Glassing For Giants

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The open prairie spot-and-stalk for roosters

Story by Jimmy FormanPhotos by Chad Love


“There! Across that draw,” he says, peeling two eyeballs from the binocular lenses. “You see them? Right down there. Three giants.”

What imagery does that color into your mind? If you guessed the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or an alpine basin in Wyoming and huge bull elk, then you are incorrect. If you flipped to the cover of this magazine to make sure it was Pheasants Forever Journal you are reading, then bear with me a little longer.
 

Instead of the high mountain country, an alpine meadow and big game, imagine a field approach entry off a gravel road leading into a 400-something-acre mixed prairie grass tract topping out at maybe 1,600 feet in elevation. Behind the wooden H-brace and intersecting barbed wire is a green and white sign, cherished by those who are familiar (and notifying everyone who isn’t) that they are always welcome here: a public Waterfowl Production Area.

No jagged rocky peaks, no dense pine bluffs, no patches of yellow aspen, and definitely no bugling elk. But the giants we are after are trophies nonetheless. They have traded their towering antlers and ear-piercing screams for streaming tails, spurred heels, crowing cackles and an iridescent jubilee of patterned color. 

These trophies are giants in an upland hunter’s mind, and they go by the name of rooster pheasant. And if you are positioned correctly under a mellow prairie sky as sundown approaches, then these trophies will be the ones revealing themselves to you.
 
But same as every upland hunter, I always reserve a small reserve tank of hope for the last hour of South Dakota sunlight.
While this may sound like doing it all backwards to many fellow upland hunters, the strategy of waiting back and glassing for pheasants from a hilltop can pay for itself 10-fold if the conditions are right. 

Let’s set the scene.



Since mid-morning I had walked many grueling miles through cattail jungles, clover tangles and ankle-bending potholes created from grazing cattle that had managed the land last year. 

A few of what could be game birds were occasionally seen fluttering in the distance. But it was hard to be certain, because ever since mile 10, my demeanor had slumped, my breath had let out a handful of defeated huffs, and I had slowly convinced myself that pheasants had evolved to burrow underground. 

But same as every upland hunter, I always reserve a small reserve tank of hope for the last hour of South Dakota sunlight. 

Running on the fumes of wishful thinking, I hurriedly drive to a favorite public spot on the way home. Because of its combined proximity to town and eye-pleasing prairie scenery, this particular swath is frequented often by hunters. But despite its every inch being hunted up and down by multiple parties throughout the day, none of that will matter now. In this moment, you might as well be the first hunter to have ever touched foot here. 

There is standing corn around, and the fat old sun is racing to the horizon. That’s when I start glassing for giants. First one or two, later a few more, then even more, come erupting en force from the yellow corn: deep purple-and-bronze cacklers with tails so long they almost forego all aerodynamics. 

I watch closely for where their gliding runway ends and the birds land, then put three shells in, point the dog in the right direction, and five minutes later: a point, a flush, a shot, a panting satisfaction on a four-legged friend’s face, and a smile on mine.

After the rush of excitement, I return to the top of the hill and repeat the process. Glassing, spotting, stalking ahead. This is how one finds giant bulls in the mountains … and sometimes, “bull pheasants” in eastern South Dakota. 

Here’s how to do it.
 

For added effectiveness and as much as luck will allow, it is ideal to position oneself 1) downwind of where the birds are anticipated to land and 2) with the western sun shining at your back. 

This windflow will give your dog the best chance at locking up tighter than a deadbolt or pushing birds into the air when getting within a few yards of a recently landed rooster. This approach also gives you a front row ticket and fully lighted stage view of the spectacle responsible for inspiring the Pheasants Forever organization and this magazine to exist.
 
You will also enjoy many walks back to the truck rewarded with a nice heft at the bottom of the gamebag.
Another crucial piece of the puzzle is 3) elevation. Spot-and-stalk can only work if you can spot first, especially if the birds are making a break for a cattail ocean. Given the time you have left until the sun dips below the horizon, being obstructed from viewing the birds in their full coasting sail will make the maneuver impossible. It is imperative to see where the birds stall, decide to hit the down arrow on the elevator shaft, and glide or flutter into their cozy basement-floor roost for the night. 

Sometimes the birds are right where you thought they landed. Sometimes they aren’t, but at least you know there are a few in the area. It seems like “earlier” birds move more once they hit the ground, while “late arrivers” stay put better. Interesting conundrums for: Should I step off right now, or stay put and wait for a later bird? 

Glass, spot and stalk roosters enough times, and you will learn as you go and get better at the game. You will also enjoy many walks back to the truck rewarded with a nice heft at the bottom of the gamebag.

Like all upland hunting, glassing-spotting-stalking roosters can pan out when least expected and might well fail when turns of phrase like “pretty good odds” or “I bet so” come to mind. 

But in the fall, high on a hill, with comforting evening light glowing in, a breeze your face, grain standing or in stubble in one area and a cathedral of prairie on the other, glassing for giants — trophy ring-necked roosters that make our hearts beat big — can work.
 

Jimmy Forman lives in South Dakota where he hunts the golden prairie in fall and writes of it during the frozen tundra winter.

This story originally appeared in the 2022 Summer Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!