With the Lindskov family, it’s about making a lodge a home.
By Ralph P. Stuart
One hundred sixty acres. By today’s ranching standards, not a large spread. But in 1932, when he was just starting out, Bill Lindskov was grateful for the land. It was his piece of South Dakota ground, and he was determined to make something of it. During the next 49 years he did just that—successfully ranching, farming and growing his legacy. More importantly, he raised a family, and he taught his children the values of faith and friendship and the benefits of hard work.
When Bill passed away in 1981, the ranch, which had blossomed to 8,000 acres, was taken over by his son Les. Just 31 at the time, Les had worked side by side with his father, and the life lessons had not been wasted. He used his penchant for hard work and business acumen to take things to the next level—actually, the next many levels. Today the Lindskov Ranch covers more than 200,000 acres and is one of South Dakota’s largest and most diversified ranching and farming operations.
Lucky for hunters, Les and his wife, Marcia—along with their four boys and their families—consider themselves stewards of the land. They feel an obligation to responsibly manage their property as well as the wildlife that inhabits it. It was this mindset to look beyond the bottom line that years ago inspired the Lindskovs to implement farming and ranching practices that would benefit wildlife. And when they were happy with the results, they decided to share the bounty with those who would appreciate it. Thus was born Firesteel Creek Lodge.
Many readers of Shooting Sportsman are familiar with Firesteel Creek. If they have not yet visited, they likely know of the lodge from the ads in the magazine and from the annual descriptions of our Readers & Writers Adventures. Year after year, Firesteel Creek has been one of the most popular destinations we’ve offered, and this fall will mark the seventh time we have visited. Remarkably, it is still one of the first trips to fill up—and often with hunters who have been there before. It says a lot about a place when hardcore sportsmen are lining up to return.
That I had never been to Firesteel before this past fall was almost embarrassing. Every winter at the SCI Convention I would visit with Les Lindskov, his son Mark, and several of their hunting guides, and they would tempt me with reports of great bird numbers, phenomenal dogwork and improvements being made to the habitat and lodge. Finally the lure became too strong, so I cleared my schedule for a September hunt on which I would catch the sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge openers and have the option of hunting pheasants.
When the appointed day arrived, I flew into Bismarck, North Dakota, where I was met at the airport and driven 21/2 hours south to the lodge, in Isabel (pop. 141), South Dakota. The main lodge was built as a home in 1916 and once served as a stagecoach stop on the Bismarck-to-Deadwood line. About 12 years ago it was moved 50 miles to its current location overlooking Firesteel Creek (thus, the name) and extensively renovated. Now it serves as lodging, the operation’s dining hall and a gathering place after the hunt.
In addition to the main lodge, two adjacent buildings provide rooms, and once I’d stowed my gear in the newly constructed “Hungarian Building,” I sought out Mark Lindskov, manager of the hunting business. Mark was glad for the distraction of a tour, and he showed me through the living quarters and gun-cleaning areas before heading outside to see the dog kennels and 5 Stand layout. The tour ended on the lower floor of the main lodge, where guests were shooting pool, lounging by the stone fireplace and watching a football game before dinner. And there behind the bar was Mark’s father, Les, pouring drinks and joking with the guests. It was clear that the Lindskovs are hands-on hosts who pride themselves on hospitality.
Further proof was in the kitchen, which we passed through en route to dinner. There we were greeted by Les’s wife, Marcia, Mark’s wife, Jessica, and a couple of other women making preparations. The ensuing meal had such a family feel that, after finishing, I automatically carried my dishes to the sink. Marcia thanked me, and then quickly ushered me out. “Now wouldn’t you like another bowl of peach crisp?”
The next morning I was excited to get into the field, but Firesteel’s hunting hours don’t begin until 10. I forced myself to linger over an extra cup of coffee at breakfast. Around 8:30 hunters and guides began gathering in the parking area, and it was a bit of a controlled fire drill as everyone sorted out who they would be hunting with. Once guns, gear and other sundries were loaded into the rigs, the caravan proceeded down the drive, each group bound for one of the dozen former ranches that make up the Lindskovs’ hunting area.
That day I was hunting the Schuh Ranch with head guide Steve Bruns, who, like most of Firesteel’s guides, is a professional dog trainer. Steve and his brother, Dave (also a Firesteel guide), operate Minndakota Kennel, where they breed and train German shorthairs. Steve also runs pointers —“English,” as he calls them—and in his spare time is a rodeo rider. With his chiseled jaw, ever-present cowboy hat, and gait of a man who’s spent countless hours in the saddle, he looks like he could have just stepped out of a Marlboro ad.
As we were driving, I asked Steve what first attracted him to Firesteel. “I used to hunt in other places,” he said, “but I always felt limited. Then I came out here, and I couldn’t believe it. No one else has this . . . .” He extended his arm in a sweeping motion, indicating the sea of land around us.
“Yes, but how do you hunt this?” I asked. “How do you even know where to begin?”
“What we always do first is ask clients what they’d like,” he said, “What’s important to them? Do they want only wild birds? Are they after a particular species? Do they want to see their dogs work? We try to give everyone the hunt that they want.
“Once we know that, we can start with a plan . . . and then a hunt will break out. We let the birds tell us what to do.”
He explained that he likes to use his English first, as “depth finders” casting about. Once the dogs find a few birds and a pattern is established, he puts his shorthairs on the ground to zero in on particular areas.
“Of course, this year has been a bit tough,” he said, “as there is good cover everywhere and the birds are spread out. They’re not concentrated in prime spots like they were last year during the drought.”
We pulled off of the main road into a vast pasture ribboned with draws and bisected by a fenceline. Lance Knoshal, a Minnesota farmer who helps Steve during his down time, off-loaded the Polaris Ranger that would serve as our chariot.
Zip and Toga were the first English on the ground, and they wasted no time setting off through the grass. They worked the cover thoroughly, crisscrossing into the wind and sorting out old scent. A half-hour later we were beginning to get anxious when a sharptail flushed along the fenceline and settled within sight near the crest of a hill. With the temperature already in the 70s, Steve was happy to water and kennel the dogs while I walked up the bird. I was able to close to 20 yards before the grouse jumped—and as it met the wind coming over the hill, I tumbled it like a woodcock that hesitates on the rise.
The next sharptail was 75 yards away in the lee of another hill. It flushed out of range, caught the breeze and sailed into a brushy draw. Steve and I grabbed his shorthair Hemi and worked around and up from the bottom, in the process sending a 150-class whitetail bounding for the horizon. Hemi nailed a perfect point, and the sharptail fell to an easy crossing shot at 30 yards.
We returned to the truck for a hearty field lunch, and then drove the Ranger about a mile to another brush-choked coulee. In less than 10 minutes Steve’s solid-liver shorthair, Gretchen, locked up. Instead of another grouse, however, it was a long-tailed rooster that rumbled out of the grass—and I elected to pass. I held my fire five minutes later when a second cockbird jumped within range.
Gretchen pointed once more on the edge of an earthen dam, and this time a covey of Huns burst forth. I dropped the trailing bird with my second shot. We followed up the covey, and I scratched down a second Hun. Now came the dilemma: With two sharptails and two Huns in the bag and one bird to go for my limit, did I want to look for another sharptail or try to complete the “trifecta” with a pheasant? I spent the rest of the afternoon regretting that I’d passed on the roosters as we searched in vain for another.
That evening, after packing away a thick ribeye and two helpings of crème brûlée, I stole a few minutes with Les to talk about life, family and his motivations for running a hunting lodge. Turns out that Les is not only one of the most successful men I’ve ever met, but also one of the most grounded and genuinely appreciative of what he has.
“My family and I are blessed in that we don’t have to do this,” he said, referring to the hunting operation. “But we enjoy it. We have met wonderful people from all walks of life. Some of them have become great friends, even coming back for our kids’ weddings. They’ve become like family.”
But why a lodge operation in the first place? “Because I’m a hunter, just like you, and I’m also a wildlife nut.” He explained that through the years, as the ranching side of the business has grown, the family has always kept wildlife habitat in mind, planting grasses, food plots and cover such as hedgerows and windbreaks. (In the past two decades they’ve planted 150,000 trees.) They also have left crops standing on the edges of grainfields to benefit wildlife, and they have put a lot of acreage in CRP that could have been farmed.
“For us,” Les said, “it’s all about sharing the experiences that we’ve been able to enjoy—giving our guests the hunts that they want and that they want to return for.”
It’s little wonder that Firesteel Creek enjoys such a loyal clientele.
The next morning I was again teamed with Steve Bruns, who had a hunch that we might find sharptails on a grass-and-sage flat on the Jung (pronounced “Young”) Ranch. He was right, and in little more than an hour I had my limit of three. We spent the rest of the day touring—working through draws and hedgerows and along the edges of hilltop grainfields, frequently watering the dogs and switching between shorthairs and English as the temperature climbed toward 90. Eventually I gathered a Hun in a picked chick-pea field, and then a rooster in standing milo. The trifecta!
And everywhere I looked there was food: from fields of sunflowers and corn to endless acres of millet and wheat. I could only imagine how many birds were hidden out in the crops—or would be drawn to the waste grain after the harvest.
On the final day I hunted the Blackstone Ranch with Troy Tilleraas and his enthusiastic Labs. Unfortunately we managed only a couple of pheasants and a sharptail before the temperature dropped, the wind picked up and a soaking rain drove us back to the truck, and then to the lodge to warm up.
Seeing us arrive, Les came over to check in. He was almost apologetic about the weather and hoped it hadn’t ruined our day.
I reassured him that I had gotten to see some great dogwork and enjoy some good shooting. “Besides, Les, I know there are some things even you can’t control.”
Knowing the Lindskov family and their desire to please, however, I silently wondered whether they might even have that figured out by the time I returned . . . .
Author’s Note: For more information on South Dakota bird hunting, contact Firesteel Creek Lodge, 605-466-2452 or -2453; www.firesteelcreeklodge.com.
Ralph Stuart is Shooting Sportsman’s Editor in Chief.