Chasing Trophy Greater Prairie Chickens in the Grasslands of South Dakota
By Rob Olson
My grandfather remembered the Prairie Chickens. I’m not talking about Sharp-tailed grouse, which many of us in these parts still call “chickens”. Prairie Chickens were and are darker birds with barring across their chests and instead of the pointed tail of the sharp-tails, the chicken has a squared tail, more like a ruffed grouse but with different markings. We used to have the Greater Prairie Chicken here in Manitoba prior to the onset of intensive agriculture, but “square-tails” are only a distant memory in Manitoba now.
Chickens need native prairie. They were especially tied to the Tall Grass Prairie, but exist today primarily in the mixed grass prairie of south central South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. They tolerate and probably prefer some agriculture since it provides high quality food in the form of corn, soybeans and wheat. But they do their annual spring breeding dancing, or “booming”, on purely native grass areas. This unique spectacle happens in late March or early April.
I’ve always had a fascination with these birds. To me they are true prairie birds. When the prairie grasses are gone, so too are their dancing grounds and then go the chickens. On past pheasant hunts in central South Dakota, I’d seen a couple and always wanted to try for them one day.
That day came this year just before Christmas. I’d had kind of a rough year personally and was looking for a new bird hunting adventure to clear my mind. A wild chicken chase seemed like just what the doctor ordered.
I called up a couple old friends from the Dakotas where I used to work years ago. They all pointed me to the National Grasslands, south of Pierre, South Dakota. I had recalled that this area was known to have sustainable populations of chickens. All whom I talked to said the same thing: “the birds are there, but you probably won’t get many, they are too darned wild this time of year.”
That was music to my ears. Growing up, sharp-tails were our family’s bird. We spent countless weekends chasing them throughout the Interlake from the early season when you could flush them in good shotgun range to November when you had to reach deep into your bag of chicken tricks to scratch a few down for supper. I was confident if we found birds, we’d probably manage to get a couple one way or another. I talked a few friends into joining me on this adventure with high hopes that we might bag one or two of these incredible birds.
We arrived in Pierre extremely late at night to find our artist buddy from Minneapolis, Jim Rataczak, had secured our rooms at a motel but had locked himself out of one of them. So we slept two to a bed for the first night which is a normal start to a hunt for our group of bumbling buddies.
We got up early with a solid game plan: locate chickens by searching for them in agricultural fields near large patches of native grass. Thanks to the great folks at the U.S. Forest Service office in Pierre, we immediately found chickens, and I mean tons of them. In fact, we were taken back by the numbers. We had found ourselves in chicken-central. But how would we get in range of the huge flocks of birds? We were finding them in massive flocks of 50 or more birds.
Chickens were seen feeding in corn and sunflower seed fields but we found one soybean field with what we estimated to be over 500 Greater Prairie Chickens feeding in it. This was clearly the mother-load.
We’d heard of people pass shooting wild and wary late season chickens as they flew from their roosts in the native grass, to the fields where they feed. I had done this kind of shooting back in Manitoba with my father for sharp-tails when I was young. We even had a dozen old silhouette sharp-tail decoys we used to set out on top of and around bales up near Lundar in barley stubble fields to attract sunrise sharp-tails.
We found the chickens that first day in the afternoon and the birds had made their way to roost in native cover to the south of the bean field. We hatched a plan to try to drive some of the birds over our group. I elected to be the chicken chaser with our two Jim’s and Duncan hiding a half mile away in various spots where we thought they might fly. It worked, but better than we thought.
The birds were roosted up along a ridgeline. I hiked far around to the other side and came up over the top of the broad Prairie ridge. The amazing thing was that the birds held fairly well in their night roosts. They’d dug themselves into the snow so that when they flushed, they burst out with an explosive flush I will never forget. I was unnerved and over-excited but still managed to get two beautiful chickens. Great optics are key on this hunt because if you can mark roosting birds in the late afternoon once they leave the food, you can walk up to them at last light for great, close range opportunities, even in the late season.
After getting a brace of chickens, I sat a while on the hilltop, looking at miles of lovely native prairie in every direction, admiring the dark barring of the big, heavy birds. Jim Fisher also managed to bring down a huge, gorgeous male that I pushed over him. We were thrilled but it was far from over. Duncan and Jim Rataczak needed to collect a trophy too.
We noticed that the chickens liked to stage in trees near the bean field. There happened to be a grove of cottonwoods on the north side of the field. When alarmed, some of the birds seemed to want to land up in the trees. So the next day, we stealthily positioned both Jim’s and Duncan in the trees while I hiked around the far side of the bean field and slowly bumped the feeding chickens from the field. Many flocks headed for the trees and I could hear shooting in the distance. Success! Jim Rataczak had brought down a stunning male and Fisher had bagged two more. We were on cloud nine. And we had one more morning to try and get Duncan a bird.
Our last morning found us sitting in the truck in total pre-dawn darkness with a new plan for the bean field. We put Duncan in a prime spot near the trees and I hid in the center of the bean field under a white blanket and wearing white hunting clothes. All that was missing were my father’s sharp-tail decoys which have sadly gone missing over the years.
The birds started coming in the dark, very early. As the sun rose birds were in the field. Chickens came and went all morning. I am convinced that had I had a couple dozen mallard decoys, the birds would have decoyed…next time. Nonetheless, I heard quite a few shots from Duncan’s directions as birds coming and going seemed to pass in his direction. And I managed to bring down one more prize chicken as well as a bonus sharp-tail. How fitting and dreamy for an old upland hunter from Manitoba to get one of each species.
As we drove over to pick up Duncan and head for home, we were all thrilled to see him walk from the trees carrying what might have been the most beautiful chicken of the trip.
Stay at the Fort Pierre Motel (www.fortpierremotel.com, 1-605-223-3111). Fort Pierre is the same city as Pierre; it’s just on the other side of the Missouri River. This motel caters to hunters, is dog friendly and has a bird cleaning station. I love a motel since you can back your truck right up to the door. It is located right on the south end of town so the chickens are literally only a few miles south of your room. It’s cheap, clean and awesome.
Your first stop needs to be the U.S, Forest Service office which is just up the street from the Fort Pierre Motel (1020 Deadwood St., 605-224-5517). Unlike our park staff here who can seem less than enthusiastic about hunting and trapping, these folks hunt themselves and go out of their way to help you get a chicken. They tell you where they’ve seen them lately and are full of information on where to go. For a measly $10, you can buy an outstanding map of the National Grasslands and the Forest Service folks will orient you to where the birds are.
A South Dakota hunting license for grouse and pheasants costs $121 U.S. and allows you two, 5 day hunting periods in the calendar year (http://gfp.sd.gov/licenses/general-hunt-fish/license-list.aspx). We shot some pheasants while chicken hunting, and also added on a couple days of great pheasant hunting in northern South Dakota on the way home from chasing chickens.
To bring in your shotgun (and ammunition) you need to apply for and receive an ATF F 6NIA (5330.3D) Application/Permit for Temporary Importation of Firearms and Ammunition by Nonimmigrant Aliens (https://www.atf.gov/file/11386/download). The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms recommends that it could take 8-10 weeks to receive your permit but our group found it took less than a week if you fax it in and provide a return fax number. You need to provide proof of your purchased hunting license in conjunction with your ATF application.