World Class Pheasants
South Dakota is the Pheasant Capital of the World. That’s not just PR hype. It’s true. Have you ever heard of anyone going to China to hunt ringnecked pheasants? Given the sheer numbers of people in that overcrowded land, native pheasants are probably an endangered species. Even if they aren’t, I doubt citizens are allowed to own shotguns with which to hunt.
But China isn’t the only Asian country with native pheasants. A year ago I learned that Kyrgyzstan harbored naturally reproducing, wild pheasants that could be hunted. Since I was going there to hunt ibex anyway, I insisted on investigating the pheasants. I found them.
South Dakota is still the best place in the world to hunt pheasants.
The Republic of Kyrgyz is a former Soviet satellite that regained autonomy after the Soviet collapse. It lies along Marco Polo’s famous Silk Road hard against the China border in the tall, snow-capped Tian Shan mountains where huge Argali sheep and ibex roam. I imagined pheasants would be found in stream-side brush, fence line weeds and similar cover bordering corn fields in the flat valley near Bishkek, the capital city. I imagined in correctly. Remember the clean farming of the 70s in the U.S? It’s alive and unwell in Kyrgyzstan. Once fields are harvested, local folk hand-pick the leftovers. Anything they can’t eat they feed to their livestock. Milk cows are staked in front yards and along highway edges. Goats and sheep are herded through any residual cover.
So where are the pheasants? Hanging on in weedy foothill valleys above the intensive agriculture and dense human population, but below the barren snows. These valleys are narrow and bordered by steep, grassy slopes full of chukars. North-facing slopes are choked with short brush, especially a thorny, wild rose that makes climbing painful. Snowmelt streams irrigate tall, dense weeds in the valley bottoms. We hunted with two wonderful Russian guides, Pavel and Viktor, and one visiting Romanian, Sergei, and his German wirehair pointer (Drathaar), Deya, which obeyed commands but didn’t appear to have much of a nose. She pushed birds from tall grass and shrubs part way up one slope, all but one, a hen out of range. One hen was allowed per day, so I shot this one, which looked about like a Dakota hen but with slightly larger feather markings.
Pursuing roosters up the slopes proved useless, so we dropped to the heavy weeds along the creek, hoping some had burrowed in there. They had. What Deya lacked in efficiency she made up for in determination, worming back and forth through the weeds until she’d put up three roosters, two of which my wife and I tumbled.
Those roosters resembled Dakota ringnecks except their tail feathers seemed more reddish and their rump feathers were a uniform, dark, green iridescence instead of the multi-colored baby blues, olives and greens our birds show. It turned out we were hunting the second week of their annual fall season. We saw no other hunters, but did see a few old shotshells.
It turned out you had to belong to a hunting club or association in order to hunt in Kyrgyzstan, and then you could only hunt the area assigned to your club. Viktor was a full-time hunting guide in season, sort of a game warden / biologist the remainder of the year. Foreigners were allowed to begin hunting Kyrgyzstan in 1995, but Betsy and I were only the 2nd and 3rd American’s Viktor had ever guided.
We stayed in an old brick farmhouse at the base of the mountains. There was electricity but no running water. A spring filled a tank in the sauna where we could get a hot bath. Viktor’s 20-year old daughter cooked for us. To circumvent the language barrier, the Kyrgyz Hunters Association assigned us a full-time interpreter, a delightful 22-year old woman named Asyl who spoke better American-style English than most American kids. She’d been an exchange student here in High School and hoped to return to finish a college degree. What an ambassador for Kyrgyzstan this gal was!
So why do I insist South Dakota remains the best place to hunt pheasants?
Because there are more of them, limits are more generous, the habitat and terrain are easier to hunt, the accommodations are better and more varied, you don’t need complicated gun permits to get into the State, you don’t have to fly 12 hours to reach it, you can bring your own dog, you can take your birds home and everyone speaks English!
I was going to add that South Dakotans are the friendliest, most helpful hosts a hunter could ever hope to meet, but our Kyrgyz hosts matched that. The heartfelt toasts and honors they presented at our last dinner were wonderful. I felt so comfortable with them that one night I joked that I had grown up fearing I’d be hunted BY Russians, and instead I was hunting WITH Russians. We all laughed. Then they replied that they’d grown up fearing they’d be hunted by the big, bad, evil Americans — and there Betsy and I stood with guns. We laughed some more.
Betsy and I hope to return to Kyrgyzstan to visit our new friends, see some more dramatic landscapes, tour more of the Silk Road, and hunt pheasants, chukars, ibex and perhaps even those big Marco Polo rams. But when we want to enjoy the finest pheasant hunting in the world, we’ll stick with South Dakota.
-By Ron Spomer