North Dakota bound
Blame it on the Senator, this idea about the Little Missouri National Grasslands.
Although the annual High Plains Prairie Bird Hunt is many months away, at its January get-together the Over the Hill Gang launched a spirited discussion about its destination. The consensus, it appears, will be a far-ranging trip to the Grasslands, a country we have never hunted but promises to be more bountiful than our Nebraska or Kansas hunts last year, which resulted in few birds.
As the Senator says, “What’s the downside? We couldn’t do any worse.” Indeed.
I found myself agreeing to this plan, at first grudgingly but in the end enthusiastically. I love the Nebraska Sandhills, but our hunting trips the past two years have been a total bust. I personally saw two sharptail grouse in three days of hunting — or they may have been prairie chickens; at 200 yards’ distance it is difficult to distinguish. The hills were more lush and green than anytime in the past 45 years, but the record-setting spring and summer rains did not result in increased prairie grouse populations. Bird numbers were at all-time lows. Northeast Kansas was worse.
Hence the Senator’s call to cast our lot with hunting grounds farther from home. Why drive nine hours, he asked, when a 12-hour drive might yield a cornucopia of grouse and probably veritable clouds of gray partridge, too. Who could argue?
So away west and north we will roam to the Montana – North Dakota border region where hope springs eternal. He has promised to travel there this summer to do a bit of scouting, hobnobbing with local folks as to the state of sharptail numbers in the Little Missouri Grasslands. The report from range managers, ranchers, local hunters, and the ornithologists of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department will doubtless be the same, all variations of “Well, populations are down a little, but there are scattered pockets where you could still find plenty of birds…” We have heard similar reports from the folks in Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. But with more than a million areas to hunt, how could we fail to find those promised “scattered pockets”?
And so for all practical purposes the die is cast. We have crossed the Rubicon, or at least the Missouri, and will strike out for bountiful birds and beautiful vistas, a land of sweeping prairie and rugged rock formations, the vast and sometimes harsh historical environs of the buffalo, the elk, the pronghorn, the wolf, the grizzly, and the little two-pound gallinaceous bird that has frustrated us of late. The home of the Lakota Sioux, the last of America’s indigenous people to defeat the U.S. Army in a pitched battle and win for themselves a short-lived reprieve from subjugation. A wild and unknown country with all the adventure and wonder thereof.
A flash of memory. This will not be my first visit. Forty-seven years ago, my beautiful blonde wife and I camped with our two children, ages two years and 15 months, in the rugged and pristine beauty of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We were overawed by the grandeur of open skies and the starkness of its rocky outcroppings. A doe with twin fawns wandered into our remote campsite. We heard the cry of coyotes. A dozen sharptail grouse stood innocently along the roadside on our next day’s drive. I hope it has not changed, knowing that all things change, seldom for the better.
Eagerly, I await this hunting trip. A new country, full of promise.
More essays and stories about bird dogs, bird hunting, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page