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Jeff Lampe
Jeff Lampe

Jeff Lampe has been outdoor writer at the Journal Star in Peoria for 12 duck seasons. He lives in Elmwood with his wife Monica, sons Henry, Victor and Walter, and Llewellin setter Hawkeye. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., he is an avid fan of the Bills and still has mental scars from four consecutive Super Bowl losses. Outside of hunting and fishing, Lampe's main passion in Illinois was Class A boys basketball (which sadly no longer exists). Former publisher of the Class A Weekly newsletter, Lampe is a co-author of "100 Years of Madness" and "Classical Madness," both books focusing on prep basketball in Illinois.

Illinois Outdoors


A Web log by Jeff Lampe of the Journal Star

Illinois hunting and fishing

Upland Odyssey 2: Prairie Chickens

December 07, 2009 at 08:02 AM

Chasing prairie chickens in the Fort Pierre Grasslands of South Dakota is an experience worth trying. Once. Maybe more. But definitely once.

Especially when you are just a few miles (relatively) from these massive grasslands and their flocks of prairie chickens.

That was the situation we found ourselves in last Friday after two days of hunting pheasants near Highmore, SD.

After seeing hundreds and hundreds of pheasants. the idea of chasing prairie chickens seemed particularly appealing when proposed by Dave Nomsen, the policy guru for Pheasants Forever.

So it was that a group of the Pheasants Forever staff set off to the 116,000-acre Fort Pierre Grasslands (operated by the Forest Service) with myself and my buddy Springer in tow. The Grasslands are located west of the Missouri River, an area that makes you feel as though you are truly entering the west. Prairie dogs. Rattlesnakes. And vast open spaces of grass and little else.

I have great memories of my only previous visit to Lyman County and Snake Den Lodge in Presho, and so was more than willing to return.

Even so, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s important to note that none of us had a clue what we were doing. Springer and I had shot prairie chickens once before in Kansas (completely by accident). And during my last visit to Lyman County with Alan Harn and his crew, a prairie chicken was shot (not far from the grasslands, as it turned out). Bob St. Pierre of PF mistakenly thought that meant we knew something about these relatively rare grassland birds that once blanketed the country but that are now only hunted in a few states.

He was wrong.

Even so, we somehow managed to get within eyeball distance of a decent flock of prairie chickens. The birds flushed off into private land and we could only watch and dream.

Not long after that, Anthony Hauck of PF (my young bearded buddy) flushed a bird wild at 100 yards and pondered taking a poke, thinking that’s as close as we’d come to these flighty birds. No question, late-season prairie chicken hunting is no easy thing. We walked for miles during our hunt, much of it through 2-3 inches of snow. The walk tired dogs and hunters.

But Billy Hildebrand (pictured above with his hard-working Golden Retriever) saved the day a few miles later when he brought down a prairie chicken with one shot. The bird flushed near Hildebrand while he was standing, talking with St. Pierre. Hmmm. Maybe there’s a reason these prairie chickens are having a tough time of it: they’re dumb.

Hildebrand briefly earned hero status for his efforts.

That we never had another shot was OK. Just seeing all that grass and letting my little setter Hawkeye blow out the cobwebs was an enjoyable experience. That we actually saw chickens and bagged one was truly an added bonus.

The only irony of our visit is that we arrived with no knowledge of the area and probably did not hunt the prime grasslands. The grass we targeted was fairly sparse and snow-filled. After leaving the gang, Springer and I drove past some gorgeous grass 5 miles south of the area we hunted. It was also public ground. As always, it pays to scout any area. But since this was a last-minute, spur of the moment trip, that wasn’t really possible. Next time will be different. And I would like to make a return visit sometime.

UPDATE: The PF gang hit that same grass and saw lots of birds. Here’s the description from St. Pierre: “Yes, we went over the highway and found that there was no snow on the other side. The four of us walked in four different directions.  I saw the most birds - probably 60 chickens and 50 pheasants, but managed to only get close enough for one shot.  It was fantastic though . . . except for my pup also finding a porcupine! (Matt) Kucharski shot a sharptail and Anthony got a rooster.”

Now I wish I had hung around a bit longer. Oh well.

Click here for another article on the general area.

Overall the prairie chicken hunt was a nice mid-point for fantastic pheasant hunting in South Dakota and Iowa. I’ll have more about the Iowa trip tomorrow.



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