In the world of pheasant hunting, there is no ground more sacred than that of the Paul Nelson Farm, 5,000 acres of paradise for shotguns and their bird dogs. On past visits to this bird hunter’s bucket list destination, I’ve been flanked by Senator John Thune and longtime friend Tom Brokaw, two South Dakota kids who built their careers in the great cities of the East, but always return to their home states for pheasant season—what Brokaw calls a religious holiday in South Dakota.
This time I’m joined by Brays Island’s longtime neighbor and friend, General Walt Boomer, the 84-year-old four-star who commanded all Marines during Operation Desert Storm. We’ve hunted birds from the burnt pines of South Georgia to the moors of Scotland… and often in the groomed fields of Brays – often behind his athletic German Shorthaired Pointer. Created for those who love the great outdoors, the South Carolina enclave celebrates hunting and fishing 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 for 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, as you would never guess they were in their eighties when you saw them walking up and down the sorghum, corn and grass fields. Apparently, somewhere in a life with no shortage of adrenaline, they got to the fountain of youth.
Americans tend to revere their generals because they know that, at some point before commanders send men into battle, they had previously put their own lives on the line.
Hunting is a passion that often brings people from different backgrounds together, so it’s that again when I’m walking in the middle of a cornfield in my kind of hero sandwich hoping to find an abundance of colorful collared pheasants.
Before long and we had the launch – a couple of roosters first (only rooster pheasants are fairly wild here) and soon a burst of birds started leaving the end of the field as the father-son tandem of David and Gunter Ben Stalnaker ( who joined us from Texas and stood at the far end of the field cutting off escape routes for pheasants) made quick work of their outrageous opportunities.
Pheasants flying out of 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 custom-made pistol (decorated with gold-encrusted game birds, his beloved shorthair, and four gold stars).
To the left, Duke’s over-and-under shotgun appeared to be well trained, giving the Labradors plenty of work to do. The lefty was born in North Carolina, but mostly grew up in South Carolina, where he was baptized in the bird-hunting fashion when he chased the bobwhite quail in the region.
While the ring-necked pheasant now seems as much an indelible part of the South Dakota landscape as Mount Rushmore, the first successful introduction of the birds took place in the late 1800s in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. It wasn’t so much an introduction as an accident.
Then the consul general to Shanghai, Judge Owen Denny, brought back a handful of birds from China. However, the pheasants escaped their confinement when a storm destroyed the pens in which they were kept. The birds multiplied in their new environment—sometimes referred to as Denny Pheasants—and when they extended 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 fall, putting more than $220 million into the state’s economy and generating an additional $110 million in employment.
About 600 of those hunters will stay at the Paul Nelson Farm, a place where the word lodge is not enough to describe the spectacular nature of the destination. That’s why the destination has attracted a who’s who of shotgun firing – it’s most famous regular none other than Vice President Dick Cheney. As the guides tell, the Veep can shoot. The same goes for South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, another hunter who frequents the ranch.
In my 30 years of visiting and reporting on the world’s top bird-hunting and fly-fishing destinations (that is, my attempt to avoid honest work), the Paul Nelson Farm simply has no rival.
That fact is no coincidence. Paul Nelson was unlike any other cabin operator I’ve ever encountered. Bigger than life in his vision, creative and affable, he was also driven to create something unique using South Dakota’s special pheasant resource to make the state – at least its little piece of it – a destination where people no longer just would fly over. Thanks in part to Paul’s efforts, South Dakota embraced the pheasant as a brand. There are many states where you can hunt pheasants, but none are better than South Dakota.
However, just before the start of the 2020 pheasant season, Paul Nelson was killed when the recreational vehicle he was driving was swept away by a tornado near the town of Miller.
It was a devastating loss just as the family and their employees were to house hundreds of fighters from around the world. There was little time for his son Erik and his wife Tami to mourn. The best way to honor Paul was to fight and continue his legacy by providing the best wing shooting experience in the world.
When I returned with the generals, Paul’s presence still looms large, but Erik and Tami continue to live up to the excellent reputation the family has built over the decades. Some will even say that the Paul Nelson Farm is better than ever.
And I would be one of those people.