In the High Plains of North-Central Nebraska is a region known as the Sand Hills. It’s a sparse landscape of native grasses and small clusters of trees. Formed as the glaciers retreated after the last Ice Age, the area now encompasses approximately 20,000 square miles. It’s home to more cattle than people, and wildlife thrives. A perfect place to wander and recharge a weary soul.
I hit the road alone, with only my dog, Willie, as a companion. Our destination was Valentine, Nebraska. A nine hour drive from home. The original plan was to camp along the Niobrara River, but a weather report calling for consistent rain over the next three days encouraged me to drop 60 dollars a night on a far from fancy motel. It was a good choice.
Friends of mine from the Nature Conservancy put me in touch with a group of deer hunters who lease land but don’t turkey hunt. I know, it’s crazy, but it worked out for me. They graciously allowed me access to their lease to chase Merriam’s turkey, which have a beautiful white tipped feathers and a far less brilliant than their Eastern cousins.
River bottoms are my favorite place to hunt. Being by water is part of the appeal, but the broken openness of the cover, strewn with blowdowns and washed around brush, makes for ideal wildlife cover. At least for deer and turkey. The Niobrara River, which is a National Scenic River, offers some of the most beautiful bottomland habitat I have ever roamed. Exploring the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge allows one to grasp a vision of what this magnificent landscape was like before settlement. I spent hours imagining I was on set of filming “Lonesome Dove.”
Jim Harrison, best known for his works like “Legends of the Fall” and “Wolf”, has long been my favorite author. He had a strong affinity for the Sand Hills and set a couple of his novels in the region. “Dalva” being one, which is high on my favorite book list. Harrison was a connoisseur of food. He raved about the Peppermill Steakhouse in Valentine, so I had to try it. The prime rib was pure excellence.
My turkey hunt began with a bow in hand. I had no real expectation of shooting a bird, but I came close. I located a group of turkeys parading about in the prairie and made a stalk. I closed the distance to 40 yards before they became aware something wasn’t right with the big blob behind a lone tree. I took a 40 yard shot and missed. Someday, I hope my arrow is found, and the lucky one is intrigued by the primitive hunting tool left behind by an ancient man.
Saturday’s sunrise marked opening day. Turkeys were all around me. From the first gobble on the roost until I pulled the trigger on the first of my two Toms was about an hour and a half. I never went a second without out seeing a bird and not 30 seconds without hearing one. The gobbles were consciously pouring out of the 10 or so mature males all vying for the love of a group of hens, who constantly kept clucking and yelping. I watched multiple males breed hens within 100 yards of me. It was a turkey hunting experience like none I have ever had before.
In Nebraska you can kill three male or bearded turkeys in the spring. Each turkey requires its own permit, and each one costs 125 dollars for non-residents. Two birds were enough for me, but it would have been very easy to fill all three permits in the first two hours of opening day. Granted, I was in a great spot, and I had done my homework, but the entire region is littered with turkeys. Most of the ground is private, so if you plan to visit the area to hunt, be sure to know where you are going before you get there.
Harrison wrote about the Sand Hills, “My feeling for the Sand Hills competes with the magnificent Pacific Ocean. The vastness and waving of the hilly grasslands in the wind make you smell salt. It is without a doubt the most mysterious landscape in the United States.”
I couldn’t agree more. I’m already being drawn back. Next time I’ll share the experience with others. But this solo trip was just what I needed to develop a personal affinity for a region to which I’ll often return.
See you down the trail…
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Brandon Butler is a syndicated outdoor newspaper columnist and freelance magazine writer. His column, Driftwood Outdoors, has appeared in over 50 different newspapers and magazines, and currently runs in over 30 publications. He has won many awards for his outdoor communication work.
Butler has established himself as a conservation and outdoor media leader of his generation. He is currently Director of Communications for Roeslein Alternative Energy, a renewable natural gas company dedicated to conservation. He spent five years as the executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. He created and taught Conservation Communications at the University of Missouri.
Butler is actively involved in conservation organizations. He is a life member of CFM, NRA, Boone & Crockett Club, Trout Unlimited, Fly Fishers International and Missouri Hunting Heritage Federation. He holds a B.S. in Organizational Leadership from Purdue University, a M.A. in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University and is currently completing an Executive M.B.A. at the University of Missouri.