The sun is rising now, casting a warm glow on the horizon that contrasts with the pure blue sky overhead.
The clouds seem to pop out in as many dimensions as they have colors — blue, gray, and white. Calling an end to the night shift, a lone great horned owl drops low from a tall cedar tree gnarled by the winds of the South Dakota prairie and silhouetted against this same sky.
As I pack the car, rooster ringneck pheasants cackle all around me, mockingly me, I suppose, for having spent days shooting holes in the sky. Should they take time to look around, though, they will notice that some of their brethren are absent from their boisterous choir.
It has been my pleasure to spend four days at Rocklane Ranch near Blunt, South Dakota at the invitation of local Greenwood veterinarian, Dr. David Morgan. A 3,400-acre working grain and cattle ranch, Dr. Morgan’s forward thinking has transformed portions of the ranch into wildlife habitat.
Eleven years ago, nary a pheasant was to be found, but by supplying water, cover crops, grasses and food plots, he has achieved his vision of successful repopulation.
But let’s talk about the zenith of the trip, when we saddled up and rode the open range, just like Robert Duvall’s character in the movie of the same name, “Open Range.”
The open ranges of western Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and other western states served as huge pasture lands for the herds of ranchmen, many of them from Texas who moved their cattle north for grazing or sale. In the late 1800s few people lived in these lands, but western expansion changed that, and open ranges have since dwindled.
Cattle still graze here as in the old days, sharing the land with deer, antelope, badgers, prairie dogs, and what we came to pursue: sharp-tailed grouse (sharpies) and prairie chickens (chickens).
We loaded four horses and drove an hour to the open range area near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. The sky boasted but a few clouds as a solitary hawk soared overhead in search of his next meal.
A mother mule deer and her two young twins, spooked by our presence, ran from us with an odd rhythmic gait that accelerated into a pogo stick hop. In an instant only the sights of their white rumps were visible as they disappeared over a hill.
Arriving mid-morning, we quickly unloaded and saddled the horses. Ruth and Jim, two German shorthair pointers, were let out, equipped with GPS collars that enabled their whereabouts to be followed on a handheld unit. Using the wind, their keen sense of smell and athletic conditioning, the dogs were asked to cover over 2,000 acres in search of the sharpies and chickens.
While we could see them 80 percent of the time, they occasionally went out of sight when going into a gulch or over one of the many wind-scoured, rolling hills.
With shotguns in our saddle scabbards, we set off down a steep hill, leaning back as the horses went downhill in a zig-zag motion. At the bottom of each hill was a narrow gulch, which required that I lean back as we hopped to the other side, then immediately lean forward as we proceeded up the hill, again in a back and forth motion, more or less, depending on the steepness. It was not for me to direct my horse, rather to follow his experienced lead.
Never get complacent on a horse, because as soon as you do, and through no fault of the horse, any number of incidences can occur, such as stumbling on their knees. This happened to me going downhill but I was able to right the ship, so to speak. The stumble may have been caused by a loose rock, mud, prairie dog hole or badger den. Who knows?
The dogs were working hard, putting in mile after mile, stopping often to sniff the wind, trying to find the scent of a one-pound bird perhaps 400-plus yards away. In a perfect world they would follow the scent to its origin, point the bird, and one of us would dismount, shoulder our gun and shoot.
But a 2017 drought and overgrazing by cattle have made this a bleak year for our birds. There is little cover for them and the ones we did see spooked ahead of us. Just as well I suppose, lest their erratic out-and-back, to-and-fro, twisting-on-their-axis flight pattern would have exposed many weaknesses in my shooting prowess.
Rather than stress the birds, we back off and just enjoy the landscape encompassing us. While dry, hardscrabble and treeless, it still had a beauty all of its own.
The rolling, endless hills, the creatures that live here, the history of the open range — they all added up to a freedom I hadn’t felt before. We stopped on top of a hill, placed our hands on the saddle and stood up a little to stretch our legs and surveyed the land for miles.
That was special; I felt a little taller, a little younger. Or maybe it was simply a confirmation of the saying, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”
We left the open range as empty handed as we came and returned to Rocklane ranch in the early afternoon. There we met a neighbor, Daryl, and his pretty 14-year-old daughter Jenna, a.k.a. “Earl”.
For you hunters out there, Earl was using a 20-gauge shotgun with 2¾-inch shells, number 4 shot. That’s compared to us “seasoned men” who were using 12 gauge guns, same ammo. She shot three times and got three pheasants. Maybe that was an omen for me to go home, scratch a South Dakota hunt off of my bucket list, and turn in my man card.