The late autumn ritual begins with the participants taking the field. Flankers and blockers assume their positions and a scrimmage line forms, ready to confront a swift opponent that is a threat to gain yardage on the ground as well as through the air. “There’s a lot of yelling, and you’ve got to know hand signals,” says Larry Teuber. “Pheasant hunting is a team sport.”
Football season isn’t just for football, and hunting isn’t always a solitary pursuit. Fall is time to stalk a unique bird that is both available in South Carolina and that also lures Palmetto State hunters to the Great Plains. In pheasant hunting, love of the land and the bond between dog and hunter are just as cherished as bagging a bird. “I use field bred English cockers and love my dogs more than I love to shoot the gun,” says Lexington resident Kyle Godley. “If you like to shoot, come with me because I’ll let you shoot.”
A pheasant hunting journey to South Dakota was on Kyle’s bucket list until he made the trip in 2019. “I’ve always wanted to do it,” says Kyle, who is president of CBG Inc., a clearing, grading, and utility paving contractor based in Gaston. “There were a lot of rolling hills where we were in South Dakota. It is the most corn I have ever seen in my life.”
In those hills, amid all that corn, thick brush hid Kyle’s quarry. In a group hunt for wild pheasant, the hunting party arrays itself around the field, which can extend hundreds of yards with both native grasses and food crops, such as corn or milo. A line of hunters presses forward. Ahead of the line, dogs work to locate the birds.
“You want them to flush the birds to where you have the opportunity to shoot,” Kyle says. “Sometimes those birds will get up and fly to the other end of the field.” That’s where the blockers are set up to prevent an escape. The flankers work the sides of the field, ahead of the walkers.
This is why Larry Teuber calls it a team sport. The retired surgeon says he’s been hunting the south central prairies of South Dakota for 45 years. As the owner, operator, and safety officer of Wiley Cock Lodge in Winner, South Dakota, he operates three-day hunts for groups of 10 to 20 people from late October to early January.
“Pheasants are runners — they run to escape predators,” Larry says. “When you get into the tall grass, the bird will run until it finds concealment. You have to be able to box them in to get them to fly.”
South Dakota has named the ring-necked pheasant its state bird, but pheasants aren’t native to the United States. Various types have been introduced in America going back to the 1700s, some more successfully than others. The National Audubon Society Field Guide describes most pheasants as “shy forest birds of Asia” but points out the ring-necked pheasant has done well in America’s open spaces. “Here it thrives in some areas, such as the northern prairies, where the iridescent colors and rich crowing calls of the males add much to the landscape,” Larry states.
A conservation group, Pheasants Forever, counts 132,000 members and 760 chapters across the United States and Canada. A portion of the Midwest, from the Dakotas to Kansas, has become a popular area for hunters. Many from the Palmetto State make the trip. Larry hosts a group of South Carolina pheasant hunters each year. “Every one of those guys is a very experienced outdoorsman,” he says.
Sarah Nell Blackwell has made several trips to Kansas with her husband, Robert. “I think it’s been four out of the past five years,” says Sarah Nell, who runs Wingshot Design LLC, a creative strategy firm based in Moncks Corner.
For her, it isn’t so much about the birds as it is about the dogs — more specifically Samson, her Boykin spaniel. She says working a field for pheasant is probably Samson’s favorite thing to do. He is set for retirement after several years of happy hunting. Sarah Nell has added to her family a Labrador retriever puppy, Rowe, whom she’s preparing for future hunts.
On pheasant trips to the Kansas prairie, Sarah Nell says the hunting party has also featured Labs and German shorthaired pointers. As she worked the field with Samson, his task was to flush out the birds. “Having a dog communicate with you and form that constant partnership — it’s hard to describe,” she says. “It’s the whole time. It’s really fun.”
And hard work. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Sarah Nell says. “It’s thick fields.”
After a hunt, Larry sees many a guest zonked out in his lodge, seeking refuge in a comfy chair for a nap. “You can be in the water, the mud, the snow, the dust, the weeds,” he says.
Seneca native Hunter Morton trains German shorthaired pointers while he works on a master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries biology from Clemson University. He got his first German shorthair for deer hunting but soon found out the dog had a nose for birds. “It’s like that’s what he was meant to do,” Hunter says of Cooper, “Coop” for short. “It would have been bad on my part not to explore this sport.”
Since then, they’ve been hooked on bird hunting. “He’s our best wild bird hunting dog,” Hunter says. “On one side of it, those dogs are your tools. But those dogs are more willing to work for you if you build that bond. When we’re out in that field, we’re partners. Pheasants are an amazing bird to hunt.”
Hunter says he’s stalked pheasant in Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Pheasants are one of the bigger game birds as males can weigh up to 3 pounds, plus they’re just a tough bird in general. “That makes it fun.”
Another part of the fun is what Erik Vrbas calls “the socialization factor.” Erik and wife, Traci, own Outdoor Obsessions in Downs, Kansas. “Deer hunting, turkey hunting, you have to be quiet,” Erik says. Pheasant hunts are quite the opposite, he says, making them good for corporate and family outings.
Erik says he’s hosted hunters from all 50 states, with most coming from the wonderful slice that wraps from Virginia around to Texas. He jokes that his brother, Mark, who lives in Charleston, provides good word-of-mouth promotion of Outdoor Obsessions in South Carolina.
“I started my own operation 15 years ago,” Erik says. “There are days when it’s a job just like everybody else’s, but you meet a huge influx of good people.”
Kyle Godley returns the compliment. “They’re much like Southerners,” he says of the Midwesterners who hosted his South Dakota trip. “They’re very hospitable and down to earth. I think they do an outstanding job of conservation of their habitat and their game. They are stewards of their resources; they really are. You can tell it’s important to them.”
Wild pheasant hunting on the Great Plains features birds born on the fields where they are hunted. Larry shares that though the winters can be harsh, the birds are quite robust, and each spring sees many chicks hatch. Some facilities, including Wiley Cock Lodge, will purchase additional birds to replenish the population as necessary. “You have to be extremely flexible in my situation,” Larry says.
Another type of pheasant hunting takes place on licensed preserves, in which birds are released onto the property prior to the hunt. While some of that also takes place in the Midwest, it is the only kind of pheasant hunting allowed in South Carolina. In the Upstate, near the Georgia line, Lake Hartwell’s tentacles stretch around rolling hills to connect with dozens of streams and creeks. Fork Plantation in Townville consists of 400 acres, with the main hunting area comprising 120 acres.
“We’re a smaller, family-owned shooting preserve,” says proprietor Heyward Swift. Heyward owns a grading and concrete business, but his family has deep farming roots. They raise cows and soybeans elsewhere in Anderson County, but whatever they grow on Fork Plantation is there for the birds.
“We love our property, and I’m just trying to be the best steward of it while it’s entrusted to me,” Heyward says. “I believe the best way to do that is to grow habitat.” Fork Plantation hosts dove and duck hunts. Its upland-style hunting options include pheasant, quail, or a combination of both. A typical hunt includes up to four hunters and one guide and follows quail hunting tactics rather than those of a Dakotas-style wild pheasant hunt, which is not to say that there’s less of a challenge.
“It gets sporty in a hurry,” Heyward says. “If they are out there in the wind and get going, they can fly like a turkey. We’ll walk better than 2 miles chasing them.” He says the majority of his clients during the week are businesspeople from up and down the Interstate 85 corridor between Atlanta and Charlotte. On the weekends, it’s families. “A dad can bring out kids in a good, safe family environment, and you’re setting them up for success.”
As with Sarah Nell, Hunter, and Kyle, dogs play a crucial role in Heyward’s love of the sport. “I was put on this earth to have dogs,” he says. “I try to take my dogs everywhere I can, whether it’s to the bank, the post office, or whatever.”
Heyward says his dogs love to hunt and make a beeline for the kennel when it’s time to head to the field. “They know they’re going to work,” he says. “I absolutely love meeting the people, talking to them, and watching the dogs. You get to share a moment with people and see them experience pure joy.”