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. (

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.