South Dakota is preparing for a rush of visitors this fall to shoot roosters.

Pheasant guides, lodges and preserves say nonresidents are making a later-than-normal push to secure their spot to enjoy the open fields of South Dakota, where a global pandemic and mask wearing are afterthoughts during an outdoor expedition.

“It looks really good and as it draws closer to season it looks even better,” said Marty Jensen, general manager of South Dakota Pheasant Acres, of Armour. “There’s a lot of interest and a lot of calls right now, which isn’t typical for most years. Most years, my plans are set right now.”

Despite the uncertainty of the state’s preseason pheasant numbers, Jensen’s song rings true with other guides and lodges in South Dakota: This fall looks to be busy with orange-clad visitors.

It’s a nice tune for the South Dakota Department of Tourism to hear at the beginning of September, a time when state officials are typically releasing the annual roadside pheasant count results, otherwise known as the preseason survey. Dating back to 1953, the now-discontinued survey has given a snapshot into the upcoming pheasant season based on observations throughout South Dakota.

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The survey and its report traditionally have a strong influence on hunting participation. Quite simply, the more birds, the more hunters. If the survey showed a bad year for pheasant reproduction, fewer people trekked to South Dakota to chase roosters.

Instead, the state Game, Fish & Parks Department this year chose to partner with the tourism department on a $700,000-per-year marketing campaign that simplifies the message as, “Hunt the greatest in South Dakota” and no longer releases a specific population trend.

Whatever the bird count is this year seems to be secondary, however, as people want to visit for a way just to break free from the pandemic.

“In terms of pheasants, we are so fortunate to be able to offer the greatest hunting in the entire nation,” South Dakota Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen said. “We’re hearing from a lot of private lodges, landowners and pheasant hunters outside and inside our borders who are saying they’re looking forward to getting here for hunting season.

“We’re fortunate this is an activity that you can be outside, breathe in fresh air, socially distance and take precautions that you need to take. The message we’re really receiving is they feel very comfortable and confident in coming to South Dakota.”

Finley, left, and Blaze are just a pair of hunting dogs owned by David Balvin, the Head Hunting Guide for South Dakota Pheasant Acres 10 miles west of Armour. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Finley, left, and Blaze are just a pair of hunting dogs owned by David Balvin, the Head Hunting Guide for South Dakota Pheasant Acres 10 miles west of Armour. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Guides, lodges gearing up

On the first day of September, Jensen was exercising a group of dogs in preparation for the season. South Dakota Pheasant Acres is a preserve, so it doesn’t have to abide by all of the same laws and regulations as the traditional pheasant season, which begins statewide Oct. 17.

Jensen said the lodge lost only a couple corporate groups that are on travel restrictions due to the pandemic, but those voids were filled recently as fall draws near.

“It looked a little spooky for a little while, but now it looks like this year will be better than last year,” said Jensen, who has managed the facility for 10 years.

Most of the hunters who visit the lodge are returning customers, he said, and the guides typically take one smaller group at a time, which makes for a more comfortable setting during the age of COVID-19.

“Our customers know that, so it’s not like they’re really getting thrown into a germ pool,” he said. “We don’t have 50 people here at once. It’s usually a smaller, close intimate group and they know each other. The risk of getting infected is much lower.”

In Gregory County, in south central South Dakota, Dick Shaffer owns Century Farm Hunts with his wife, Sally.

Typically, the Shaffers ask their clients to send in a deposit for the upcoming fall hunt in the first few months of the year to hold a spot. Due to the uncertainty of the year, they told their regulars not to stress over that — a decision that’s ultimately paid off for the pheasant lodge that’s in its 34th year. They’re expecting the same number of hunters as last year, saying they have enough business “to keep us happy and make us busy.”

“I think people are just ready to do something. They come from more populated areas and maybe they just want to enjoy something without a mask on all day,” Dick Shaffer said.

Tourists attracted to SD

Since the pandemic began, South Dakota has counted about 14,000 positive cases of the coronavirus, with 3,000 active cases as of Sept. 3, according to the South Dakota Department of Health. It is the highest number of active coronavirus cases the state has had at any point this year.

But the way Casey Weismantel sees it, hunting guides and most outdoor enthusiasts aren’t overly afraid of COVID-19.

“You can’t get much more burly than a hunting guide,” he said.

Weismantel is the executive director HuntFishSD, a branch of the Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. His main duty is to encourage and entice folks to come to northeastern South Dakota to enjoy the outdoors. And that seems to be the case so far, as he suspects this visitor numbers will be even or better than 2019, when more than 107,000 total hunters harvested about 829,000 birds across South Dakota.

Not only are people excited about pheasant hunting this fall, but they’re even considering calling South Dakota home, Weismantel said. His office has received a significant number of people requesting relocation packets who are considering moving to the state. He explained his office’s postage costs for the past three months “have been through the roof.” It’s a direct result of Gov. Kristi Noem’s decision to keep South Dakota more open than other more-populated states, he said.

Marty Jensen, General Manager of South Dakota Pheasant Acres, looks out off the lodge's deck located 10 miles west of Armour. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Marty Jensen, General Manager of South Dakota Pheasant Acres, looks out off the lodge's deck located 10 miles west of Armour. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“When they kept the state open, I thought, ‘Wow, this is bold. Let’s see how visitors react,’” he said. “Now you see the traffic increasing every week.”

Hagen, the top tourism official in South Dakota, said the western half of South Dakota with Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills have seen good tourism numbers throughout the pandemic. Now, he suspects eastern South Dakota will take off this fall as pheasant season kicks off.

During a recent weekend, the state's tourism department received 60 emails from people all over the country inquiring about a range of topics, such as outdoors, that South Dakota can offer.

“Really, you name the state, they’re all saying they’ve appreciated the way South Dakota has handled the pandemic and that they’re telling us consistently, please send us more information about vacations there and what there is there to see and do,” Hagen said. “It’s been phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it in all the years I’ve been in tourism. It’s not waning at all. It seems to be growing.”

In 2019, pheasant hunting in South Dakota accounted for $202.4 million spent by residents and nonresidents combined. Brown ($12.8 million), Brule ($11.4 million) and Tripp ($10.3 million) were the top-three grossing counties. Davison was ninth at $6.4 million.