October 10, 1889. Forest and Stream 33(12): 225.
A Week in Nebraska.
The russet year brings back the whir of the partridge, the piping of the quail and the chatter of the great gray squirrel. In this region it would be more in accordance with fact to speak of the flight of the ducks and the flushing of chickens. September has come with a rare combination for the sportsman—ducks, chickens and snipe. Those who have not the fear of the law before their eyes add quail to this list. Hot days and cold nights have been the rule, and this is as the hunter would have it.
The open season commences Sept. 1, but ever since the first of August chickens have been shot without attempt at concealment of the fact. As a result shooting was reported very poor when fall opened. Hunters would take long trips to the northwest or go among the sandhills south of the Platte and return with empty bags. The knowing ones shook their heads, laughed in their sleeves and declared that they would have better luck within five miles of town.
So it proved. On the afternoon of Sept. 2 a party of five of us started to investigate on our own account—three men, two ladies, who enjoyed the sport as well as we did, and two dogs, one a young Llewellin which was broken last season on quail, the other a six months old pup that owned old Count Rapier as his grand sire. Scarcely had we got outside the city limits, when a young bird flew across the road. This was taken as an indication that we were near a covey, and at the first stubble field we alighted. The older dog knew instinctively what was wanted of her, and the yard-broken pup was not slow in showing the result of his breeding. We had not gone 50 yds. from the wagon, when Sid came to a stand, and we flushed three young birds that dropped before they were fairly under way. Three coveys were flushed in that stubble and then we drove on to the next, keeping up the work until the last ray of daylight was gone and raising chickens in every field where we alighted. When we arrived home and the birds were dressed the veteran of the party proposed that the next day he and I should make a thirty-mile trip up Wood River and try the wheat stubble near the Loup. I did not need a second invitation.
Early Tuesday morning we set out, the faithful Sid resting in the bottom of the buggy. The day was extremely hot and not a feather did we see except in the copses near Wood River, where young quail were abundant. About 5 o'clock we reached our destination, McDonald's ranch. It was still too hot to look for chickens but the prospect was inviting. Far away as eye could see were quarter-sections and half-sections of wheat and oat stubble, checkered with fields of ripening corn. An hour passed and then we donned hunting coats and boots; McDonald brought out his muzzleloader and his red Irish setter and off we went. Why it is I do not know but the old sportsmen would not touch a field of oat stubble. They said that chickens would not go into it when they could get wheat. At first we had no luck, but as twilight fell, the birds came from the shelter of the corn to their feeding grounds. Webster and I took one stubble field with Sid, McDonald took another with Frank, whom I despised as a very lazy "purp." But first appearances were deceitful. We wandered about for fifteen minutes not getting a shot nor did we hear a sound from our partner. At length a break in the intervening cornfield disclosed him, gun poised and that dog Frank standing as prettily as ever a dog could, and he held his birds there for full ten minutes until we came up. Then the guns cracked and kept cracking, for chickens rose up in front, to right and to left, until our ambition was fully satisfied, and in the cool of the evening we went back to a splendid supper.
The next morning was cold and cloudy. We were up at gray dawn and out in the stubble, but the chickens were very wild and but one fell before Webster's gun. After breakfast we started homeward, intending to hunt most of the way. The day was so cold that the birds would not seek the corn. Every field yielded its quota of game, though the birds were found only in twos and threes. At high noon we were at an oat stubble, and I proposed that Webster get out and go across it. He did not believe in oat stubble, nevertheless he went. I held the horse and watched the fun. Sid ranged freely for a few minutes and then—bang! and a single young bird went into the bag. He was going over the hill and Sid was sneaking along as though on a fresh scent. I lit my pipe and stood on the seat in time to see two more birds fall. I longed for a fence-post, a tree, or anything to which I could tie the fractious steed, but fate was against me, and there I had to stay while five coveys rose right in front of my friend's gun.
However, I had my revenge. We were far away from any road, and decided to push eastward until we struck one. In going over a hill we saw just ahead an immense cornfield, and in the middle of it a lagoon. Above a pair of mallards were circling, and then the appearance of a hawk caused a large flock of small waterfowl to rise and fly impatiently from one pond to another. At the distance we took them for teal, and we cautiously approached until within a quarter of a mile, then the Colonel drew on his wading boots and disappeared down the corn rows. In about ten minutes firing began, and kept up with such rapidity that I thought a heavy wagon would be needed for the game. By and by Webster appeared plowing slowly through the mud, and in his hand were a couple of little yellowlegs. That was all. The next lagoon gave us a young widgeon, and then we drove home perfectly satisfied with the day's work.
I was taking a week's vacation, and so could not afford to lay aside my gun for a single day. After breakfast the next morning Ben Martson, a most genial sportsman, and I, with the afore-mentioned pup, Dude by name, took a buggy for the county poor farm, nine miles northeast of town. The country in the immediate vicinity of the farm promised good shooting for ducks and chickens. About it are corn and stubble fields, and within a half mile on either side are "draws," of canyons, and old buffalo wallows that, at this season, are full of water. We put out the horse at the nearest ranch, and after Ben had finished his business we rambled out on the hills without a sight of fur or feather. At length a flight of ducks appeared, and though we could not mark them down we decided to try the lagoons. Before we reached the water two other sportsmen appeared over the hill, and as they drew nearer we recognized the colonel, my old companion, and his chum Johnson. Well we amused ourselves shooting at kildeers until dinner time, and then Ben and Webster returned to the ranch through the draw, while Johnson and I took an upland trail. The other pair brought in a teal and a mallard.
After dinner Johnson and I determined to distinguish ourselves, so we stole away and went to another draw. No matter how cautiously we stole along the bank, the ducks would rise ahead of us, just out of range. At length we got upon a pair of teal, winged them both and they dropped into the water. What a time we had to get them. They dove and hid and it took four shots to kill them. Then we pursued a big mallard that seemed bound to elude us. Finally as we were about to give up the sport, Johnson fell flat and pulled me with him. A tremendous flock of teal were coming toward us. Overhead and around us they circled and finally dropped in a buffalo wallow 300 yds. away. The grass was light and short and the ground was damp, but we managed to flatten ourselves sufficiently to get within 82 steps of them. (We paced the distance afterward). Then we arose and they arose; four shots and eight teal. We went back to the house and found that Ben and the Colonel had left, but a shot let us know that they were not far away. When we reached them Dude was getting his first lesson in standing quail.
The homeward ride was broken every few minutes by the sight of ducks, that one by one found a resting place beneath the buggy seat. At length in a pasture near the woodside we saw a small lagoon that was perfectly black with ducks. The buggies were driven by and the horses tied. Three of us lay in the grass waiting for the ducks to fly over, while Johnson repeated the crawl act. He bagged seven ducks as they rose, but the rest of us were doomed to disappointment, for the Colonel's hunting coat was in the buggy and his white shirt sleeves were a warning to the flock.
One day more brought the sport of the week to a close, and it came about in this way: During the duck flight last spring a couple of boys left town every afternoon about 6 o'clock. They would return about 10 o'clock just loaded down with ducks. They went invariably in one direction, but told very contradictory stories as to the location of their ground. This fall the old sportsmen were on the lookout, and finally their resort was discovered. It was a marsh four miles west of Kearney. There were several small ponds on the forty-acre tract, the rest of the piece was deep bog covered with tall rushes and cat-tails that afforded the best of cover. It was just the spot that the ducks chose for passing the night when they came in from the lakes and rivers.
I went out early on Saturday morning, but the ducks had about all left. I saw one flock of mallards and secured a fine young bird. But here were what I had not seen before in Nebraska, jack-snipe in abundance. And rare sport I had with them, though among the reeds scarcely half the birds that fell could be recovered. With them were killdeer, yellowlegs, avocets and soras. In the afternoon I returned to the same spot and was surprised to find five buggies fastened about the field and eight sportsmen in the marsh. I thought it would be useless to stay, but still would not go off undefeated. I would wait as long as any one. About six o'clock the first ducks put in an appearance, but they were frightened away long before they were within range. It was very cold and very wet. Just as darkness fell there was a whir of wings close by and the guns flashed into the dark mass. Before we could hunt the slain another flock came down, and so it went on for an hour, firing almost as fast as we could load. In the darkness it was impossible to take aim, and yet we were very successful. Probably a number of ducks were killed that were never secured, but we had load enough of mallards, teal, widgeon and a shoveler.
While at McDonald's ranch on Tuesday night I learned that five years ago the prairie sharp-tailed grouse was very abundant. The cold weather made the birds very tame and they refused to be flushed. Since that time few have been seen.
Quail are abundant. Every park in Kearney, even the grounds around the school buildings, boasts its covey, and as firearms cannot be discharged within city limits, the birds are safe.
There was a time when Nebraska did not seem to me much of a State for game, but I am more than satisfied to carry a gun through a thickly settled farming country and close to a city of 12,000 inhabitants. And from every sportsman's door the latch string hangs out to our Eastern confreres.