Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. March 13, 1904. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 42(165): 18.

The Roar of Wings up Hay Creek Valley

An Evening with the Ducks in the Days of Auld Lang Syne.

Old Bill's Shooting Lodge on the Shores of the Ricey Hackberry.

Indications all point to a wonderful spring shooting season, and the sportsmen are in a feverish bustle on all hands. Every outgoing and incoming train has its full quantum of becanvased men, with guns and dogs and boots and decoys, and from now on until the warm and lazy days of late April arrive the crack of the nitros will fill the air. The birds, as I mentioned last week, have come in sooner than usual, and many big bags were reported even before there was the slightest tinge of a vernal suggestion in the air and while the mercury was still flirting around zero. During the past week there were several big flights of birds noted in several sections, and it is quite certain that there will be no let-up now until the last stragglers have passed on over us to the northward. Until the icy fetters are broken on the lakes and marshes, however, the haunts of the birds will be along the river valleys and in the fields. In the sandhills the waters are all still locked fast, and there will be little shooting there until the warming effects of both sun and wind are much more settled and less liable to variation. Bill Francke, who owns the most attractive shooting lodge in the state, on Hackberry lake, Cherry county, writes as follows:

Valentine, Neb., March 2.-To Sandy Griswold, Sporting Editor of the World-Herald-Dear Sandy: the advance guard of the spring flight of ducks in coming in, and all along the rivers and creeks pintails and mallards are flying. There are also a few deep-water ducks, but no large flight. The lakes are not open as yet, but if the weather keeps as it is the lakes will soon be open, and I believe that there will be a large flight of deep-water ducks. I expect Jim Wellford in town any day now to get a load of groceries and fuel, and any time after the 10th everything will be in readiness for the gang. Hoping to see you soon. I am-William Francke.

Omaha parties going to Francke's place-and about all the gunners who go to the sand hills will be guests of Bills'-can rely upon the most complete accommodations. His sod lodge is the most commodious, best ventilated and satisfactory in all details in the state, and the shooting on the Cherry county marshes is excelled nowhere in the whole western country.

I shall never forget the first fall I shot in Cherry county, way back in 1888, on the lakes and sloughs north of Cody. The country then was practically a desert inclosed by dreary cactus-covered hills of brown on one side and reaching out in a vast stretch of yellowing plain on the other sides. Many thousands of acres lying in a depressed basin north of Newberry's hunting lodge, formed an oasis such as can be seen only where the wondrous power of perennial springs is evoked. The stand of wild prairie grass was such as is rarely met with anywhere between the Missouri river and the mountains, and the consequence was that the countless hordes of ducks, geese, brants and sandhills and the smaller species of water fowl, stopping for rest and refreshment en route from polaric regions for the winter home in the south, congregated here as in no other locality within fifty miles.

The birds had a special passion for that favored spot in the early days, and from all sides there was a steady din of resounding wings and clamorous throats as the birds poured in and out nights and mornings. The burnished green of the mallard's head shone in the bright autumn sun beside the white and red of the canvasback, the wings of the bluebills whistling on every side and the wings of the tiny teal throbbing among them, but on the be-tussocked, rice and cane strewn lake thousands more mingled with sprigtails, goldeneyes, widgeon and redheads, and which sat either idly watching the hunting prospectors on the shore without apparent alarm or waddled about over the mucky places picking up rice kernels or digging for wapato. Yet those that rested on the water or ground beyond, or rose in uproarious huddles now and then, were nothing to the hordes which in all directions and as far as the lowlands extended were pouring across the purpling horizon. Long strings, wedge-shaped masses and crescent lines, were skimming the top of the prairie grass or tules on every side, or with stiff, set wings were descending into the open sloughs and swales, while thousands of geese were winging their way above them or with their answering aun-unks were wheeling or pitching to the lake's surface in their peculiar way, to alight. In long dark ranks and with light and even stroke of wing, the big blue crane fanned the sunlit air, and with him went many a flock of yellowlegs and sickle-billed curlew. Wilson snipe pitched around on high with many a varying tack or descended in a long spiral line to about the same place from which the intruders on the shores had started them, while snowy avocets stood silent along the way or rose to join the other birds when the hunters drew near. And everywhere, on the ground, in the zenith and along the distant horizon, surpassing all else in size and dignity, keeping far out of danger and making the air ring with their wild, weird, penetrating gro-oooo-oooo, were flocks of sandhill crane. And, mingling occasionally with them, but generally in small bunches and keeping far aloof from all sight or sound of the wanderers below, was this great glossy white congener, the whooping crane, today the rarest and noblest of all North American game birds.

Upon most of the wild fowl resorts today the birds fly but little during the greater part of the day especially on pleasant days, so that the best and often the only shooting is to be had in the morning and evening, but on these grounds in those days it was different, and more than once, at midday, I have seen every goose, duck and crane upon the wing, flying up and down and across the grassy waters, as if in fun only. I have seen more ducks and seen them fly in denser ranks and whizz closer to my head on Raccoon lake than I ever saw them anywhere else.

As long as life lasts will I remember, particularly, one evening's shoot I had. It was up Hay creek valley, on the low flats between the hills, northeast of the head of Raccoon. I had discovered that the ducks, especially the mallards, were literally frantic to get into and on these flats. So one evening just before sundown I went up the creek for a mile or more and took a stand in a rank growth of cattails. I jumped thousands and thousands of mallards and soon had them flying in all directions, but it was not until the blood red sun was dipping behind the western sandhills, did the feathered cataclysm arrive. Then it was that the roar of a million wings, accompanied by a veritable storm of birds from the direction of the lakes, told me that the hosts were advancing upon the flats for their nights banquet. Roar after roar, with short intervals between, showed that the ducks were rising from the waters above and below, and shortly they were streaming over and about me like the ashes from some great volcanic upheaval. I had to scoop up the water in my hand and pour it into my gun barrels to cool them, for I was shooting as fast as I could load. I would no sooner let go both barrels, before dimly through the cattails I would see another wave of birds rushing onto me. So steadily did the surging lines advance that I could not get the cartridges out of my pockets fast enough and, of course, I was soon out of them. How many birds did I kill? Well, if A.C. Claflin was alive he might tell you, but I will not.

As the sun sank the surging roar of brown and white, became black, and had I been supplied with shells, so thick did they whiz about my head, I would not have known which to shoot at. Although I had stood unshaken back on the old Kankakee and Illinois before many an evening flight of ducks, I never felt as if the clouds of birds were really going to engulf me, as they did here on this evening.

A year ago in the pass in the hills east of Francke's upon Hackberry, I had a somewhat similar experience, and six years ago, in the middle of the Lake creek marsh up on the Pine Ridge reservation, George Scribner and I, enjoyed a like scene, killing 125 mallards in one hour's shooting. Today! That's a different story. On the best grounds you are apt to see some thrilling scenes during the evening flight, but never again such an avalanche of quacks and feathers as I witnessed that ever memorable night up the lonely and silent Hay creek valley.