It had become a daily routine for the two dogs.
First, the German shorthaired pointer would do her thing — locate and point out the birds. Then, on cue, the golden retriever would take over, disappearing, too, into the tall, tall prairie grass. Sometimes he would thrash back and forth through the grass forest for several minutes, other times it would take only seconds.
But most every time, the result was the same: Pheasants flushed from their thick refuge and into the South Dakota sky.
The dogs didn’t care that it was July, months before the state’s iconic pheasant hunting season. When pheasants seemingly are as thick as the prairie grass, and the backyard is the field, every day is “hunting” day for bird dogs.
Bird hunters here, too, can be forgiven for having pheasants on their brains mostly year-round. Pheasant hunting is a big deal in the state — one of the biggest deals.
Places like the River Rock Lodge just outside Pierre know this; they’re built for this. And even when it’s not pheasant season (the season “finally” opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 3, 2016), it feels like it should be at River Rock, a veritable pheasant cathedral.
The aforementioned two dogs were thrown together in July 2011, when River Rock served as a sort of displaced housing for a few folks during the historic flood of the Missouri River, which ravaged Pierre and much of central South Dakota. The German shorthair belonged to the owner of the lodge, the golden retriever to me — for a month, the lodge was my displaced home.
The dogs were in heaven, chasing pheasants all day most every day during our stay there. And River Rock does have a certain heavenly feel. Located high on a bluff, well above the Missouri River, it was a breathtaking oasis, seemingly immune to the happenings below.
The lodge itself is equally as beautiful — a gorgeous, mammoth, old-school-meets-modern-day hunting fortress that has it all; there were worse places to call home for a month during a catastrophe.
While the flood couldn’t have helped business, even during the pheasant hunting off-season, the lodge stayed fairly busy for much of my stay, particularly on weekends, when it hosted anglers fishing at nearby Lake Oahe (the fishing, like the flood, also proved to be historic on Oahe that year), vacationers who decided to tough it out despite the flood, and even the occasional family reunion and wedding that also went on in spite of it all.
And while this is a pheasant hunting lodge — that’s why it ultimately was built in 2008 — it continues to be a retreat for most anyone. A true Northland Outdoors destination.
This time of year, though, it’s all about pheasant hunting. According to the owner, the lodge is booked pretty much through the entire pheasant season (he laughed when, earlier this week, I asked if there was anything available for this weekend’s opener).
According to numbers released a couple months ago by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, this should be a banner pheasant season in South Dakota, likely the best since the flood. I don’t know if the area on the bluff around River Rock has been immune to the pheasant “drought” of sorts that the rest of the state has encountered since the 2011 season. Or if the pheasant numbers there in July typically carry over to the pheasant hunting season.
If they do, and if the SDGFP prediction holds true, a lodge full of bird hunters will be very, very happy.
Their bird dogs, too.