In the world of pheasant hunting, there is no more hallowed ground than that of the Paul Nelson Farm, 5,000 acres of paradise for shotgunners and their bird dogs. In previous visits to this bird hunter’s bucket list destination, I was flanked by Senator John Thune and old friend Tom Brokaw, two South Dakota kids who built their careers in the big cities of the East but who always return to their home state for pheasant season—what Brokaw refers to as a religious holiday in South Dakota.
This time, I’m joined by long-time Brays Island neighbor and friend General Walt Boomer, the 84- year-old Four-Star who commanded all Marine forces in Operation Desert Storm. We’ve hunted birds from the burnt pines of South Georgia to the moors of Scotland…and frequently on the groomed fields of Brays—often behind his athletic German shorthaired pointer. The South Carolina enclave was created for people who love the outdoors, and it celebrates hunting and angling like nowhere else.
Like Brokaw, Boomer is a dog lover who appreciates the skilled dogs of the Nelson farm because he knows what it takes to produce them.
To my left is 86-year-old Air Force General Charlie Duke, a household name to space junkies. At age 36, he became the youngest man to set foot on the moon as part of the Apollo 16 mission.
What strikes you about both men when you first meet them is their physical condition, for you would never guess they were in their eighties when you see them stride up and down the sorghum, corn, and grass fields. Apparently somewhere in a life with no shortage of adrenaline they happened upon the fountain of youth.
Americans tend to revere their Generals because they know, at some point before commanders send men into battle, they had previously put their own lives on the line.
Hunting is a passion that frequently draws people of disparate backgrounds together, so it is again as I walk the middle of a corn field in my hero sandwich of sorts in the hopes of unearthing an abundance of colorful ringneck pheasants.
It wasn’t long and we had lift-off—first a pair of roosters (only cock pheasants are fair game here) and soon an eruption of birds began leaving the end of the field as the father-son tandem of David and Gunter Ben Stalnaker (who joined us from Texas and were positioned at the end of the field to cut off pheasant escape routes) made quick work of their windfall of opportunities.
Pheasants that flew out the sides of the field were intercepted on the right by Boomer’s Winchester Model 21, a classic side-by-side that the General shoots with precision. It was a gun that he had custom-made (adorned with gold-inlaid gamebirds, his beloved shorthair, and four gold stars).
To the left, Duke’s over-and-under shotgun appeared to be well-trained, keeping the Labradors supplied with plenty of work. The lefty was born in North Carolina but mostly grew up in South Carolina where he was baptized in the ways of bird hunting when pursuing the region’s bobwhite quail.
While the ringneck pheasant now seems as much an indelible part of the South Dakota landscape as Mount Rushmore, the first successful introduction of the birds occurred in the late 1800s in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It wasn’t so much an introduction as it was an accident.
Then consul general to Shanghai, Judge Owen Denny, brought a handful of the birds back from China. The pheasants, however, escaped their confinement when a storm destroyed the pens in which they were held. The birds multiplied in their new surroundings—sometimes referred to as Denny Pheasants—and when they expanded their range to the Dakotas, they had found the promised land.
Nearly 120,000 orange clad pheasant hunters roam the fields and grasslands of South Dakota each autumn, infusing more than $220 million into the state’s economy and accounting for an additional $110 million in employment.
Some 600 of those hunters will stay at the Paul Nelson Farm, a place where the word lodge is insufficient to describe the spectacular nature of the destination. It’s why the destination has attracted a who’s who of shotgun toters—it’s most famous regular none other than Vice President Dick Cheney. As the guides tell it, the Veep can shoot. Same goes for South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, another hunter who frequents the farm.
In my 30-years visiting and reporting on the planet’s best bird hunting and fly-fishing destinations (which is to say, my effort to avoid honest work), the Paul Nelson Farm simply has no rival.
That fact isn’t an accident. Paul Nelson was unlike any other hunting lodge operator I’ve ever encountered. Larger than life in his vision, creative, and affable, he was also driven to create something unique using the special pheasant resource of South Dakota to make the state—at least his little piece of it—a destination people would no longer simply flyover. Thanks partly to Paul’s efforts, South Dakota embraced the pheasant as a brand. There are many states where you can hunt pheasants, but there are none better than South Dakota.
Just prior to the start of the 2020 pheasant season, however, Paul Nelson was killed when the recreational vehicle he was driving near the town of Miller was swept up by a tornado.
It was a devastating loss just as the family and their employees were set to host hundreds of hunters from across the world. For his son Erik and his wife Tami, there was little time to grieve. The best way to honor Paul was to soldier on, continuing his legacy by delivering the best wingshooting experience in the world.
As I returned with the Generals, Paul’s presence still looms large, but Erik and Tami continue to deliver on the premium reputation the family has created over decades. Some might even say the Paul Nelson Farm is better than ever.
And I would be one of those people.