“Slow down and let those dogs work and you will find more birds.”
These barely audible words of wisdom drift across the South Dakota switchgrass prairie like an early morning mist.
“Those dogs know what they are doing. Let them use their noses to find birds, and you won’t have to work quite so hard.”
We had paused to catch our breath, water the dogs, and let the burn in our thighs subside when our newfound hunting partner, 82-year old Norm Lippert, shared this tidbit of knowledge from his 70+ years of chasing one of America’s favorite prey. The silence of our heavy breathing and the fast panting of our Brittany spaniels hung in the air as we pondered Norm’s sage advice.
After catching his breath, Vance Fielder, our unofficial leader, replied “yea, that is probably a good idea.”
When Norm Lippert – whom we had affectionately nicknamed “Yoda” – shared pheasant hunting advice, we had learned to listen.
Our trip to hunt wild ringnecks on the vast pothole prairie region of South Dakota started a year earlier, when Vance Fielder and his hunting partner Eric Orsburn hatched the idea while guiding penned pheasant hunts in northeast Oklahoma. “I spent 7 years guiding penned pheasant hunts in Oklahoma” explains Orsburn, “and I really wanted to hunt wild birds.” Although both are experienced waterfowl and large game hunters, Orsburn had only hunted penned pheasants and Fielder had only hunted pheasants in western Oklahoma. Lured by fireside stories of upland bird hunting on the vast plains of the Dakota’s, Fielder and Orsburn began searching the internet for the best wild pheasant hunting spots. After extensive internet research and discussions with fellow hunters, they settled on the area around Aberdeen, South Dakota. The pair decided to hunt public land rather than pay for private access, as they felt this gave them a more genuine hunting experience – and saved a lot of money.
Joining the group was Cory Stokes, a helicopter EMT, dog trainer and hunting guide from Fort Scott, Kansas. Stokes brought five dogs of his own, including his favorite dog “Annie”, a 4 year old Brittany, and some younger dogs in training. Fielder brought his black lab “Ruger” and a pup of Annie’s he named “Lady”.
I was an invited after another person dropped out the group. I had hunted pheasants once in Nebraska fifteen years prior, but most of my hunting had been from a duck blind.
As a long time waterfowl hunter I am used to waking up well before the sun announces its arrival with an indigo-pink sky, loading the dogs with just the dim light from my headlamp, donning ice-cold waders and heavy coats, then dragging loads of gear along frozen trails like a Himalayan pack mule. Opening day of South Dakota pheasant hunting is a bit different. Shooting time doesn’t begin until noon, so instead of dragging out of our warm sleeping bags into the icy pre-dawn darkness, we are able to cook a leisurely breakfast of Spam and eggs over the campfire, drink scalding coffee made with a tiny Jetboil stove, feed the hungry dogs and break camp mid-morning. We drive to our chosen spot and arrive early, hopefully before other hunters.
Never having hunted wild birds in the Dakota’s, Fielder, Orsburn and Stokes are unsure of the best location to begin. We had scouted a few locations the day before and picked the most likely looking field based on Fielder and Orbsurn’s previous experience. Our group of four hunters and four dogs fanned out across a rolling 160 acre field of waist-high switchgrass, crashing through the matted undergrowth as we attempted to drive birds from their hiding places. After working hard for an hour we found no birds.
Our next target was a brush-filled tree line along a bean field. In Oklahoma, a spot like this would be prime cover for coveys of bobwhite quail. Again, no luck in flushing pheasants. Finally towards the end of the day we flushed some birds from a heavy cattail slew. A hard afternoon of opening day hunting scored us a measly three birds for four people. This was looking much more difficult than we expected.
Towards the end of the day I tire, unable to keep up with the brutal pace of my younger hunting partners. As I sit on the tailgate during the last field push for the day, a giant flock of blackbirds chirp as they feed on a nearby uncut milo field, launching into the air and flitting around like a giant headless black ghost. I watch as wary ringneck roosters dart across the dusty gravel road as the sun sinks low in the sky, moving from their feeding grounds in the tall corn into the thick protective cover of switchtail grass and cattail marshes.
When Fielder, Stokes and Osburn return empty-handed, I mention the birds moving at dusk across the road. “Maybe we need to find a place to hunt at sunset where we can intercept the birds as they move out of the corn” says Fielder.
That evening we dined on campfire-cooked pheasants and talked about the day’s hunt. As we discussed the challenges of the day and made plans for tomorrow, eighty-two year old retired school teacher Norm Lippert appeared out of the darkness with one of his dogs in tow.
“How was hunting today?” asks Lippert.
“Hard work” replies Fielder. “Grab a chair and join us” he suggests.
“Oh, I am OK. I was out walking my dogs and thought I would stop by. I am camped just down the way there” says Lippert, pointing to an adjacent camp site. He stays for a few minutes, telling us how his day went – much better than ours, even though he was hunting solo. Little did we know that we had just met – however briefly – the “Yoda” of pheasant hunting.
The next day was more of the same for our crew – a lot of walking with mediocre results. We walked nearly ten miles through thick cover and only shot one bird. After some mid-afternoon scouting, we found what looked like a prime hunting spot – a nice corn field next to public CRP bottom with plenty of cattails. As dusk approached we worked our way through the field and started flushing birds. In a half hour before sunset we down three birds in quick succession, and saw many more that flushed before we were in shotgun range. Finally, a bit of success. Maybe we were starting to learn how to hunt wild pheasants.
That evening Lippert stopped by the campfire and lingered a bit longer, quietly sharing – when prodded – stories of hunts from years past. It was easy to tell that his dogs were a central part of his story and he obviously spent a lot of time working his dogs. “I go to breakfast most mornings and order the largest item on the menu” he says. “I eat half of it and share the other half with my dogs.”
After char-broiled pheasant prepared over the campfire by Orsburn, our newly-appointed evening chef, Fielder asks Lippert “why don’t you hunt with us tomorrow?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to impose. And I am not sure I could keep up with you youngsters.”
“Man, we would LOVE to have you hunt with us. You could teach us a thing or two” says Fielder. Everyone else in our group agrees and after much cajoling, Lippert finally relents and agrees to spend the next day hunting with us.
That evening Lippert came over after sunset to discuss our strategy for the next day’s hunt. Fielder and Lippert huddle over hunting maps of South Dakota. Lippert had scouted the area extensively a few days prior and made detailed notes on his maps. “Pheasants overnight in the CRP grass and cattail slews, then move to the corn fields in the morning” explained Lippert. “Since we can’t hunt until noon, we have to either catch them in the corn field or catch them as they move out of the corn fields late in the evening. Sometimes you can find birds lounging in the afternoon in deep cover such as cattail slews but the best hunting will be right before sunset.”
Because of the late weather patterns, much of the corn around Aberdeen had not been cut, so were off-limits to public hunting. The birds were able to hide in the corn away from hunters. There were a few patches of uncut corn that were available to public hunting and we decided to work those patches, often finding birds. The secret to hunting corn is having enough people to walk the corn and push the birds out so that blockers at the end can get a shot when the birds flush. The “pushers” seldom got a shot at the birds since the corn towers well above head height.
Fielder shares with Lippert where we had seen birds the two days prior. Together they develop a plan to hunt cattail slews in the afternoon and hit prime CRP land next to corn fields late in the evening. This would allow us to target the lounging areas during the low-probability daytime hours, and focus on the prime hunting areas near corn fields in the evening as the birds move from their feeding ground in the corn to their overnight roosting areas in the CRP fields.
Hunting with “Yoda”
The next day we leave camp early and head for a stand of cattails near a farmhouse. One side of the road near the farmhouse is a “No Hunting” zone so we decide to hunt the slew on the south side of the road. It is a small area so Fielder, Stokes and Orsburn – the young guys – start on the east side of the field. Lippert and I walk down the road and cut into the slew about 150 yards to the west. Once everyone is ready we begin a pincer movement, squeezing the slew between us.
Within minutes, the shotguns are booming and the feathers are flying. Orsburn quickly downs two birds – a double. Fielder knocks down a bird, while Stokes brings down a fourth bird. The cattails are thick as we wade calf-deep in the black gooey rotting vegetation underneath. Ruger, Fielder’s black lab, is working hard to find all the birds. Despite our best efforts, we are only able to retrieve three of the four birds.
“A double! Man, that is what I envisioned when I decided to come to South Dakota to hunt pheasants” exclaims an excited Orsburn. “Holy cow, I am excited now!”
After our success in the cattails, we gather at the tailgate of the truck and are soon joined by a strange but excited black lab. Soon his owner, a local farmer, joins us around the tailgate to retrieve his stray pup. As we talk, he tells us he doesn’t believe in charging hunters, since he and his father have been hunters for many years. Instead, he puts much of his land into he CRP program. That way he can get income from the land and still allow hunters access.
After a bit of talk we ask if he would mind us hunting the cattail slew on the north side of the road, which is posted with “no hunting” signs.
“I don’t mind as long as you are careful and don’t shoot back towards my house.”
This was a much bigger slew, about 15 acres total with corn fields to the south and CRP land to the north. “I doubt we can walk the center of that slew” says Lippert. “It will be too deep. Let’s work the edges instead. Three people on one side and two on the other.”
Following Lippert’s directions, we move into this marshy bottomland. Soon I am slogging through a dense tangle of downed cattails that reach well over my head, my breath coming in short gasps and stinging sweat dripping into my eyes as I try to keep up with my much younger hunting partners. A puff of white cattail seeds explode ahead of me as Orsburn plunges through the thick growth, high-stepping over the tangled web of fallen stems, his Benelli shotgun held high over his head ready for any flushing birds.
We pause to catch our breath. The pace through the cattails has been brisk.
Seeing a bird in this dense undergrowth is difficult, and actually shooting one next to impossible – that is the job of our more fortunate hunting partners walking the edge of the marsh. Our job is to make noise and scare the birds from their hiding places in the swamp. The dogs help, but they are also having a difficult time busting through the thick growth. Ruger, a sturdy black lab, is able to bust through the undergrowth better than the much smaller Brittany’s with us, but even he is quickly worn out from the hard work.
Within minutes we start seeing birds. “HEN”. Shotguns lower. “ROOSTER.” Bam, bam, bam. Hen’s are let go unscathed, but roosters are fair game.
The dogs now have the difficult job of retrieving downed birds in the thick tangled cover. Fielder’s young black lab “Ruger” is adept at charging through the undergrowth and using his nose to track down wounded birds. We quickly drop a half-dozen birds but are only able to retrieve four of them – the others lost to heavy undergrowth that even a determined labrador retriever cannot penetrate.
“We need someone to circle around and get some blockers in front of the birds” shouts Lippert. “We are pushing them out of the slew but they will just run into the CRP grass if we can’t block them.” We pause our push and allow two hunters on the edge of the slew to circle around and get in front of our skirmish line. Once in place, Lippert instructs us to once again move forward, driving more birds to the waiting hunters. “ROOSTER!” Boom. “HEN!” Shotguns lower. “ROOSTER!” Boom, boom.
NOW we were seeing birds, and plenty of them.
At the end of the slew we stop to take a break and water the dogs. Stokes reaches behind is back and fishes a shiny metal water dish out of his hunting vest and pours fresh water from his bottle for his thirsty dogs. Norm however uses his hands to wallow out a hole in the short grass, then places an empty plastic Walmart bag in the hole. We watch with surprise as he pours water from his bottle into the plastic bag and his dogs lap it up. “No need to carry a water dish. A plastic bag works fine, takes up less space, and weighs a lot less than a dish.”
Yoda had spoken again. Lesson learned. Next day everyone carries plastic bags rather than water dishes.
Once the dogs are watered, Lippert again provides a bit of hunting advice gained through his years of chasing ringnecks. “See where that switchgrass changes to brome there on that rise? Birds will often hang out in that transition area.” As he points to the area, a falcon lazily drifts over the transition area. “Watch that falcon hunt” says Lippert. Sure enough, the falcon cruises up and down the transition area, back and forth, right where the switchgrass turns into brome, looking for a wayward pheasant. We sit mesmerized for ten minutes as the falcon works the area Lippert had just pointed out to us. Eventually the falcon moves on, still looking for his afternoon lunch.
“We can hunt that area but I doubt we will see a bird” says Lippert. “That falcon already hunted the area and he is a better hunter than any of us. But let’s push on through that area and then up onto that rise with the short bushes. There might be some birds in there”.
Once again we form a skirmish line – three hunters with dogs in the middle, while two hunters on the ends work ahead slightly to create a U shape. We are now in the rolling plains of South Dakota where visibility goes on for miles. Our line stretches out to over 150’, like a giant combine swathing across the open prairie, orange hats bobbing above the tall switchgrass signaling the location of my hunting partners. As with the falcon, we see no birds in the transition area. We continue along the rise of short bushes, the dogs working back and forth in front of our line of hunters. All of a sudden Lippert shouts “POINT!”
Our heads swivel to where Lippert’s dog Rye is frozen on point, one front leg in the air and her tail jutting back like a fishing pole lodged into a holder. Lippert shouts intensely “move in on the edges. Hurry. That bird will run!” In the next moment, Stokes shouts “POINT” as his spaniel Annie locks up to the left of Rye and slightly ahead.
“That bird is moving” shouts Lippert. “Move, MOVE!” he hollers in his best coaching voice. The former physical education teacher is now excitedly barking directions in a voice that commands attention from both high school students and seasoned hunters. We race to comply, knowing Lippert has chased thousands of wild pheasant across the great plains.
What unfolds next is a fast moving, heart pounding stop and start chase across a quarter mile of wind-swept prairie. The pheasant is moving fast and the dogs take turns tracking the bird and going on point. As soon as one dog goes on point, the other dogs honor the point. As Lippert directs us to move forward, the lead dog on point remains frozen while the dogs behind are released to hunt or flush the bird. In our case, this particular bird is much more interested in running than flushing. The trailing dogs then work ahead of the dog on point and soon one of the dogs in front goes on point next, so the dog that was on point is released to move forward. This leapfrogging point is what Lippert calls a “rolling point” and he tells us it is common with fast moving birds.
Things are hectic as our group races through the knee-high grass, dogs running back and forth with tails wagging, alternately going on point or being released to “hunt the bird.” After 15 minutes of almost flat out running, a lone bird finally explodes from a patch of tall grass. Five guns swing in unison. Fielder yells “HEN!” Guns drop, but our hearts still race from the long chase.
“Wow, that was FUN!” says Orsburn. “That is what I read about in magazines and why I wanted to hunt wild birds. I don’t care if it was a hen or rooster. Just the excitement of chasing a wild bird across the open prairie was enough for me.” Our group talks excitedly as we catch our breath and give the dogs a break.
“That is classic upland bird hunting right there” says Fielder. “That is just what I was looking for.”
“The dogs worked perfectly together” adds Stokes. “It was fun watching each dog honor the other dog’s point, then when released they would try to flush and hunt the bird again.”
“I usually hunt alone” says Lippert, “and don’t get to see that very often. I really enjoyed that chase. That will be one of my favorite memories from this trip. I would love to get a bird at the end, but just the chase was enough for me.”
After the dogs are rested and watered we decide to call it a day and load up in the trucks and head for camp.
After another dinner around a glowing campfire, replete with fresh pheasant cooked in a cast-iron skillet and whole ear corn tossed in the coals to roast, we gather around the campfire to share hunting stories from the past and take long pulls from a bottle of Wild Turkey American Honey. Favorite hunting dogs are cussed and discussed, duck hunting tactics analyzed, and Lippert shares with us hunting stories from his childhood growing up in Ohio.
The next day’s hunt is successful, although still challenging. We are still learning from Lippert and the birds are becoming wary of hunters. Per Lippert’s recommendation we slowed down “to let the dogs work” and had good success while only walking six miles rather than the ten or more from previous afternoons.
After four days of hard hunting and two days of hands-on learning from “Yoda”, our hunting was becoming both easier and more successful. Early afternoons are still challenging, but we have a plan for this last evening of our hunt. This time our target is the large CRP field south of Aberdeen that we had hunted on the first day. It abuts a corn field and features several small cattail slews in shallow bottom of the field. Our first day had been successful here as we caught pheasants moving out of the corn into their roosts.
We arrive a couple of hours before sunset, walk a nearby field with limited success, then park in our “spot” to be sure we can hunt it as the last field of the day. As we lounge around the trucks, waiting for the sun to sink lower on the endless horizon, a couple of South Dakota hunters pull up and start a conversation. We invite them to join us on this last evening hunt, figuring that more people will allow us to more thoroughly cover this huge field. Their golden lab is a welcome addition to the team, as it was well trained and mannered.
We spread out and began our push about 40 minute before sunset. After 10 minutes of walking and no birds, we pause behind a line of round hay bales to wait for the sun to sink lower in the sky. Lippert instructs us to tuck in behind the bales while he peers over the top and watches birds move out of the corn into the CRP field we will soon be hunting.
Finally with about 20 minutes of daylight left, Lippert says “let’s go!” We move out from behind the hay bales, spread out and begin walking. We start seeing birds almost immediately. Lots and lots of birds. Guns are firing right and left as we flush over a dozen birds in just a few minutes, including a particularly beautiful long-tail rooster that Fielder downs right before sunset. “Wow, did you see that bird!” Fielder raced to where the rooster fell, but the bird was long gone. The dogs are sent to find the bird, and we spend the next 15 minutes chasing down a wounded ringneck hell-bent on getting away. “He’s over here!” “Here he is!” The scene is straight out of a keystone cops movie as we race around a five acre patch trying to run this rooster down. One of the dogs finally catches up with the bird and holds it until we were able to grab the wary bird, still kicking and trying to run.
After the excitement of chasing the wounded bird, we unload our guns and walk back to the parked truck as the sun sets below the horizon. Lippert relaxes on the tailgate of Fielder’s Chevy Silverado, his dog Rye perched beside him and our harvest of birds spread across the top of the dog box. As the sky turns light pink, Lippert observes “I sure had fun hunting with you guys this week. You make me feel young again.”
No, Yoda. WE are the lucky ones. We had just learned to hunt wild pheasants from a master.