I didn't know this part of South Dakota existed. It doesn't by much — the wide spot in the road that is Veblen is just a few miles across the border from North Dakota, straight south of Fargo. I'd driven across South Dakota probably half a dozen times over the years, but far south of here, where flat cornfields run to equally flat horizons.
But this was different. Not flat, but rolling in a way that brought to mind the pastoral southern Iowa landscape where I'd grown up.
Tucked into the folds of each gentle hill was a pond or marsh, and on each were scores of ducks, from pintails to teal and mallards.
Those ducks were, in fact, part of the reason I'd come to the Prairie Sky Guest and Game ranch with SportDOG, which had generously agreed to host a handful of writers during the first week of October.
After being assigned a guest cabin — considerably nicer quarters than I typically rate, believe me — I walked to the lodge for a round of drinks followed by dinner, courtesy of the staff and manager Bruce Prins. Outside it was still quite warm, with more of the same forecast for the next day. We'd have to be up early to catch the birds in their first flight at daybreak.
I groaned — I'm an upland hunter in part because I hate getting up at 4 a.m. — but it's not like I get to hunt over great Labs with professional guides every day. I examined some of the equipment SportDOG had laid out for display.
SportDOG has a solid reputation, aided by staff pros like Charlie Jurney and Rick Smith, guys I've met or interviewed in my years of writing about hunting dogs. I had yet to use a SportDOG training collar, but several of my friends had, all of whom were suitably impressed. What's more, SportDOG was the first to come up with an integrated GPS/training collar, which I was eager to see and use.
As predicted, the next morning dawned warm and calm. We took a short drive to a pond and while we stomped out a quick blind in the cattails, our guide, Joe, painstakingly arranged a couple dozen mallard dekes — painstaking because the water was about two inches deep on top of two feet of bottomless South Dakota mud, the kind that sucks off hip boots and swallows cars. But the ducks, we hoped, wouldn't mind.
They didn't. Birds started arriving a half hour before legal shooting time, whistling overhead in small flocks and pairs, until the water was teeming with them. Most were mallards, pintails or wigeon, with an occasional gadwall or green-wing teal. I hadn't seen that many ducks coming into one pond in years.
When at last it was legal to shoot, the birds obliged with kamikaze strafing runs just on the edge of range, common behavior on bluebird days. Joe's expert calling (God only knows how good he'll be in another five years) managed to pull more than a few into the edge of our spread, however, and my blindmates, Wildfowl editor Skip Knowles and SportDOG category manager Darrell Douglas, contributed to a small but growing pile of ducks behind our stools. I contributed to a large and growing pile of empty hulls, but hey, I got this gig for my looks, not my talent.
Douglas' handsome Lab made some beautiful retrieves, including one that required him to plow all the way across the pond through chest-deep mud, pick up the bird, and slog all the way back again. For a dog guy like me that retrieve alone was worth the price of admission.
Back at the ranch, the other guys all had done as well or better, which meant our group had lost a bet and somebody else would be picking up our drinks that evening. Since I wasn't going to have to pay for them one way or the other, that was perfectly OK with me.
A few years ago, when GPS collars for dogs first came on the market, I heard a lot of grumbling from my more traditionalist friends about the supposed failings of that approach, i.e., relying on technology rather than training. But I've also noticed — and I have yet to see otherwise — that anyone who actually uses a GPS collar, even for a week, never goes back to hunting over pointing dogs any other way.
They're just too damn useful. Problem was, with the new GPS collars, plus the e-collars most hunters already used and a dog's everyday ID collar, some dogs were running out of neck. That became a non-issue when SportDOG introduced the TEK 1.0, the first collar that combined both training and GPS collars in one unit.
I spent three days hunting with the pheasant guides at Prairie Sky over a variety of pointers and had them give me quick tutorials in how the collars worked. The guides were impressed, and after a couple days of observing their use, so was I.
The units are simple and user-friendly. Upon my return home, I received my own TEK 1.0. And if I can get the hang of it — six-thumbed, technology-challenged geezer that I am — anybody can.
Although the Prairie Sky ducks were entirely wild — really wild — the pheasants were released birds. Bruce and our guides Phil and Bob, to their credit, made no pretense about our hunting "wild" birds. You can't run dozens of hunters through limited cover, day after day, all season long, and do it any other way.
Even so, the shooting was sporty, to say the least, and after having shot and/or planted dozens of penned pheasants during training sessions over the years, I was impressed with how well the birds flew. Whoever is raising them knows what he's doing.
One day I was paired with gun writer Terry Wieland for the afternoon shoot. In the sea of plastic-stocked automatics among the gunners that stretched out on either side of us, Wieland alone carried an exquisite little 16-gauge British side-by-side. Pheasants were flushing right and left, flying down the long line of shooters, and dying with their boots on.
Watching them go prompted a question. I'd long used No. 6s for roosters, 5s when I could find a decent load for my 20-gauge. But Wieland had shot driven birds all over Europe, and gave me a quick tutorial on the advantages of low base 7s, and sure enough, when a lone rooster flushed behind us later that afternoon, he dumped it head over tailfeathers at 35 yards. He didn't say "like that," but he could have.
On our last day at Prairie Sky, the weather turned nasty, and we woke to stinging wind and sleet, perfect for duck hunting. We drove through a black maze of cow pastures and fencerows before arriving at the slough our guide, Stephen, had selected a day or two earlier. As before, birds poured into the place for 45 minutes before legal shooting light. For me, that's the best part of duck hunting: watching the marsh come alive just before the sun comes up.
Unfortunately, the mud on this particular pond made the mud I'd walked through on our first day's hunt look like the Bonneville Salt Flats. I've never seen such nasty stuff. If you stood in one place for more than a minute you'd slowly sink to your knees, making it all but impossible to extract your feet when you moved again.
Fortunately, Stephen did all the hard work of putting out the dekes, while my blindmates Wieland, photographer Gary Hubbell and I did all the shooting. And yes, for those naysayers who said it couldn't be done, I finally hit one, a pintail that sailed completely across the pond before expiring in the trees a short walk away.
After a fruitless 20-minute search, I sent for the cavalry. Stephen and his dog — a pretty little rescue Lab he'd adopted and trained — found the bird in less than a minute. It was a beautiful drake, the first I'd shot in years, and a fitting close to a great experience.
Of course, nobody leaves Prairie Sky on an empty stomach, so while the wind howled and the sleet blew, I was snug and warm around the lodge's dining room table, happily shoveling sausage, eggs and toast into my mouth en route to ruining my girlish figure. Outside, on the storm-blackened horizon, Canada geese were trading over the prairie, flying just off the deck to escape the wind. Wherever they were going, I wished them well.