The Labradors Of ScatterGun Lodge
September 23, 2010
A unique training program provides outstanding dog work at this superb facility.
When Benelli's Steve McKelvain invited me to South Dakota for a pheasant hunt, I naturally jumped at the chance. What red-blooded shotgunner wouldn't? But I didn't pay any attention to the venue we would be hunting. I even thought about flying out with my new English springer spaniel puppy. Of course, flying with a pet in the belly of a commercial jet these days has a lot of negative connotations, so I quickly decided to leave Wee Maggie at home.
Though most of the Labs are yellow at ScatterGun Lodge, this is Mya, a black that has just flushed this rooster for the gun.
It was only after I received my final travel documents that I found out we would be flying into South Dakota's capital city--and hunting out of a place called ScatterGun Lodge.
The lodge had a website, so I immediately got on line to see what information I could find. The first graphic that popped up on that website was a nighttime photo of the lodge--with all the lights on. I couldn't believe how striking that photo was, but I knew it was going to be one heck of a stay for this was one very plush place.
Steve and I flew in to Pierre, South Dakota with Orion Productions cameraman Jesse Johnson and arrived pretty late. After filling our bellies with fast food we headed for the lodge 27 miles away. But our directions were suspect, and it took us over an hour to find ScatterGun.
But what a first impression the lodge made--even when it was pitch dark at midnight. Jesse drove back into Pierre to pick up Orion's head cameraman Larry Sletten while I got to know the lodge owner, Chuck Ross, over a toddy.
Chuck, like me, had been a long time member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, for he had had a long running outdoor TV show in Minneapolis, later worked for a major television network, and started a famous pheasant hunting lodge near Chamberlain, South Dakota. He sold that lodge and built ScatterGun Lodge in 2000.
While ScatterGun, I have since discovered, has had plenty of publicity, I had not known about this place. Talking with Chuck that night I sensed the hunting was going to be fabulous.
The lodge sits on a hill with a spectacular view overlooking a wide valley. All around the lodge, including that valley, are 3000 acres of intensively managed pheasant habitat.
Chuck Ross's kennel sports 30 full-grown Labradors, four Lab pups and several young Labs that are currently with "foster parents." More about that important part of Chuck's dog program shortly.
I found out that the hunting at ScatterGun is traditional South Dakota--when it comes to pheasants--with walkers or drivers scouring a specific field--and blockers at the far end of that field. Of course, Chuck's Labrador retrievers are eating up the ground right in front of the walkers, sniffing out and flushing pheasant after pheasant. Only ringnecks are legal at this lodge. Plenty of hens are flushed, so it's important to take your time and make certain the quarry has a dark head and a white ring around its collar before putting your "scattergun" into action. For safety's sake, shooters are frequently reminded, "Let the bird get up. No shooting at low birds."
The drives take place through planted food strips of corn, milo or other grains or grasses.
These feed strips are 40 to 80 yards wide. Length varies--say up to 400 or 500 yards.
There might be two blockers left at the end of the strip, while four or five walkers might scour the patch with the Labs. Of course, these numbers can vary, depending upon the size of your group. Chuck likes to put individual groups together--with no outsiders.
Chuck Ross has one of his Labs fetch a ringneck, and then orders the dog, "In the truck!"
The real work on these drives comes from the dogs. I've hunted with upland flushing Labrador retrievers plenty, but I never saw dogs with the unbridled energy these ScatterGun Lodge Labs have. On each drive we had three of these hard-charging canines.
Every one was faster than the other. Forget your previous experience with Labs that might have had a "lumbering" gait. The dogs I hunted over were "driven" by desire to produce birds.
Of course, how the dogs are trained probably has something to do with this exceptional speed and desire, but I think the way Chuck hunts his dogs is also an important factor. As already mentioned, we had three of these dogs down on every drive, but each of the three canines had an individual guide/handler. One key to the dog's energy is the length of the food strips that Chuck Ross hunts--as already mentioned--a max of 400 to 500 yards.
Each strip might be hunted in 15 to 25 minutes. So that's all the longer these dogs are down. For the next strip hunt three new dogs are put down. The three just used get plenty of water and a little rest.
Further, each time a pheasant is shot, which is often, the hunters hold up and the dog with the fetch brings the ringneck back to its individual handler. While this is going on the other two handlers call their dogs to heel and sit. The rest is brief, but I think it's important. If these drives sound sort of organized, they definitely are. If a pheasant goes down in an adjacent food strip the dogs are called back. The philosophy is that those birds will be picked up on an ensuing drive. We never lost a bird this way. In fact, I think we picked up some roosters that we didn't know we had hit.
Not all that many ringnecks get away, what with several shooters in the drive line often having a shot or shots. But some birds do escape those myriads of shot strings. When that happens the handlers have to be able to call the dogs off the visual chase. I suspect this is very hard for a dog to do, but the ScatterGun Labs were so well trained that they all listened to the "No bird!" command and soon came trotting back to the line. The shooters would straighten that line, the dogs would be released and off we'd go to flush another.
When Chuck was 19 years old he bought his first black Lab, Duke, a grandson of National Champion Cork of Oakwood. He chanced going to a puppy trial soon thereafter--and won it. He was hooked. He's had lots and lots of Labradors ever since. In the 1970s, when he had his outdoor televisi
on show in Minneapolis, he had Tom Dokken, a now very noted gun dog trainer, on his show. The two became fast friends, and through the years Chuck and Tom did a lot of TV work together, most all of it revolving around training gun dogs.
All the ScatterGun Lodge Labs are trained by Tom. Here's how Chuck's training program works. At age six months the pups go to Tom for a two-week obedience session. At nine to 10 months they go back to Dokken, this time for a 10-week session. During this latter period the dogs are force broken to retrieve and hold, get more obedience work, are given all the basic retrieving skills on both land and water, and are introduced to the e-collar. When the dogs come back from this second session with Tom Dokken they are ready to hunt.
But in the interim period--leading up to the first six months training--Chuck Ross sends his Labs out individually to "foster parents." In most instances he prefers that the foster parents have two or three young children, kids that will play and romp with the young Lab pup. Of course, the idea is to get every young dog thoroughly socialized. After the first two weeks with Dokken the pups go back to their foster parents--until they go back to Dokken at nine to 10 months for their 10-week session.
is Kobi mannerly holding a just-fetched ScatterGun Lodge rooster.
But here's the real "hooker" in the program. Chuck has 30-plus Labs to keep socialized during the non-hunting period of the year--and that's a long period. To solve that problem these Labs go to their foster parents in mid-December, after hunting season, and they stay with the foster parents until the next September, when they come back to ScatterGun, ready to hunt. Chuck says the dogs remember where their kennel is, where their place in the dog wagon is — it's like they forget nothing from their previous life at ScatterGun.
Most of us can "socialize" a pup or the few pups we have, but we can't do that with 30-plus dogs, especially all through the non-hunting period of the year. Chuck has found that farming the young pups out to foster parents is the perfect answer for him. Further, he says he gets no rejects with this approach. "I put 10 Labs into this program--I get 10 top hunting Labs back," is the way Ross puts it. Every year the individual Labs go back to their same "foster parents" after the hunting season.
Why does he like Labradors for this work? "Labs are so adaptable to varying people.
They thrive on attention--attention from any of my guide/handlers. They want to please.
If a person can communicate with one of my dogs, that person can get the dog to do practically anything."
Of course, each of the 30 dogs gets to hunt, flush and retrieve every day for 60 days of the South Dakota hunting year. Plus the dogs encounter literally thousands of pheasants during that fall period. All of that exposure to birds has to be a major positive in their hunting lives. With three hard-charging dogs down during every food strip hunt — it was almost like using a vacuum sweeper on your living room rug — I don't think we passed up a bird in two days.
I noted that most of the dogs at the lodge kennel were yellow Labs. I asked Chuck if that color was his preference in Labs, but he said, "No, that's just the way things have turned out." There may have been a chocolate or two, but I never saw one. The dogs were big and muscular as American Labs go, not on the sort of diminutive side like the typical English Lab.
Chuck has many groups where a company is entertaining customers. Outdoorsmen from this group who can shoot are tending more to 20-gauge shotguns. Incidentally, ScatterGun Lodge has a nice selection of 12- and 20- gauge Ruger Red Label over and unders--and there's no charge to use them. One reason Chuck likes double guns is that they can be broken open--and then everyone in the party knows the gun is in a safe position.
But Chuck likes to give every hunter who comes to the lodge a short shooting lesson. For this he has a 10-station sporting clays course (no charge to shoot it) and a five-station wobble trap set up. In these short sessions Chuck stresses safety, but he also tries to incorporate a philosophy of sharp focus on the target, swinging with the bird before starting the gun mount, and pulling the trigger immediately after the gun mount is complete or very shortly thereafter.
The author with a very young yellow Lab that Chuck Ross says will be a great hunter. "If I put 10 Lab pups into my program--I get 10 good hunting Labs back," according to Ross.
On a typical day you're up at a relaxing morning hour. Hunts depart from the lodge at nine o'clock. The rides to the many different hunting areas are very short--and in huge, high vans that are capable of carrying your entire party. We would hunt until 12:30--1:00 before breaking for lunch. During that time we'd average working 10 to 12 of the aforementioned food strips. The limit is seven ringnecks per hunter. We never had to hunt in the afternoon--as we flushed plenty of birds--and we all shot very well. After a sumptuous lunch we'd shoot sporting clays or work on photography.
Before dinner Chuck Ross puts out an unbelievable appetizer bar, including raw oysters, huge shrimp and so much more. You have to be careful, for it's easy to overeat, and you know the supper steak is going to be bigger than anything you can stuff in your backpack.
Further, there's an open bar, and I never before saw an open bar with single malt scotch from Islay. But Ross had it! The chef at ScatterGun is Nigel Richardson, and he puts out some table. In addition to his chef work at the lodge he has guided fly fishermen from Colorado to Alaska.
An English driven-type shoot is also offered by Chuck Ross. For this one, birds are released unseen, and the cocks have to fly over high trees to get to the guns.
Consequently, the birds are 40 yards up and higher when they pass overhead. Of course, many of these are at an "angle" to the shooters, providing some really long shots--50 yards and more.
The day we shot these "driven" birds, there was a 40-mile per hour tailwind. Assuming the ringnecks can fly 35 miles an hour--that made 75-mile an hour targets! Needless to say, a few got away to fly another day. Of course, each guide/handler had a ScatterGun Lab sitting at his feet. One at a time they are sent for the retrieve.
Chuck Ross has put a tremendous habitat monetary effort into his 3000 acres. I don't know if I saw more than 10 of those 3000 acres that weren't geared
specifically to this gaudy bird with the ring around the collar. And Chuck told me, "Leasing land is not the answer. You can't control the habitat totally unless you own the land. There is no livestock, and there is no commercial farming at ScatterGun."
Over 100,000 habitat-oriented trees have been planted on these 3000 acres. Ross laments, "I wish I could still be alive to see this place when all those trees have matured.
"The tree plantings are of lilac, cedar, crab apple and plum — all species that will contribute to ideal pheasant habitat for decades to come."
IF YOU WANT TO GO'¦
ScatterGun Lodge is a very deluxe facility. It can handle 32 hunters at a time. Rooms are double--each with two queen-size beds. The website is www.scattergunlodge.com. To contact Chuck Ross via email it's www. firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone (605) 875-3500. Seasons open in early October and run for 60 days.
You can fly commercially into Pierre, SD, or ScatterGun can arrange charter flights into Pierre that Chuck says are about the same price as commercial flights. After pheasant season the lodge conducts late season waterfowl hunts on the nearby Missouri River. In the spring and summer--up until pheasant season--Ross provides top smallmouth fishing in those nearby waters.