheasant.
3. The lodge is close to Pierre, but guests often fly into multiple airports around the state including Rapid City and Sioux Falls.