Do-It-Yourself South Dakota Pheasants on Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program Acres

Finding pheasants on public ground in South Dakota is often a mix of hard work and a little luck. In the case of one rooster last November, it was simply choosing to go “right” instead of “left.”

My hunt took place on a piece of private ground enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program near Parkston, where the landowner had mowed large sections of grassy cover in response to a summer of dry weather across portions of South Dakota and the need for winter forage supplies for livestock.

I parked in a field approach, and after surveying the remaining pockets of cover, I opted to go left and work a succession of cattail-lined, dry wetland basins. My then-8-month old yellow Lab, Buddy, dove in and out of the cover, but never showed signs of getting “birdy.” We reversed course, worked back past the truck and hit the opposite side of the public hunting area. Not more than 20 yards from the truck, Buddy’s nose hit the ground and his tail began to motor back and forth. A long-tailed rooster flushed wild along the edge of the cattails, but the young Lab kicked up another just to my right. A single shot from my 16 gauge sent the bird crashing down, and Buddy nosed through the grass before latching on to the rooster. The bird he retrieved to hand was the first of his career and – like any rooster shot on public ground—a true trophy.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is the newest option available to public land pheasant hunters in South Dakota. When CREP was enacted in 2009, the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (GF&P) selected the James River watershed as its focus for establishing permanent vegetative cover to help mitigate flooding, reduce soil erosion, and improve water quality.

The low gradient of the James River in South Dakota makes it one of the slowest flowing rivers in the country.  Couple those relaxed flows with the flat topography of the surrounding landscape, and you have a river that is not only susceptible to flooding, but one that recedes very slowly. For those reasons, natural resource conservation along the James River—or “The Jim”—has long been a concern. 

Throughout South Dakota, the addition of grass, trees and other forbs to the landscape is synonymous with the creation of wildlife habitat, and as acres of CREP have been enrolled throughout the length of the James River watershed, big game animals, waterfowl and upland birds have responded in kind.

The program is a win-win situation with landowners, too, in that they not only reap the benefits of healthier soils and decreased soil erosion, but they also receive a 40-percent higher rental rate than traditional Conservation Reserve Program contracts. In return for the increased rental rate, every acre enrolled in CREP is open year-round to public hunting and fishing for the life of the contract, which varies between 10-15 years.

For 2018, there are over 75,000 acres of CREP open for public access in South Dakota, and while hunting for big game and waterfowl is possible, the focus of most efforts on South Dakota’s newest public hunting areas is on pheasants. Because the program is relatively new, however, hunters who target CREP acres soon discover that not all areas are created equal. Those fields seeded to grass when the program first started typically have an established grass base in addition to other habitat (cattails and other heavy cover), but those enrolled in the last year or two may have limited areas of quality habitat.  Finding those CREP fields with the best habitat is the first step toward finding consistent success for pheasants, but the need to scout for the best CREP areas doesn’t stop there. Hunters tend to find success when a CREP area is in close proximity to other quality habitat and a food source, such as corn or soybeans, especially when the snow begins to fly.  In terms of the difficulty of the hunt, the variety of cover found on CREP areas means varying degrees of physical effort, running the extreme from moderate to difficult, and often exacerbated by extreme weather.  Like any hunt on public ground, a limit of pheasants on CREP ground is a realistic goal, but you may not see the number of birds as found on private ground that receives managed, limited pressure. A game bag heavy with pheasants from CREP acres will often require hours of walking, but those birds are true South Dakota trophies.

One note of caution: many CREP areas often border quality habitat that is on private ground, so knowing the boundary between public and private land is extremely important. The 2018 South Dakota Hunting Atlas contains locations of all CREP areas (as well as other public hunting opportunities). Hardcopies of the atlas are available at authorized licensing agents across the state, while electronic versions of the atlas are available online. The atlas is also obtainable through the GF&P smartphone app, which, when enabled with GPS capabilities, gives a hunter a pretty good idea if he/she is standing on ground open to the public. Similar to other GF&P lease programs that provide public access (Walk-In Areas, Controlled Hunter Access Program), some CREP areas do have special instructions—most often restrictions on hunting un-harvested crops—which are listed in the atlas.

The 75,000 acres of public hunting access available through CREP are spread out throughout the James River watershed, a flat area of ground nestled between the rolling hill country of the Coteau des Prairie to the east and Coteau du Missouri, which rises to the west. The watershed is at its widest along the northern border of South Dakota and narrows naturally as the James River winds towards its confluence with the Missouri River just east of Yankton. For planning purposes, the area can be divided into three sections, each of which provides unique opportunities for hunters. 

The city of Webster, which is located 50 miles east of Aberdeen on U.S. Highway 12, serves as a great launching point for hunters targeting CREP acres in the northern stretch of the James River watershed.  The abundance of additional public hunting areas make Webster the place to go for those hunters looking for lots of options, and with fantastic fishing on 20 lakes within 20 minutes of town, this area would serve well for a cast-and-blast combination trip in late October-early November. Waterfowl hunting on CREP acres in this area would also be a great option.  Note: non-toxic shot is required ONLY for waterfowl hunting on CREP areas.

Exactly 100 miles to the south and west and directly in the middle of the James River watershed rests the town of Huron. This is classic pheasant country, and there are ample opportunities to sample hunting on CREP areas both north and south of town. The hunting pressure around Huron is highest near the beginning of the season, so a trip to hunt CREP acres in this area would be best served if delayed until mid-November.  Because of the heavy pheasant hunter traffic in the Huron area, reservations for lodging are recommended.

Perhaps the greatest concentration of CREP acres can be found within an hour’s drive of Parkston, which is located just over 20 miles south of Mitchell.  Hutchinson County (Parkston is the county seat) alone boasts over 10,000 acres of CREP, many of which have established grass bases and contain cattails and other heavy cover – perfect for the late-season pheasant action. The hunting is not for the faint of heart, but if busting heavy cover and watching dogs work the cattails in the snow is your idea of fun, then the southern reaches of the James River watershed might be for you.

Wherever you start, quality pheasant hunting can be found on CREP acres across the state, but if the birds prove to be elusive, don’t be afraid to try a different area. You never know what you might find simply by changing directions.