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The Sisterhood of Pheasants

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by Dawn Faught | Jul 10, 2020 | BIRD HUNTING, HUNTING, Slider
The Sisterhood of Pheasants

Eight ladies, now all good friends, have a blast in the pheasant fields of South Dakota.
If you can gauge how good of a day you had by the number of shells you shot, I had a blast. The sore stomach muscles from evenings of hearty laughter shared with new friends was also a good sign. My journey to Hitchcock, South Dakota was to be a “meeting of the sisters” at Olsen’s Pheasant Phun Lodge for the annual Próis Ladies pheasant hunt. I was excited— South Dakota pheasants are legendary. Hunting them was on my bucket list.

I was also experiencing a bit of trepidation. Normally a solo hunter, I ranked myself as a rookie in comparison to the ladies I envisioned attending an organized hunting party. The fears of missing shots and getting skunked in front of an audience was unnerving.

When you hunt alone, only the dog knows if you missed a bird. Actually, when I think about it, my dog Quigley judges me pretty harshly on that account.

I went into stealth mode to sneak my shotgun and gear out to my pickup without Quigley noticing. His reproachful eyes on my way out the door informed me he knew anyway. Dogs always know. The last few miles to Pheasant Phun took me along a narrow country road edged by fields of standing corn. Tawny stalks, tattered by a long season of sun and wind, gave up the struggle as a dusty Case combine reaped its golden bounty. I watched, knowing pheasants love corn. True to form, the great bird dog of farmers, the Combine, flushed numerous Chinese ringnecks from the field.

I was officially in pheasant country.

The impressive Pheasant Phun lodge overlooks hillsides waving with tall grass. Below the hills lay a cerulean blue pond rimmed with cattails. Perfect pheasant habitat. As if to prove that point, flashes of colorful birds doing their rooster squawk distracted me as Amy Crane gave me a tour of their new facilities. Crane is owner Dave Olsen’s fiancé and “the person behind the magic—making the lodge and all it is special for every guest.”

A catastrophic summer storm in 2013 caused extensive damage to the ranch. Grapefruit-sized hail pulverized everything in its path, shredding buildings and crops and killing pheasants and deer. Rather than throw his hands up in defeat, Olsen chose to not only rebuild but improve his facilities.

Over a year’s time, he, his brother and friends renovated damaged buildings into a grand new lodge. Desiring an authentic South Dakota flavor, he incorporated wood from blue-stained Black Hills pine throughout the interior. Relics of the historic 1903 Olsen Ranch add to the ambiance of the rustic interior.

Pheasant hunting is an Olsen family tradition. Dave’s earliest memories are of watching his father, Art, guide hunters.
“Hunting is a celebration of life…it’s about the relationships, the land and the memories of time with my father,” Dave explains.

Art died in 2017, but Anne, Art’s wife and mother to Dave and a font of knowledge about the history of the ranch, happily helps Crane with lodge operations.

Several ladies had previously attended Próis hunts but welcomed newcomers with open arms. The beautiful bar hewn out of reclaimed wood from the Olsen’s 100-year-old hip-roof barn was the perfect setting for a gathering of like minds as we settled in to get acquainted. Immediately we were laughing and sharing stories like long-lost friends.

Kirstie Pike, Próis Hunting Apparel founder and Colorado native, saw the need for ladies-only hunts in a normally male dominated activity, just like she saw the need to develop a hunting clothing line made specifically for women. Pike feels Pheasant Phun is a perfect place for new or veteran female hunters.

“The hunting is action packed, the guides are fantastic, the accommodations and food are impeccable,” she told us. “Over the years, these ladies have become my best friends while enjoying a prime hunting experience. The camaraderie and sheer fun is amazing.”

The following morning, my nose led me to the coffee pot atop of an old cast iron stove. Happily immersing myself in a steaming cup, I sat in front of the fireplace, watching the sky turn shades of dusky pinks and blues as the sun made its appearance. Roosters squawked their good mornings from the hillside, teasing me relentlessly. The rest of the ladies rolled out and joined me in good conversation and coffee. Crane and Anne served a sumptuous breakfast feast of bacon, eggs and caramel rolls.

Gals being gals, we had to compliment each other on our hunting attire as we stepped into the invigorating fall air. I was glad I packed my Próis merino wool. We piled into the lodge’s van where nonstop chatter and laughter immediately echoed out into the vast prairie as we traveled the short distance to our first hunt. This was a true hen party—the only males welcome were the guides, dogs and roosters.

Olsen and guides Tom Kuball and Roger Williams readied their dogs, then gave the orders: “Hunt ’em up!”

Williams took Axel, his big yellow Lab along with several gals to block the end of the field.

Some of the preserve is farmland. Olsen raises corn, soybeans and sorghum, which provide an ample supply of food and shelter for the birds. The soybeans were harvested but we walked strips of standing corn where pheasants love to hide. Thick tangles of sorghum were left standing for food and cover from often brutal South Dakota winters.

The first shots rang out under a dusky grey sky and feathers floated amidst snowflakes.

“Bird down!”

The air was instantly filled with a volley of “yahoos” and “great shot!” Hearty high fives were shared among the galley of women hunters.

Pheasant hunting amidst the ladies was a team sport.

Labradors of every color eagerly ran through the field, flushing and retrieving birds, their faces powdered with fine snow, red tongues lolling and happy tails slapping my leg as they ran past. I was thrilled when I dropped my first iridescent rooster, although I missed mastering a double when a second cockbird flushed. My sisters cheered “nice shot!” I wasn’t skunked. The pressure was off.

The gals hunted all day with great success. I harvested a few roosters and educated a few. It didn’t matter who dropped the bird, the support was overwhelming. Most importantly, we laughed, cheered and enjoyed the immense feeling of sisterhood in the great outdoors.

I fell in love with Quigley, Olsen’s year-old yellow lab, in part because he was my own dog’s namesake, but mostly because of his puppyish enthusiasm. His wagging tail, feverishly gyrating atop his wiggly butt that gravitated to a squirmy body, was totally irresistible. Much like smiles and laughter coming from my sisters, tails tell the entire story of how happy these dogs are to be afield.

A mixed flock of Canada and snow geese noisily announced their presence overhead. We paused our hunt, awestruck at their massive v-formations as they journeyed south. The sky, cast in glorious hues of crimson and violet, signaled the end of a great day. It was time to gather back at the lodge to relive the shots of the day.

The second morning was a bit brutal with single-digit temperatures and a wind forecast to be screaming by midday. But the sun was shining. We eagerly bundled up for another fine day.

I was ecstatic when we set out to hunt those tall amber prairie grasses on the hillsides I viewed upon my arrival. It wasn’t long before the first birds squawked their protests, shots were fired and dogs told to “find it.” I trekked up a steep hillside only to have a rooster flush as I neared the ridge. I passed on the shot, unsure of where the dogs were located.

Our cheering drew Crane to watch from the lodge.

“Guys don’t hoot and holler like the girls do,” she said. “Girls are definitely more vocal and supportive of each other.”

Crane looks forward to the Próis ladies’ hunts. “They are a classy and fun group of ladies. I love the camaraderie they share. It’s fun to watch it all evolve and see them build long-lasting relationships. They come together as strangers and quickly become great friends.”

Everyone agreed that the Pheasant Phun guides are wonderful. I didn’t know they carried and cleaned the birds for you. They also gave gentle advice. After a few missed shots, Kuball encouraged me to “just keep the gun swinging.” Multiple clothing layers made that movement practically impossible.

At times, mass confusion ensued when several birds fell at once, but the well-trained dogs always found the birds. Otis, a powerful Labrador, busted noisily through cornstalks, spilling stark white snowflakes from the pile accumulated on his massive black head. Vivid plumage of a rooster drooled from his lips as he proudly delivered his treasure.

A veritable bird highway of tracks in the snow encouraged us onward in spite of the cold north winds. Pheasants unwilling to expose themselves to the icy gale ran through the stalks ahead of us. A sneaky old rooster broke behind me. I missed my mark but partner, Tamara Swindle Trail, a Texas native, backed me up with her excellent marksmanship. Trail enjoys the physical, emotional and mental challenges hunting brings.

“Hunting connects you to the land and makes you appreciate the myriad interactions between the wildlife and habitat,” Trail expressed. “Hunters are students of the land.”

The cold air worked up a thirst and appetite, shown by perhaps an unladylike gorging upon appetizers and drinks back at the lodge. We swapped stories and laughter, reliving our favorite moments of a fine day. We gathered around the supper table, bowed our heads as Olsen shared grace and thanked God for the bountiful day and the wonderful feast to be consumed.

Celebration was in the air as guests, guides and owners dined on ribeye steaks grilled to perfection with apple pie a la mode as dessert. The air reverberated with laughter.

We were a hunting party. We were family.

In the words of Olsen, “You come here only once as strangers. You leave as family and friends.”

Pheasant hunting isn’t just about harvesting birds, it’s about making memories and new friends. I officially joined the sisterhood.

I was worried about returning home. My clothing reeked of birds, gunpowder and the worst insult—other dogs. Quigley met me at the door with enthusiasm but after one quick sniff, glared at me and stalked off.

Luckily, dogs forgive quickly.

If you take them hunting.

Solo hunting isn’t the same anymore. While I still enjoy every hunt and its connection to nature, I miss the laughter and cheers of my sisters. The ladies were also much more forgiving on my missed shots than my dog.

First-time participant Arlene Brown, a South Dakota native who winters in California, said it best. Shortly after arriving at Pheasant Phun, she described how the event forced her to step out of her box—that confined space we set for ourselves when unsure of our abilities.

We came. We hunted. We may have missed a few birds but each of the sisters gained lifetime friendships.

“My box now only has three sides,” Brown declared. “I can step in and out as I please.”

I stepped out of my box at Pheasant Phun. I also contributed to the early retirement of several ammo company stockholders.

It was a blast.
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