Featured articles, Upland West by Scott Winston

A Boykin’s First Big Boomer

While hunting prairie chickens with Dan Rainy and his Boykin pup Bay, under the wide expanse of the Rosebud prairie sky, we took pause. Thick, ashen clouds hung low overhead, when suddenly a single golden sunbeam engulfed us in a heavenly spot light. A surreal quiet over took us. I imagined the sounds of thunderous buffalo herds, wagon trains and even the victory cries of Native American hunters, where now there were only the whisperings of native grasses in the wind. Autumn seemed to come alive – complete with lightening, thunder and rain that never hit the ground. I recall looking breathlessly out onto the unforgiving prairie – bolts of lightning shocking the earth like daggers. A familiar sight over many autumns gone by – native and other hunters, past and present, forced to take pause, breathe deeply and appreciate the powers Mother Nature can deliver. It didn’t seem to matter much that we would have to wait out the storm and resume our chicken hunt when the skies cleared.

A covey rise of Greater Prairie Chickens flushing fast, chuckling and flashing their fanned tails on the native prairie is about as special as it gets when it comes to western wing shooting adventures. Once numbering in the millions, large concentrations of prairie chickens are now only found in isolated pockets of our disappearing prairie – the last frontier for these indigenous game birds. There aren’t many wild places left where hunters can bag a limit of prairie chickens several days in a row. One such wild place I have found is on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota. Hunting prairie chickens on tribal ground offers an incredible experience that is steeped in the history and mystique of the land.

On the Rosebud, you’ll find a rich diversity of tribal grasslands that have been preserved over time, due in large part to the Lakota way of life and their respect for the land. This virtue has been passed down through many generations in this ancient culture and consequently, much of the landscape still looks like it did when buffalo roamed freely there. The Rosebud Reservation encompasses 1.8 million acres of native grasslands, a good portion of which is unturned prairie. Regal bluffs surround peaceful valley creek bottoms that hold crops like sunflower, alfalfa and corn. The county side is a patchwork of agriculture and lots of pristine grass – the perfect habitat for prairie chickens. When accompanied by a Native American guide, a requirement by the Sioux tribe, hunters have access to it all. Our licensed guide, Chance Colombe, with “Prairie Grouse Haven” has been focused for years on locating concentrations of prairie chickens. Outstanding accommodations, an artesian hot springs and 5-star dining make Prairie Grouse Haven a first class destination for the upland bird hunt of a lifetime.

Use caution if you decide to hunt at Prairie Grouse Haven. Caution, not in the sense that you will find yourself in danger, but caution in that the mystique of this tribal ground can easily take root in your soul and you may find it difficult to break away – some have already tried, including myself. It is a place of majestic buttes, vast native grasslands, oak choked streambeds and rich agricultural valleys, where a Native American spirit blows in the wind across a historic landscape. Deer, elk, turkey, grouse and pheasants flourish here. It is wild country and these indigenous prairie grouse capture the spirit of the American west like no other.These tribal lands have become my home away from home for a decade now, only because I cannot resist her call come hunting season.

Chance has had the good fortune through the years to observe a diverse line up of gun dogs in his camp. Their masters bring them to the Rosebud prairie to check off an important item on their bucket lists – the Greater Prairie Chicken. The goal of many hunters is bagging a mountable mature male prairie chicken, or “Boomer” as we call them. This trophy game bird has beautiful Pena’ feathers growing long off the back of his handsome neck above his bright orange air sacks. These feathers stick up above his head like horns during his mating dance. Thus, the term pinnated grouse. The crème de la crème is bagging a double Boomer! The Rosebud is teaming with Greater Prairie Chickens. There are also lots of sharptail grouse and wild roosters on this tribal ground. It is a wildly vast and untapped grassland landscape supporting an upland game bird Mecca. In other words, a haven for upland hunters and their gun dogs. I convinced my friend Dan to bring his new Boykin pup, Bay. He was overjoyed that he did.

Contrary to popular belief, close working flushing dogs, like Boykins, can excel on prairie grouse. While wide ranging pointing breeds are the traditional choice and can make hunting prairie grouse easier, savvy flushing dog enthusiasts armed with knowledge about prairie grouse habitat and behavior can be extremely effective. After hunting these indigenous pinnated grouse for over a decade with English springer spaniels, I have come to know these birds well and… how to hunt them.

When October delivers the cold, prairie grouse begin to covey up for warmth at night. Prairie grouse are now considered to be “partial migrators” as they migrate in both the spring to the Lek for mating and in the fall to covey for warmth. This is a fairly new classification for prairie grouse and was asserted via a research study out of the University of Northern Colorado where attached radio transmitters were used to track the migration patterns of Greater Prairie Chickens. These signal transmitting prairie chickens followed a traditional pattern in their annual migration route, averaging over fifty miles. The breast meat on any of the prairie grouse species is red, which explains their ability to fly long distances. The fact that they migrate makes them much more challenging to hunt. Along their migration route, they have established congregating areas where they gather in the fall to covey when the weather requires them to group up for warmth and survival. Chance has a prairie chicken congregating area right in his back yard. He plants crops each year to attract the chickens. His family has many thousands of acres of tribal ground that he ranches. Chance grew up grouse hunting with his dad and with a lifetime spent out on the Rosebud prairie, he has been able to identify many traditional congregating areas.

October and November have become my favorite time to hunt prairie chickens. The Pena’ feathers on the boomers are fully grown and the temperatures are cooler for dogs. The grouse are in coveys and can be found along their migration route in their congregating areas. A covey rise of chickens almost always presents an opportunity to score a double. A good friend, Ross Starner, unbelievably bagged a double four days in a row while hunting at Prairie Grouse Haven. Habitat is key to finding chickens. Native grass or unturned prairie is an essential component. Near-by crop fields serve to fortify the grouse in these native grassland areas. We have found more sun flower seed in the crops of prairie chickens than anything else. Corn and Alfalfa are also prairie grouse favorites.

Spend some time in prairie grouse country and you will see a tree full of grouse on the lookout. Sight and flight is their main defense. They always set up in the grass on a rise where they can see danger from a distance. We hear a lot from hunters who have experienced wild flushes with these birds. The secret is to sneak in on them from behind the rise.

We just figured that if we were prairie grouse, we would be on the lookout from a high point in the landscape and out of the wind. This is the most comfortable position to watch for predators like hawks and coyotes, who are scenting or flying into the wind while hunting. The wind is a key factor in locating grouse. The good news is that the wind blows on the prairie. Wind actually concentrates the grouse into likely spots out of the wind with the birds looking downwind for approaching predators. So a strategy that has really worked for us is to hunt with the wind at our backs. While this is counter intuitive for hunters, we have seen dogs, especially the flushing spaniels, adapt much easier. Grouse usually flush into the wind, in this case, toward you. This set up offers more time to get your gun up and makes those doubles more possible. Doubles after all, are the blessing of the covey birds.

The big Boomers actually become more vulnerable once the chickens are in coveys. They separate themselves from the covey, but satellite near-by. This satelliting behavior from the males is also seen in other species in the animal kingdom, including our own. Perhaps the Boomers get fed up with all the hen pecking that is going on in the covey and break away to themselves? We have encountered up to a half dozen satelliting big Boomers together in bachelor groups while circling about after we have flushed a big covey. On more than one occasion, this strategy has delivered good fortune – the ultimate, bagging a double Boomer!

There is something very special about pursuing these indigenous pinnated grouse with a flushing dog, especially on tribal ground. A primal spirit is out there to be discovered. If you are open to it, the spirit will sing to your heart and move you. Chance has shown me this. I have found many blessings in this wild country and I am now irrevocably drawn here. Many Lakota scared places are scattered across the country side. The majestic landscapes are rich in Native American history. Chance does an excellent job lending his unique perspective to the history of the land and his beloved Sioux tribe. The fact that Chance Colombe is a direct descendent of two Lakota chief’s, Red Cloud and Red War Bonnet make him a natural leader.

Finally, the skies cleared with a stiff breeze as our spaniels worked close and fast for scent, slipping quietly through the unturned prairie, the wind at our backs. Bay streaked by right under foot through soft native grasses, floppy ears flying in her wake and an excited tail giving us notice. We picked up the pace, knowing well and good that a stylish gun dog moving through cover hot on scent is its own reward; not to mention the rush of a covey rise with simultaneous wing beats and the adrenaline that follows. The beauty of the tribal landscape almost stole my breath. I felt fully alive in the uplands. Bay snapped me back, flushing a couple dozen chickens in an unforgettable rush overhead. Dan’s side-by-side came up as he strained to focus on just one bird. He was blessed that day with his first big Boomer! We sat together in the native grass under the wide expanse of the Rosebud prairie sky savoring the moment. The dogs pranced about, scent shocked and sniffing the birds while our fingers smoothed beautiful plumage. Aloud, I gave special thanks to God for a Boykin’s first big Boomer.

If you are interested in going, call Prairie Grouse Haven: 303-250-0302. Since Chance grew up on the Rosebud, he has many connections and can accommodate hunters within a range of needs. From 5-star dining and lodging, complete with an artesian hot springs to a “hunt only” option – with additional lodging rate options in between. Regardless, you will experience a once in a lifetime upland bird hunt and… if you throw caution to the wind, you might just end up on the growing list of clients who are returning year after year. For more information on Prairie Grouse Haven, you can contact Scott Winston via email: scott.winston4@hotmail.com