An Eastern grouse dog meets up with her Western cousins at the Missouri Breaks of South Dakota.
Hunting CRP ground for sharptails in South Dakota are (left to right) Peg Mallory, Wicker Bill the sharptail guide, Steve Stiles and his brother, Bill. Lucy, Steve's pointer, has a bird pinned ahead.
We were hurtling down South Dakota Highway 63, trying to beat the late-September sun, slinking down into the far western hills--and the clock, and the laws of physics--as well as pushing our luck. The taillights on the eight-dog trailer were gone or almost out, and "Wicker Bill," my gunning companion for the last several days, was late for his girlfriend's birthday party in Pierre. Like most well-intentioned but grouse-addicted fellows, he'd pushed the time limit a bit beyond too late, and now he was cutting into her time, and she was the kind of lady who didn't take kindly to having her time cut into in favor of a bunch of unshorn grouse hunters.
"Welcome to the world of Wicker," he said, fishing another Marlboro Light from his shirt pocket. "If it ain't broke or screwed up in some way, it ain't the world of Wicker. . .'whooooo-yaaaaw!'"
There was something in the tone of this "whooo-yaaaw"--I'd been hearing that phrase for two days now--that was different, less enthusiastic than normal. That and Wick's half-hearted smile suggested he'd come to accept what the wheel of karma had laid on his plate this day. He didn't like it any too well. But he'd accepted it.
The landscape out the Suburban's well-smudged windows, like the last several days of hunting, was awe-inspiring. We were in the Missouri Breaks, an undulating mixed-grass prairie, peppered with sage and set amidst tan grasslands, chokecherry-filled coulees and distant river bottoms dotted with cottonwoods now ablaze in color. Herds of tatanka could be found south of us, where they filmed Dances with Wolves. And there were spots where it looked like the entire Sioux nation might pop up over the next hill, straight out of a John Wayne film. Meanwhile, the late-September sun illuminated everything in a wash of red, orange and yellow, colors that, like pieces of the exposed earth, reflected the sense of ancient time, when the land was sea bottom, millennia ago.
I'm taking all this in, remembering how I once vowed that when I hit 40, I would grow my hair like Marlon Brando's in The Missouri Breaks, long to the shoulder with a couple of colorfully beaded strands, just for fun. I was already two years late and the thought only made me smile. There's not enough there to do that any more, I told myself.
Then I got to wondering how Shana, my three-year-old DeCoverly Kennels English setter, riding in the back of Wick's dog trailer, was. She had never been in a dog trailer until the last several days. She had always ridden in maximum comfort, with a rubber pad under a rug in her own Doscocil airline-style crate in the back of my Explorer. For the last three days she shared a cedar chip-strewn trailer compartment with a number of strange dogs.
I remembered Wick's face when he saw me hoist Shana by the rump into her spot in the trailer back at Chris Hipple's place in Pierre. He didn't say anything, but having been a guide myself, I recognized the "what we have here is a pampered Eastern dude and his candy-arsed setter" look. All that hair, and she's big. She'll probably keel over in the middle of the prairie, screw up a hunt. If it ain't broke. . .I wondered if he had changed his mind any in the last couple of days.
SIX WEEKS OF FREEDOM
This experience all began with a quest: I wanted to know firsthand North America's grouse--from Minnesota's ruffs to Oregon's blue grouse, from Montana sage hens to Canadian spruce grouse. I had a tent, food, my grandfather's Lefever Nitro Special 12-gauge, Shana, and six weeks free. So we did.
It all began with Dakota country chickens and sharptails. At the beginning of our dances with sharptails, Wick and I stopped at the Diamond-A CafÃƒ© in Eagle Butte to rendezvous with the rest of the party he had booked--Wisconsinites Tuck and Peg Mallory, a husband and wife team who hunted a pair of Drahthaars, Whisky and Lyka; and Steve and Bill Stiles, from Colorado, who owned a pointer, Lucy, and a golden retriever. On the way, Wick and I talked about prairie hunting and the kind of things it does to a dog.
Perhaps the biggest problem is dry scenting conditions. North America's prairie lies in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, and is dryer the further west you travel. This makes scenting conditions poor, especially for dogs accustomed to the moisture-laden East. For example, on Kansas's Cimarron National Grasslands, when I was gunning scaled quail, bobwhites, prairie chickens, and pheasants over my German shorthair, Jack, I saw him run right over birds he would have found in a damp climate. And judging from Shana's reaction to grassland grouse, the birds must smell like an oasis of moisture in the midst of parched grass stalks and dry ground. Even I noticed a subtle difference near birds, something in the air. When a dog hits that scent, they know it. It's probably comparable to you being hungry, walking down the street for a while, then catching the scent of a bakery coming at you. It's an intense scent, when you find it.
Connected to the lack of moisture in the air, there's little water for a dog to drink on the ground. And what's there is well spread out, a long way between stock ponds, waterholes and stream rivulets. Also, what is in those groundwater sources could be contaminated with stuff that can make dogs seriously sick, maybe even kill them. Hence, it isn't the best drinking water for a dog. So you'll need to take water along with you for the dog, instead of relying on ground water.
Heat can be another factor. When I was in South Dakota at the end of September last year, the daily high temperature was between 70 and 80 degrees. Steve and Bill Stiles, hunting the week before on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands further south, hit temperatures of 90 degrees. Yet this was a different kind of heat from the stuffy, moisture-laden Septembers east of Big Muddy. It was warm, but dry--quietly dehydrating heat, dangerous to the dogs and men not acclimated to it. Mornings started off cool, in the upper 50s and 60s, but warmed quickly. When the sun went down, things cooled off just as fast. In between, T-shirts wetted with sweat wore white dried salt stains and you never even felt it.
Coupled with the heat was constant sunshine. We had no rain while I was in South Dakota, and that can be a bird hunter's blessing. It keeps sharptails in their regular patterns, Wick said. But if you're hunting a dark-colored Lab, a dark shorthair, Drahthaars like Peg and Tuck's dogs, or a Gordon setter, remember that dark-colored dog coats absorb more heat than white-coated dogs.
The litany of critters that might harm a dog on th
e prairie is long--rattlers, porcupines, coyotes, insects, even scorpions if you're in the Southwest; but there's also skunks and other critters that might have rabies. Getting into poisoned prairie dog towns or coyote bait, picking up fleas from prairie dogs, etc., are additional risks. That's why it pays to have at least a modest first aid kit always handy in your dog gear. Wick said he carried a first aid kit with a surgical stapler to stitch barbed-wire-lacerated dogs back together again. I was glad none of us needed it.
Also scattered across the prairie are plants that stick, poke or cling--cactus, thorns, sand burs and the like. Wedge some of these atrocities in Pup's armpit and see how long he keeps going. Shana and I found little cactus on private or reservation lands, more of it hunting the Ft. Pierre National Grasslands. New to the prairie, Shana only needed one experience to figure out she didn't like it. However, the day before joining Wicker Bill, Shana was casting about at a good gait on the grasslands, when she suddenly slowed and started limping, as though she'd damaged a leg. I called her in, and found a small cactus tagged to the side of her foot. My Leatherman tool (anti-porcupine medicine I learned to carry from two woodland encounters with Nash, my old setter), pulled the prickly head and spines out, and she went on--until she got into "the cactus zone," a densely clustered patch of cactus between the agricultural field and the grasslands border. More cacti leapt to the side of her legs and under her belly, and she hobbled to me to have them removed. I decided then that another portion of the 116,000-acre public area might have just as many birds.
Prairie hunting necessitates carrying water for the dogs. Here the author's DeCoverly Kennels English setter, Shana, enjoys a long drink from a bota bag.
Friends who have hunted hard-soiled areas like the Flint Hills of Kansas have told me that they've run into problems with their dogs' feet getting chewed-up by the soil and rocks. That may sound strange, but it's true. The Flint Hills get their name because even John Deere's 1837 self-polishing steel plow, the one that "broke" the tallgrass prairie of eastern Kansas, couldn't break the Flint Hills. What I have noticed over the course of several prairie adventures is that my dogs' pads would become dry, crack some, and be susceptible to other problems in dry soil.
As well as being incredibly knowledgeable about the prairie, sharptails in particular, Wicker Bill is an English setter man--a point in his favor in my book. When Wick let his dogs out at our first stop, I took a hard look: Babe, a two-year-old, was his main setter and very fast on her feet. What I saw of Bert was a laid-back dog, just happy for a little loving from time to time, but he could have been tired from being hunted with the party before us, and he looked like a dog that could break horizons. Emma was a setter Wick was working with for a friend. In a nutshell, his setters were professional athletes, hunted hard every day, and expected to do the job well. They tended to be smaller, gaunt, tightly muscled, had little feathering and hailed from big running field trial stock--the antithesis of Shana.
Shana comes from one of the East's finest grouse-oriented English setter kennels. DeCoverly Kennels' setters are point and shoot dogs, classically larger, with beautiful coats and loving, intelligent dispositions. Yet they are also incredibly versatile hunters, able, as Shana has so aptly demonstrated, to handle everything from savvy Appalachian ruffs to sharptails and prairie chickens, to blue grouse, woodcock, pheasants, even sage grouse. I love the way she moves, flows through the woods. It is truly a thing of beauty.
When our time with Wick was through, I believe that Shana found at least some approval in his eyes. She had pointed, held and fetched her birds; and she could vary her range, from cylinder bore to horizon-coursing full choke. She didn't move as fast as Wick's dogs, but she proudly held her own ground, as I knew she would.
Wick also guides for waterfowlers and walleye anglers. Max, an old Chesapeake Bay retriever with cancer who was undergoing chemotherapy, lay quietly in one of the trailer's other compartments. Given the Chessie proclivity towards protectiveness, I didn't bother trying to bond with him. Jackson was Wick's famous Chessie. Everyone in South Dakota knew Jackson. Wick remembered him best as the dog that fetched minnows from the minnie bucket and had amorous intentions--literally--towards geese.
Many of the problems a dog might face hunting in prairie country can be remedied by common sense. One of the big things for Wick was conditioning. A dog that can't handle hard work in dry, warm conditions won't cut it. If you're looking to head to the prairies for sharptails, you should get your dog (and yourself) in good shape.
Prior to our hunt, I jogged Shana--still do--daily on macadam roads near home. We often went jogging in mid-morning summer heat to acclimate both of us to heat and hard pad wear. We also spent more time on longer training sessions--her just happy-timing, working bird fields--than we had preparing for an ordinary season. I also held back a little on her daily water, to get her accustomed to dry conditions. Still, I was extremely cautious about overheating her, and made sure this didn't happen, or if it did, there were ways to cool her down.
Let's face it; the average bird hunter works his dog on weekends during bird season, perhaps two months total in many states. That amounts to about 16 outings annually, probably none of them all-day jaunts over hard, dry, hazard-strewn ground. If you expect a dog to perform under these conditions, you'll need to get the dog ready for it at least four months in advance. Take off any extra weight that may have accumulated between bird seasons, run the dog as often as possible, use a product like Tuff Foot as a pre-conditioning tool for the dog's pads. Any dog owner planning to hunt his or her dog all day on the prairie should do some intensive physical conditioning himself, too.
Some dogs will wear boots to protect their feet in cactus and sand burr country. Jack, the author's shorthair, tolerated being booted for a short while on a Cimarron National Grassland hunt in southwestern Kansas.
Having water for a dog anywhere west of the Missouri River means carrying it. I used to chuckle at those gunning vests with built-in hydration systems. But after toting a bola bag in my bird vest pouch for five of six weeks, I understand the logic in hydration systems.
Being aware of the hazards and taking steps to avoid them can solve problems like critter encounters. If the dog acts weird, something weird is probably out there. Call the dog in. Other preparation should include making or buying an always-have-it-with-you (at least in the car) first aid
kit for your dogs. Be sure yours includes the chemically driven cooling packs for a prairie hunt. Skimping on good dog gear doesn't make sense. Saving a couple of extra bucks is not worth losing a dog. A multi-tool like a Leatherman on your belt is also handy for any number of situations encountered afield. It can fix a shotgun, pull cactus spines or porcupine quills, and take care of game at the end of the day. There's even a bottle opener for those inclined toward libation. Steve and Bill Stiles celebrated the end of each hunt with draughts from a bottle of "wart juice" that bore the names of all the places they had hunted on it. It was covered with names and dates that sparked memories for them.
Accessories that can help include dog boots, Tuff-Foot and Pad Heal. I've had some success booting dogs to keep their feet in good shape on flinty soil and in snow and ice. In Kansas, I used Lewis rubber dog boots on my shorthair. But my setters haven't needed boots that often. Besides, the boots drive them crazy until they get accustomed to them. The first time Shana tried her new pair of codura nylon boots on, she pawed the air like a drunken sailor, tried to walk, then flopped down to try to rub and chew the infernal things off.
Tuff-Foot is an herbal lotion that is applied to both heal and condition a dog's feet. It really works--if you follow the instructions. It has a pleasant odor as well. Pad Heal, a goo you literally paint on an injured pad, helped a great deal, but it smelled like turpentine, which I didn't object to since we were tenting.
Transportation is another important consideration. On the treeless prairie, shade comes only to those who make it. A dog kept in a kennel crate makes for safer traveling, but unless you're prepared to leave the windows down, overheating could be a problem when running one dog and keeping another in a crate in the vehicle. I brought along a tarp to tie over the canoe roof racks for shade, but we didn't need it. Also carry, as Bill and Steve Stiles did, a five-gallon container of water for the dogs. Be sure it is absolutely clean--new is best--never a container that has been used to store soap, fuels or other chemicals.
DANCING WITH ANTELOPES
The part of the prairie hunt I remember most was the day the pronghorn antelope buck visited Shana and me in the midst of a bunch of prairie chickens. She was making game, her head high, tail flagging in figure-eight circles, when the buck appeared, a speck on the horizon.
We followed the bird scent deeper into the prairie, when Shana suddenly froze, her eyes fixed on some mystery in the grass. That's when the pronghorn appeared again, about 75 yards in front of her, prancing with that high bound only pronghorns have.
I saw her glance up at the strange four-legged creature dancing in front of her, and began to doubt her point. What if a pronghorn doe was lying in front of her, concealed in the foot-high stems? How would I stop the merry chase? But she held, gaze focused back down into the grass.
A couple of steps forward, and the wind was full of wings. A single broke right; then a pair went left over Shana's head, then two more flushed right, angling towards me. The Lefever thundered, steel No. 6s found their mark, and a bird fell. In a moment Shana trotted this treasure back to me. I took the bird from her after her short victory dance--a slight pleasure I won't deny a good dog--and knew I had a fine grouse dog coming on.
John D. Taylor's book about his grouse adventures, The Wild Ones: A Quest for North America's Forest & Prairie Grouse is available through Bonasa Press, www.bonasapress.com.