Thursday, October 18, 2018

One Cast (Of Many) in the Grasslands




Point and 2 Backs

One afternoon, we put out on a large patch of Hunter Walk-in Area near Pierre.  Mainly flat with a little roll, the land was a sea of grass.  It was obviously an old alfalfa field, as we could see the stalks and plants pushing up through the grass, providing food and cover for the Prairie Chickens and Sharptail Grouse. I started with Cap (Brit/M/8) and Shack (Brit/M/5) on the ground- my most productive team.  Hunting partners, Matthew and Shelby Puckett, had 11 year old Abby (GSP/F) down.  

Shelby and Shack



Abby struck first with a very nice point!  Cap and Shack strolled in, from two different directions, and backed her.  We all knew we had something waiting for us, and Matthew did his best to flush them, but either they ran out from under the dogs or this was old scent. We moved on through the grass. About 40 yards later, the grass parted and a chicken blasted up, right at my feet!  Instinct took over as the 5.8# AHFox 20 qa. hit my shoulder and a load of 6’s went his way. Sweet shot!  And the bird pitched forward into the grass.  An instant later, the blast of another set of wings, to my left, sent another Prairie Chicken up and away! He made a fatal turn to follow the the first bird, and the Fox barked one more time, followed by a tumbling bird into the grass.  A Double!  My first on Chickens. 

Cap

Shelby and Matthew and Shack  and Abby moved off to the south as Cap and I covered another section of the area. Thinking we may have left a bird or two back at the tree line near the trucks, I swung around and headed back.  Cap was on his game (he’s rarely not) and with 8 years’ experience, I knew, if they were there, he’d find them.  Sure enough, he slammed a point just outside the stand of trees, in the cut alfalfa. It’s always amazing to me how these birds can disappear in no cover.  As I approached, this guy gave me no chance. He blasted out before I could get closer that 50 yards. No shot there, but Cap was still birdy, and I was anxious to limit. A minute later, Cap, tongue lolling and working slowly and carefully along the edge of a drainage ditch, eased into a point.  There wasn’t a cupful of grass right in front of his nose. But, I knew my dog, and I always honored his point.  Besides, I’d just scored a double!  Two fat chickens in the bird bag would soon be joined by a third. Then, I could return to the truck (“Yeah, I’m back a little early, but, then, I limited, you know. Let me tell you all about it....”).

Cap and 3 Chickens

Needless to say, this bird was already in the bird bag.  I glanced around to clear the area, and I noticed Matthew and Shelby coming in from the south. Also, Sarah and Jesse were standing by the trucks.  Perfect. Witnesses!  (What pilot doesn’t like an audience?).  Talking to Cap and easing around him, on his left so he could see me closing in (he lost the lens in his right eye), I moved to the tuft of grass. No more than two steps away, the grass blew apart and a laughing  Sharptail blew up and straight away!  The Fox hit my shoulder, as I envisioned easing the bird into the crowded bird-bag.  The old 20 ga. barked twice and a shocked silence surrounded an embarrassed, overconfident, 68 year old, traveling bird hunter as the sharpie chuckled away into the distance.  Laughing, I thought, “Thank you Lord for, once again, showing me my misplaced pride.  But, did it need to be in front of so many witnesses?” 


It was an awesome day on the prairie with good friends and great dogs.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

South Dakota Prairie Chickens (and Sharptail Grouse)

Cap and 3 Prairie Chickens

Normally, in October (the best month, by far, in the calendar), I would be in the Ruffed Grouse woods.  This year, an epic downturn in grouse populations hit the Northwoods.  After an earlier trip to Montana produced lots of walking, driving, and worn out dogs, but few birds, I decided to find somewhere, anywhere, that had good populations of something.  The South Dakota Grasslands fit the bill.  Prairie Chickens were on the menu!  The Grasslands are south of Pierre (pronounced "peer"), SD.  They are a huge,vast sea of grass, and they are managed for Prairie Chickens.  The population this year is high, but don't get the idea it's like hunting pheasant in a good year, where every bunch of cattails has 100 birds. 

Cap backing Shack who has 4 chickens pointed
These are prairie birds.  They've adapted to look out for trouble.  They'll be up on the sides of hills, or even on the top.  Many times, they'll see you coming, and they'll launch off before you get within 200 yards.  That said, with a good population, there were many young birds, and this cruel world is a tough taskmaster.  They hung around a little too long and tried to hide from the dogs- bad mistake.

Matthew approaches a point by Abbie with Cap and Shack backing.
It wasn't all sweetness and light, however.  I managed to get stuck in the South Dakota snot they call wet dirt.....twice!  The first time was on a day that was 30 degrees with 30-40 mph winds.  After almost being blown off the road while crossing a slushy patch west of Pierre, I hightailed it back to town, and decided to hit a spot I know in the Grasslands.  I drove south from Pierre, all the while checking the temperature and watching the wind.  I turned in, crossed the cattle guard, and immediately, both axles sank into the ruts!  I was still moving, but didn't feel right.  I was in 4WD and was moving along pretty good, but I was very concerned about getting back out!  After 1/4 mile, that was all the Beast could take.  She sank down, and we were going nowhere.   I ended up calling a local friend.  I knew the ribbing would be intense- and it was.  He drove in the grass down to me, and pulled me out of the ruts.  Once on the grass, I was good to go.  I was there 4 hours, the day was shot, I was cold and hungry.  So, I took David and Angela Healan of Spring Creek Ventures out to a steakhouse dinner. (http://www.springcreekventure.com/)

David pulled me out of the track, back on the grass.
The second time, I was following two other trucks down a mushy road.  I was following to close for the "absolutely no braking" conditions.  Ahead of me Jesse and Sarah Gomes slowed to kick off their traction control. The only escape I had was into the ditch.  Actually, it wouldn't count as being stuck at that point, since I had great traction in the ditch and waited for them to get rolling again.  Once clear, I pulled back onto the road.  BUT, I didn't have enough speed to get all the way up out of the ditch and avoid a drainage culvert under the road.  I stopped short with my right front wheel almost hanging in space.  I managed to pull it back a little, but that wheel was too far down to pull out.  Finally, Matthew and Shelby Puckett unhooked their dog trailer and came slip-sliding back to look for me. I told him to go past me, turn around in the ditch, and get close enough to back up and pull me out.  It worked like a charm.  10 min later we were hunting!

Sarah's dog, Dan, discovered the wonderful world of porcupines.
Not long after that, Dan, Sarah's dog, took a shine to a porcupine in a cattail surrounded pond.  He was pitiful while we pulled the quills out.  But, he was back to hunting quickly after that.  Tough dog. I always carry some type of pliers, just for this eventuality.
Cap, Sarah, and Abby and a limit of Chickens
We saw a lot of excellent shooting (some other) and loads of incredible dog work over the 5 days.  In the end, we had worn out dogs, birds in the bag, muddy trucks, and enough memories to last until next year.

Jesse and Sarah Gomes, Shelby and Matthew Puckett
Shelby and Matthew with some chickens
Sarah and Rye- one of those "wow" dogs.
Shelby and Shack
We were there the week prior to pheasant season opening.  It was quiet, peaceful, and traffic free around town.  Saturday, the resident-only pheasant season opened.  Prior to that, we never saw another outfit or hunter.  It was a great time to go visit the Grasslands.  Just be sure to carry some needle-nosed pliers in your vest and chains in your truck.  You just never know when you might need them.