Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Sandhills! Nebraska Prairie Chickens

The Sandhills-
The Nebraska National Forest (Really!)

Get this map!  It has the navigation you need.
 What Are They?

The Sandhills are a feature that covers nearly a quarter of Nebraska.  Looked at from a satellite, by Google Earth, they look like waves on the ocean- a vast ocean of sand.  Grass covers the hills now, but not far underneath is a fine sand as nice as that on many beaches.  The road pictured above is from the Nebraska National Forest.....if you want shade out here, bring your own tree! The roads up in the McKelvie National Forest aren't nearly so nice.  They are just two tracks through the sand.  I didn't have any trouble navigating either area in 4 wheel drive and good tires, but it's not for the faint-hearted. 
Plenty of water in the Sandhills
Where Are They?
If you find Valentine, NE on the map and look to the south, you'll see the area of the Sandhills.  I'm sure the area is actually much larger, but the public land huntable area is between Valentine and Thedford, NE, about 80 miles to the south. Most is private land, but the two National Forests and The Valentine Game Refuge are located in that area.  In addition, there are several Wildlife Management Areas by the State of Nebraska scattered throughout. 
The Sandhills
Prairie Chickens and Sharptail Grouse thrive in these grass hills.  The Chicken was on my bucket list and I was eager to find an area that had a decent huntable population.  They are all throughout this area.  It didn't take long, on the first day on the ground, for my Pearl to lockup on a brace of Chickens.  I dropped one and pulled to the other just as it rolled right and dropped below the crest of the grass covered dune.  Pearl made a great retrieve and put my first Prairie Chicken in my hand!
Pearl and Cap and my first, ever Prairie Chicken
We found that the two species were interspersed throughout the areas.  As a result, our bag pretty much was split between the two.
Sharptail and Prairie Chicken (and Pearl)
Shack taking a breather in a small pond.
Now, I'm no expert on PC or Sharps, but I used a 20 ga. 2 3/4" #6's and did fine.
3 of the 4 are ready to go (Cap, Pearl, Shack).  Ruby was up front and afraid to leave her seat for the picture!

The areas are huge and laid out in pastures for grazing.  The bad news is there's grazing, the good news is there are windmills everywhere.  In fact, I rarely used the water bottles I carried in my WingWorks vest.  I would plan a hunt from the truck by looking for the next windmill and working my way around the area in that fashion.  The map of the National Forest has all the mills on it, the fences, roads, etc.  Each mill is numbered, on the north side, and that's a huge help for when you aren't where you think you are (It happened to a friend- just sayin'.).  One could read the number on the mill and correlate to the map and find themselves- what a delightful conclusion!  Also, the roads are somewhat fluid (it being a sea of sand, and all) and I ended up completely missing a turn, checking the mill number, and getting back on track (two-track) that way.  I still do not know where I missed that turn.  When I go back, I'll find out.
Cap had 7 Chickens pointed. Ruby backing. 
The result. 2 more in the bag.
Historical Marker in Thedford, NE
I stayed in a motel in Valentine, NE.  There are few motels, generally, in the area.  Some in Valentine, Thedford and maybe a few other places.  There is camper parking in the area, as well, and that may be a good way to stay close to the areas.  There are some National Forest Campgrounds, too. 
Another Sharp and Prairie Chicken on the same cast.
I had a great time hunting the Sandhills. I'm already planning to stop again on the way back from South Dakota, in November!   Plan on looking for good grass and walking a long ways.  One cast, I walked 4 miles (the dogs ran 20) and found 7 chickens within 100' of the truck when I got back!  They are where you find them, I guess.  But, don't be dismayed.  They are there!