Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Burt Searle. August 29, 1896. Forest and Stream 47(9): 167-168.


Omaha, Nebraska.—The season of the year which awakens the ardor of the sportsman, even as spring is wont to revive the rhythmical flow of fancy in the poet, had come and I was forced to surrender to a great longing for the companionship of my dog and gun and the unpolluted air of the boundless prairie; so, with three congenial spirits, I determined to explore a portion of our State, of which, up to that time, I had been in complete ignorance. True, the Sandhills were words familiar enough to all of us, but there had been nothing in them suggestive of the rod and gun, nor of the numberless lakes teeming with water fowl; but nevertheless rumor had it that the latter did exist, and we concluded to gratify our curiosity at any rate, and find as wild a country within the confines of our own State as possible.

A complete camp outfit was gotten together, and a ride of 400 miles by rail brought us to Gordon, a point from which we planned to continue our way by team. At Gordon we were apparently equally anxious to get away from human habitation, and it was but a short time before we had secured the services of a guide, loaded our outfit into a wagon behind a stout pair of bronchos and were leaving the little burg behind us.

For about 15 miles we drove over rolling prairie, with nothing more interesting to watch than the thousands of bunches of tumbleweed, which, as they went rolling along in the distance before a stiff breeze, forcibly reminded us of the enormous herds of buffalo that roamed the prairie but a few years ago. Reaching the edge of the Sandhills, our road for the remainder of the way lay among veritable mountains of sand, into which the wheels of our heavily loaded wagon sunk nearly to the hubs. Not a spear of grass was to be seen, or a tree or a bush, but only drifting hills of sand, with spots of alkali here and there like scattered ash heaps. It was certainly wonderful how any one could discover anything in the nature of a trail through these hills, especially with the sand beating into one's eyes like the driven particles of ice in a western blizzard, and still more wonderful how there could be lakes in such an apparently moisture-forsaken territory.

However, as the day drew to its close, and we reached the top of a particularly high roll of land, there stretched out before us a sight which was greeted by a cheer that startled from their resting places numerous flocks of ducks, and sent them hurrying across the water to a point where there could be seen a number of emerald-like spots nestling among the hills, indicating that we had found water to our hearts' content. We watched the feathered forms grow dusky and then disappear in the distance, then started down a gentle declivity to the nearest lake. What a refreshing sight that was, after our long and dusty drive! Below us Round Lake; to our left, and where the sun's last rays were just bidding farewell to the dancing waves, and causing them to sparkle and then grow dark, like the smile of a maiden at the parting kiss of her true love and the following shade of sadness at the thought of separation, rested the Twins, only separated by a narrow strip of land, and lying there side by side no one knows for how many years, but perhaps supremely happy even in the midst of this desert of sand, with one another for company. Away to the north could be seen Big Alkali, and tucked away in an adjoining valley Clear Lake, and to the right of this Horseshoe. Big Alkali is perhaps two miles long and a mile wide, and Horseshoe about three miles from one point of the shoe to the other, and the smaller lakes from one-half to three-quarters of a mile across. There is apparently no inlet or outlet to any of them, and the water is so strong of alkali that none but the lower animals can drink it without decidedly injurious effect, and we were consequently compelled to haul all the water for camp use from the nearest ranch, a distance of about four miles.

The first game was brought to bag while we were on our way to a sheltered spot on the north shore of Round Lake, when with a startling whir of wings a grouse burst from the shelter of a bunch of grass close by, and before he could get out of range a charge of 6s caught him and he made a very acceptable addition to our evening meal.

Early next morning we started on an investigating tour of the lakes to find a point for our camp where we would be as near as possible to the center of the shooting. We drove past Twin Lakes and around Big Alkali without finding a spot that exactly suited us. We finally came upon a small pond which sets back into the hills at the south end of Horseshoe, when a jack rabbit darted across the road, and one of the boys, hungry for a shot at something, let drive at him. The jack's long legs were evidently taking him over the ground faster than it seemed, for the shot only caused a puff of dust to rise at his heels and his speed to be increased, but at the report of the gun hundreds of ducks arose from out of the rushes of the pond with a roar of wings that made our blood tingle. There were more birds here by far than we had seen anywhere, and it seemed an ideal place for water fowl, with its long stretches of rushes and clear patches of water; so, without firing another shot, we turned and made with all possible haste for camp, and before the haze of returning night had fallen upon us we had our tent pitched and "all the comforts of home" ready at hand.

As soon as we had our camp in shape we lost no time in getting into our mackintoshes and selecting likely stands for the evening shooting. Even before we were able to reach places where we would have a reasonable chance of finding the birds after they were knocked down the shooting began on all sides. I took two or three shots that were too tempting to resist, but finding that I was surrounded by altogether too heavy cover to have any success in picking up dead birds I let my gun remain empty and made my way out into the pond to the edge of an open place, where I stood in the water nearly to my armpits, and only shot at those birds that came over the open water. The shooting for a few moments was perfect, as the ducks came to my stand much faster than I could take care of them, but it was soon too dark to shoot with any degree of accuracy, and after dropping two or three birds in the rushes instead of the open water I stopped shooting, made the rounds of the open, picked up all the ducks I could find and worked my way to the shore. I was soon joined by my comrades, each with a nice bag of ducks and in glorious spirits, more at the prospect before us of some of the finest shooting any of us had ever had than on account of the results of our first shoot. We proceeded back to camp and shortly had a fine pair of mallards roasting and everything in shape for solid comfort. After we had stuffed ourselves with roast duck, and pipes had been smoked and a few of the brilliant shots of the evening dwelt upon, we turned in, preparatory to an early start the next day.

The sky was cloudless the next morning, and the quiet breeze from the south was more suggestive of June than of October, and it was far from an ideal day for duck shooting. However, it depends on one's characteristics as to what constitutes a satisfactory day's shooting. With some it is necessary that a great many more birds be bagged than with others, but with the true sportsman it is only necessary that he should have plenty of opportunity to exercise his knowledge of the habits of the game and the methods of getting within range under unfavorable circumstances, and we therefore tried to be content with the prospect of a small bag of ducks and consoled ourselves that in so doing we were "true sportsmen." The ducks all went out of the lake at the first shot that was fired, and although we waited several hours there was no sign of their return.

In the afternoon we drove over to Horseshoe and found that lake fairly alive with ducks, but out in the open water, where it was impossible to get within range. During our wanderings about this lake we discovered what appeared to be a perfect feeding place for mallards, not over a quarter of a mile north of Horseshoe, and the ground between this slough and the lake was from that time to the end of our stay our most successful shooting time.

About the middle of the afternoon we noticed a flock of mallards leave the lake and take a straight course north to this slough, and soon after another flock and then another. Without losing any time we ensconced ourselves in the tall patches of weeds between the two points, and the shooting we had for the next two or three hours was such that none of us will be likely to forget in some years. "There's a beautiful bunch of mallards coming right toward us, and flying low," I hear my friend exclaim in an excited whisper from the patch of tall grass to the right of me a short distance, and almost immediately two puffs of smoke issued from his cover and two sharp reports rang out, and a feathered form dropped almost into his blind and another took a gradually lowering course in my direction, and just as I was glancing along the barrels of my gun at him plunged downward into the grass. The rest of the flock, after a few feet of rapid climbing up into the air at the first shot, sheered off to me enough to present a perfect shot, and at the double report of my gun two more handsome old greenheads came to grass. Until about dark there were ducks in sight constantly—big flocks and little flocks, pairs and singles, mallards, canvasbacks, teal and widgeon—coming sometimes from all directions at once, and some apparently straight down from the clouds; one could not tell where to expect them next.

As far as I was concerned, I never had so much shooting and got so few birds in such a short space of time before; but when they got to coming so fast that there were a dozen or more flocks at the same time presenting tempting shots, I have to confess to becoming so excited that my aim was decidedly uncertain at times, and those that I finally did give the preference I generally missed "slick and clean," and I think the other fellows must have had similar experiences; for while we had ducks enough to supply our camp for several days, and sent quite a number to town the next day to be expressed to friends at home, still when we thought of the number of ducks we had seen and shot at, it seemed as if we should have had a wagonload.

We spent eight days among these entrancing lakes, enjoying ourselves, we all had to admit, as we had never done before on a trip of the kind; and then, just when the "honk" of the wild geese was beginning to be heard at evening and the gray and white forms of the "Canadas" were appearing to offer an additional incentive for us to prolong our stay, one morning when the weather seemed to be just a little nearer perfection than ever, and when the "quack" of the ducks and the "scape" of the jacksnipe sounded just a little more alluring than it had before, we were compelled to pull up stakes and start for home. Vacation was up and we had to leave behind us for a period the Sandhill lakes, their myriads of water fowl and curious subterranean waters.