Secrets of the Sandhills

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They say a book should not be judged by its cover. That outward appearances can belie what’s within. Yet so often face value is the determinant of something’s worth—and too frequently things are passed over for poor first impressions.
    Take the Sandhills. At first glance, this region of endless dunes in north-central Nebraska isn’t much to look at. Low rolling hills stretching to the horizon, few trees to break up the monochromatic landscape, the occasional stream creeping beneath the seemingly endless roadway. It’s the type of place that one drives through to get to somewhere else.
    But spend some time there—park the truck, get out and really look around—and the picture begins to change. There is life among the hills—a surprising variety of plants and animals. And if you dig farther, literally, you’re apt to discover another of the Sandhills’ secrets: water. Lots of it. For the Sandhills sit atop one of the largest underground aquifers in the US.
Ironically, with so much water so close, the region’s coarse, sandy soil is unsuitable for crops. Which is why much of the Sandhills has never felt the cut of the plow. What sandy soil is good for, however, is growing grass. And grass is good for feeding cattle—and providing habitat for prairie grouse.

Last fall I was there for the grouse. I had been invited to Nebraska by Brad Wells, the sharp, energetic guide who owns and operates Blackstone Hunting on the outskirts of Lincoln. Brad runs a shooting preserve and has been in the outfitting business for more than two decades. He enjoys the reputation of putting together quality hunts not only in the US but also Africa and Argentina. When I’d learned that Brad had struck a deal with a Sandhills golf resort to hunt birds on its extensive property, I wanted to sample the trip.
    Unfortunately, a couple of months into the arranging, the deal fell through. But Plan B turned out to be just as attractive. Brad knew a ranching family that was interested in hosting bird hunters on its land—one of the largest holdings in the western Sandhills and ground that hadn’t seen wingshooters for years. Was I interested?
    Do sharptails dance on a lek?
    The more casual nature of the backup plan encouraged Brad and me to each invite a friend, and the roster grew to include BC Kinsey, the former manager of the Cabela’s Gun Library in Kansas City, Kansas, and SSM Associate Publisher Terry Bombeke, who was hoping for a chance to scratch prairie chickens off of his life list.
    So on October 21 Terry and I flew from Portland, Maine, to North Platte, Nebraska, where we met Brad and BC and headed west. BC was piloting his black Suburban, and we followed the North Platte River for a ways before turning north. Soon the country took on the characteristic look of the Sandhills, with irrigated cropfields giving way to native grasslands. Endless fences stretching to the horizon held countless cattle.
    We stopped in the small town of Hyannis to gas up and grab last-minute supplies, and then made the run north on Route 61. By the time we turned off the highway it was dark, so all we could see along the “driveway”—all nine miles of it—was what showed in the headlights. The number of animals hopping, running, scurrying and flying across the roadway was amazing.
    When we pulled into the home place we were met by ranch owners Chris and Kim Abbott and their son, Carver. Nicer people you could never wish to know. Living as remotely as they do, “Sandhillers” are known for their hospitality, and we felt welcome immediately. Chris gave us a quick tour of the cookhouse and then the bunkhouse, and he allowed that if we didn’t mind being treated like family, we’d all get along fine. We said that would work for us.
    Morning came especially early the next day, but after being fortified with strong coffee and Kim’s biscuits and gravy, we felt like we could do anything. Which basically we could. We’d been given open access to a vast ranch, and the possibilities were endless.
    That first morning we agreed to start slowly, so Brad, BC, Terry and I loaded into the Suburban and headed south. We’d crossed only one meadow before reaching an area of lush grass bisected by a brush-lined waterway. Ducks were trading to and fro up high. It was decided that we would sneak the creek in hopes of getting some jump shooting.
    The four of us, along with Brad’s Lab, Frankie, spread out and began walking the brush line, and when I reached the end of the meadow and thrashed to the water’s edge, a drake mallard flushed and flew toward Terry. And that quickly we had the first bird down.
    All the time we were walking we could hear geese, so Brad, Terry and I set out to find them. The trouble was that every honk sounded like it was coming from over the next rise. After stalking several empty creeks we began feeling foolish. It wasn’t until we climbed one of the higher hills that we learned another Sandhills secret: Sound in the open carries deceptively far. The geese—about 30 Canadas—were actually a half-mile away, loafing on a pond with several rafts of ducks.
    BC caught up in the Suburban, and the four of us sneaked down to the pond and positioned ourselves for pass-shooting. Tall rushes ringing the water concealed our approach but held us 30 yards from the water’s edge. Once we were spread out, Brad walked toward the head of the pond, flushed some mallards and shot—and the air came alive with birds.
    The Canadas, it seemed, had played this game before, and they lined out for the horizon. But a combination of mallards and teal swirled and circled and offered several long pokes before settling back in and refusing to be raised again. The effort yielded a second mallard for Terry.
    By now we were warmed up enough for grouse, so we headed for some grassy hills rising from the east side of the meadow. Forming a line, Brad took the low ground, Terry the middle and me the top. We realized that the birds could be anywhere, so the plan was simply to walk until we found some and then try to establish a pattern.
    One nice thing you notice immediately about the Sandhills is that they’re easy on the legs. Gently rolling terrain, knee-high grasses and soft soil are a pleasure to navigate. Though you set out looking across impossibly long distances, once you get in the groove the miles seem to melt away.
    On that initial pass we’d been trudging for 15 minutes when I heard a shot to my right. Wandering over, I found Terry cradling the first sharptail of the trip. The bird had flushed about 25 yards out and near the foot of a hill. It’s always reassuring to find what you’ve come for, and this fine, heavy grouse foretold of good things to come.
    Terry slipped the bird into his vest and we continued. Less than a half-mile farther he shot again; this time the shot was followed by a whoop. I walked over to find him smiling widely, holding aloft the prize he’d been searching for: a greater prairie chicken. We took time to snap photos and celebrate a goal accomplished.
    BC was waiting in the Suburban when we reached the far fence, and we made a quick stop at the ranch house for lunch before heading deeper into the hills.
    On the drive back out we spied another pond holding ducks, and that quickly the stalk was on. The rolling terrain allowed for a close approach, and when we popped over the last dune BC managed a drake mallard and three green-winged teal with only two shots.
    The rest of the afternoon was spent burning boot leather for grouse. Birdie, Brad’s shorthair, quartered out front, but most of the birds—all sharptails—ended up being jumped. This late in the season we had expected to run into large, spooky coveys, so we were pleasantly surprised to find mostly singles and pairs and often to be within shooting range when they burst from cover. On one particularly long shot I was thankful for the Full chokes in the Parker 20-gauge I’d borrowed from BC.
    That evening we returned to the ranch tired and hungry but satisfied at having found a couple of dozen sharptails and putting a handful in the bag.

The next two days were spent similarly. Freelancing if you will. Driving cross-country, past countless cattle, until finding a promising area to walk. That, or spying ducks and jump shooting, or setting up near ponds with decoys and calls. It was every dream I’d ever had about owning a ranch—minus the work.
    Our explorations revealed other game as well. A pair of wide-racked mule deer skylined on a hilltop. Three whitetail bucks melting into the marsh grass. The occasional coyote slinking or sprinting across a pasture.
    An especially pleasant discovery was a healthy population of pheasants —some naturally wild, others having survived a former stocking program and now reproducing. We cursed our bad timing at being there a week before the season opener.
     Yet despite three days of exploring, we figured we covered only an eighth of the ranch. The rest of the property, including the north end where the Snake River cuts across, would have to wait for another time. That is, if we wanted to traverse it on foot.
     Everyone in our group was given a chance to survey the entire ranch by air. Chris Abbott is an experienced pilot, and he was more than happy to take us up one at a time in his Piper Cub. Brad, BC and Terry each accepted the offer, but I regretfully declined—and I am still kicking myself for passing.
    Like many people tied to the land, the Abbotts have a certain pride of place. This came through clearly when Chris conducted his plane tours. But it also was evident when we were shown through the ranch’s main house—a century-old sandstone structure fondly known as the “Convention Center.” Chris led us around with his brother, Mike, who co-owns the ranch and currently lives in the house. As we moved from room to room, the pair pointed out photographs and memorabilia and told stories of days gone by. They also described how the house was being renovated with an eye toward providing guest quarters.

All too soon it was our last afternoon, and we decided to finish with grouse. By now I was slipping easily into the rhythm of the hunt—setting my sights for the horizon and going. Within a mile I was in the groove: gun at port arms, eyes scanning above the grass, watching for movement in my peripheral vision. And walking. Always walking. Picking them up and setting them down. Devouring ground one hill at a time. Deviating only to swing through good cover, and then hurrying to reform the line.
    The mind begins wandering with distance. Heightened senses dull over time. And just as you’re lulled into going through the motions, the birds snap you back to the present.
    Which is what happened with the final pair of sharptails. The birds blew out of a hidden bowl, catching me in mid-stride, my gun lowered, my mind on something mundane like work. I fumbled with the safety and threw the gun to my shoulder, but the grouse were just disappearing behind a fold in the land. I never got off a shot.
    At that moment some hunters would have cursed their misfortune, but I could do nothing but laugh. I had enjoyed plenty of opportunities in the past several days. As I lowered the gun, I took a short break to survey my surroundings, and it was then that I realized how my perspective had changed. What at first had appeared a lifeless landscape now teemed with possibilities. The country was a sportsman’s playground.
    The Sandhills had, indeed, given up some of its secrets, but I knew that I would be leaving wanting to learn more.

Author’s Note: Brad Wells has put together several hunts at the Abbott Ranch this year. For more information, contact him at Blackstone Hunting, 402-580-3963; www.blackstonehunting.com.

Ralph P. Stuart is Shooting Sportsman’s Editor in Chief.

  • By: Ralph P. Stuart