By Kent Danjanovich
As the sun rises in the eastern skies, the daily ritual begins in South Dakota and its surrounding states. Wild pheasants, both roosters and hens, emerge from their resting places in search of food sources. Many head to roadsides to peck at some pea gravel for their gullets. Others to cultivated grain fields to pick up the remnants of the harvest. Corn fields as far as the eye can see are also a seemingly safe haven for wily ringnecks and their mates. Always on the lookout for predators, quick cover, in most cases, is only a short distance away.
When fall approaches, they seem to sense that another predator will soon start to show up in droves. Yes, hunters from all parts of the world converge on the mid-west to give chase to one of the most popular upland game birds, first introduced in the U.S. back in 1733, when the Old English blackneck pheasant was dropped in New York and New Hampshire by each states’ governors. These first birds received a real culture shock and they died off quickly before ever really taking root. Other pheasant varieties also had their place in American history, including what many historians suspect was a pair of golden pheasants. You know who kept them? None other than the young country’s first president, General George Washington, at his Mount Vernon home in Fairfax County, Va.
But the first real introduction of the ringneck pheasant you should pay attention to was on March 13, 1881. At the suggestion of his wife, Owen Nickerson Denny, an Oregon native and the former United States Consul General to Shanghai, China, shipped 60 Chinese ringneck pheasants from China to Port Townsend, Washington, along with a number of other Chinese birds and plants.
Why pheasants? Well, he liked the taste.
The trip across the ocean was a success, with the majority of birds surviving, but the next trip, from Washington to his home state of Oregon, was over the terrible roads of the time. Most of the pheasants died in transport and the few survivors were released on the lower Columbia River, where historians still argue whether they survived and reproduced or just went the way of the Old English blackneck. However, Denny released more birds in 1882 and 1884 and that helped the ring-necked pheasants flourish in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and then Oregon as a whole and into Washington. Today, birds have been introduced in 40 of the 50 states, with self-sustaining populations in Oklahoma, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, California, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and many others.
South Dakota even named the ring-necked pheasant as its official state bird, one of only three introduced species to be chosen across the U.S.
In my youth, growing up in the southern part of the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, the first Saturday in November was one of the most highly anticipated days of the year. The opening of pheasant season almost rivaled Christmas Day itself, as thousands of sportsmen, both young and old, headed to their favorite hunting locations, in hopes of experiencing the hair-raising flush and cacklin’ eruption of one of the most colorful birds in the world. Some fifty years later, the opportunities in Utah have subsided, but it hasn’t diminished my love for the sport. Now, fast forward to 2006.
As I walked down the aisles at the Dallas Safari Club Show in Dallas, Texas, I stopped in to visit the Tumbleweed Lodge booth. I had always heard so much about pheasant hunting in South Dakota, but I had never made the trek. After introducing myself and giving my sales pitch to Michael and Donny Bollweg, owners of the lodge, our first visit was planned for that fall and of course, as they say, the rest is history!
Nearly every year since that first visit, the Sportsman’s News team has had the pleasure of visiting our friends at the Tumbleweed Lodge, just outside of the state capitol of Pierre, in the farming town of Harrold, South Dakota to partake of everything that they have to offer. First class accommodations, exquisite food and exceptional customer service are always the norm and serve as the backdrop to their bird hunting paradise. It’s no wonder that many highly recognized hunting publications have rated them in the ‘Top 20 Wingshooting Destinations’ in the world.
Our visit in December of 2018 would include myself, cameraman Sam Staudt, Pro Membership winner Trevor Luna and his hunting buddy Brandon Schroer, ALPS Outdoorz President Dennis Brune, two more Danjanovich’s, Bruce and Randy, the 2018 Writer’s Contest winner Dustin Brown, his friend Ryan Toller, my golfin’ sidekick from St. George, Neal Matthews and my good friend and owner of the Gone Fishin’ Lodge in Alaska, Ralph Crystal.
By 8pm on the night of December 3rd, all of us, along with ten other guests of the lodge, filled the dinner tables in the main lodge to enjoy the first of many great meals during our stay. Big, juicy steaks and all of the fixings adorned our plates. Of our group, only myself, Bruce, Randy and Ralph had been to the lodge before. After dinner, I tried to fill the rest of the group in on what was in store for them in the coming days before retiring to our rooms in hopes of a little shut-eye before our first day in the field.
The dining room bell rang at 8am and after we all downed a hefty serving of breakfast delights, it was off to the sitting room to watch a safety video. Michael Bollweg added a few words himself on the subject and we then headed to the locker room to slip into our hunting attire and then load into our awaiting buses with our guides at the helm. Each of us lashed our shotguns in the holders and grabbed a pocket full of supplied shells before taking our seats as we headed to our assigned location on the 10,000 acres that surround the main lodge.
As is the norm when hunting the sprawling fields of South Dakota, we would be taking turns splitting the duties as both pushers and blockers. Six hunters unloaded at one end of the first corn patch strip, along with guide Zeb and three of his prized pointing labs and the other four hunters accompanied guide Rick and his labs as they made their way in the bus to the opposite end of the field to block. Moments later, the onslaught began.
Big roosters could be seen springing on the horizon as guns began blazing in the brisk morning air. As the pushers approached the blockers, it was our turn to get in on the excitement. As birds fell from the sky, Sam followed the action with his camera as sleek Labrador retrievers bolted in every direction in efforts to return the downed birds to their master. A dozen roosters came to hand on that first push and broad smiles and astonished looks could be seen on everyone’s faces.
By 10:45am, 45 birds filled the top of the dog trailer box, as we reluctantly headed back to the lodge to relax a little before lunch. I had tried to explain that we would need to exhibit a little restraint on our first morning in the field, but it is tough to really get first-timers to understand what is in store when visiting the Tumbleweed Lodge.
After lunch, we decided to try our luck at some prairie chicks and sharptailed grouse on another section of the farm. Knowing that these skittish birds would be tough to corner in late season, we did manage to flush a few long-distance covey’s, but none close enough to harvest. We then headed back to finish up on our daily limit of 60 birds for the group, as it only took two more pushes to finish up our day in the field.
Our second morning found us heading toward another section of the farm. On this push, Dennis Brune and Trevor Luna would accompany myself and Sam as blockers in hopes of securing some interview time behind the camera. As Sam filmed my interview with Dennis, birds could be seen breaking from the corn rows behind us as Trevor tried his best to bring them down all by himself! I then decided to cut the interview short so Dennis and I could lend him a hand. By noon, another 60 birds were laid out in front of us, as we gathered for a few group photos before heading back to the lodge.
Since Tumbleweed Lodge has preserve status, I informed Michael that we would like to continue our hunt in the afternoon by purchasing extra birds. Well, the afternoon hunt produced another 60 birds for our group, as now 180 birds had fallen for our group of hunters, with day number three still looming on the horizon.
Our last morning again didn’t disappoint. Another 60 birds were harvested by our group during our morning hunt. After lunch, we decided to head out to the sporting clays course for a little friendly competition. As the sun began to set in the western sky, we headed back to the lodge for another great meal on our last night. After dinner, some hit the hot tub, some the sauna and others retired to the Wild Bill Hickock room for a rousing game of Texas Holdem’ before we hit our beds for our last evening at the spectacular Tumbleweed Lodge.
Well, to say our latest visit to our long-standing Platinum Approved, Tumbleweed Lodge was a rousing success would almost be an understatement. It was truly a pleasure to help host not only our latest Pro Membership and Writer’s Contest winners, but also both new and old friends to this special local. We will again make the yearly trek to partake of their hospitality during the week of December 9-13, 2019. Another lucky winner and their guest will accompany me from the Pro Membership Sweepstakes as we converge again on the pheasant haven of South Dakota. The Tumbleweed Lodge (605-875-3440) is truly magnificent and if you are looking to book an unbelievable upland bird hunting experience, you had better get on the phone right now to book your trip of a lifetime.