Nathan’s adventure journey takes him to the vast prairies of South Dakota to experience world-class pheasant hunting and five-star dining at The Signature Lodge at Cheyenne Ridge
As we step off the plane onto the tarmac, it’s unusually warm for September in Pierre, South Dakota, as in no-jacket-required kind of warm. The day had finally come. Bruce Fox and I were meeting John Burrell and Tania Tuttle of the High Adventure Company for a two-day pheasant hunt. We had both heard stories of the incredible hunting and over-the-top hospitality that we couldn’t wait to see for ourselves. The stories are so grand that, candidly, they were hard to believe. The fact that this trip coincided with my birthday made it certain that this would be a good one.
And who would be there to greet us? None other than Sean Finley—hand outstretched with a broad smile on his face—a welcome sight after a hard day of travel. South Dakota is unarguably home to some of the finest pheasant hunting in America, and Cheyenne Ridge Outfitter’s Signature Lodge, which is operated by the High Adventure Company, is the hunting lodge that every hunter dreams of going to. Not to say there aren’t numerous excellent lodges in South Dakota, but the Signature Lodge is known for its extraordinary level of hospitality, Finley’s masterful five-star food creations, and of course its world class hunting. That is what you come to expect from the High Adventure Company, regardless of which of their worldwide locations you are visiting.
It’s a pleasant drive from the airport through the rolling hills of seemingly endless cornfields and grass. Even the grass here has cool names like Blue Gram, Little Bluestem, and Western Wheatgrass, and it seems to just roll on forever. Walking into the main lodge, 30-foot ceilings and massive rough-sawn timbers set the tone for the main room which houses a large horseshoe-shaped bar complete with every kind of libation imaginable. On the other end of the main room is a majestic stone fireplace and chimney on which are displayed mounts of big-horned sheep, pheasant, and fox. Just down the hall is a large game room with table bowling, pool, and more. Around the corner is the ice bar and cigar lounge, again replete with various libations.
Assuming you arrive in the afternoon as we did—and that you are not hunting that day—then the bar is open. Finley puts on a show that rivals any chef I’ve experienced. A substantial buffet of appetizers goes out every day around 5 p.m. We’re talking everything from smoked pheasant and flatbread pizza to sweet chili duck confit sliders. As we indulge, we are entertained by the stories being told by the High Adventure team as well as others guests around the bar.
Finley’s dinners are more than just a simple meal, much more. Each one is planned with five-star precision, and chef comes out to explain each of the many courses. Having owned a restaurant, I can really appreciate the attention to detail in his presentation of each item. Not only are the recipes well-executed, each plate is a work of art. But Finley has much more up his sleeve than just an exquisite dinner presentation.
The breakfast spreads found at most lodges are groupings of expected items, but not here. There is an omelet station with nearly 20 items to select from. Beside it rests an entire 60-day-aged New York strip loin, ham steak, and elk steak. Additionally, there is French toast, waffles, fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, and four kinds of juice. Lunch, as you can imagine, is just as robust. In front of me is an amazing rendition of a burger, so big it won’t fit in my mouth.
The properties are laid out perfectly with long strips of food plots with grassy areas on each side. The corn and grains provide both food and cover for the birds. The walking is easy and safe, and I enjoy photographing a group of hunters that first morning. Listening to the guides as they work the dogs and call loudly as the birds rise, “Rooster” signals to the hunters they are clear to shoot. Each hunter must be sure the shot is clear; safety is at the forefront of this operation.
Bruce and I want to visit the skeet range before the hunt to knock a little rust off of our wing shooting. The sporting clays facility overlooks the lake and includes several long range rifle targets if you want a little target practice. The staff have just refilled the clay targets and Bruce quickly shows that he really isn’t all that rusty. It takes me a little more time to feel confident, but in the end, I feel like we are ready for the tomorrow’s hunt.
The next morning—after one of those amazing Finley breakfast feasts—we are off to the field. Our party consists of John Burrell, Tania Tuttle, Mark McClain, his son Marcus, Dallis Joiner, and Dr. Joe Duncan. Doc has been around since John’s days at Mossy Oak. That’s something I really admire about John; he surrounds himself with interesting and competent people to help him provide best-in-class experiences across his hunting lodges.
The scene is simply inspiring with gently rolling hills and seemingly endless cornfields. It’s no wonder pheasants thrive here. Our first walk of the day is uphill through hybrid sorghum into the rising sun. Since it’s unusually warm, even early in the day, the dogs are having to work extra hard in the heat. Our wait will not be long now until the excitement begins.
Private shooting reserves, such as Cheyenne Ridge, are very popular with out-of-state hunters. Daily limits can be up to 20 birds per hunter, in stark contrast to the state limit of three per day. Shooting reserves are required to replace a minimum of two birds for each bird taken. Birds are tagged and logged by the guides prior to leaving the reserve property and returning to the lodge. This is truly a gentleman’s hunt as everything—including cleaning and packing the birds for shipping home—is part of the package. According to John Burrell, “The demand for first-class sporting adventures has grown greatly during COVID.”
A few minutes into our walk and one of the guides calls, “Rooster!” The significance of the guide or fellow hunters calling out this term is to signify that sighting of the red head or male; hens are not fair game. Pheasants rise to get above the cover almost like a helicopter making for relatively easy wing shooting for a brief moment. But as soon as they head downwind, it’s a different matter entirely. South Dakota can have some pretty brisk winds, and pheasants know how to take advantage of mother nature.
Pheasants tend to run on the ground, and were it not for well-trained dogs and guides to work them, it would be difficult at best to hunt these wily birds. This crew is certainly filled with great wing shooters and we do well, with John and Doc probably being the best shooters of the crew. The hunting is well-organized with both the guides and dogs working well as a team. By the end of our trip, our group had bagged 154 birds, all while enjoying the camaraderie of our hunting party.
Doc said it best: “What makes Cheyenne Ridge so special is that theres no part of the experience that you can call your favorite.” And Tania totally agreed: “I loved how everyone there wanted me to succeed and supported me even though I was by far the least experienced.”
For me, one of the best parts of these trips are the stories told around the bar in the late afternoon and evening hours. I watched one evening as Bruce told of a cape buffalo attack in Africa; not one of the many that gathered to hear uttered a word till he was finished. And it literally made the hair on my neck stand up as if I were right there with him as the buffalo charged. That was just one of so many I lost track of, except for Sean Finley telling me about streamer fishing on the Soque for giant trout. I made a note to book a trip as soon as we returned.
Each night we wiled away the hours with stories over cocktails and cigars. There is no question that anyone who comes here will want to return, hope to see you there.