Pheasants & wild quail in southwest Nebraska
By Ralph P. Stuart
The five-month-old shorthair was putting on a show. Racing from one side of the field to the other, he was the picture of puppyhood—all legs and ears and unbridled enthusiasm. Investigating one second, chasing the next. Bouncing off of hunters’ legs and other dogs in a rush to drink in all of the sights, sounds and smells of bird cover.
And who could blame him? It was a beautiful fall day in southwest Nebraska. A vault of blue sky, a nip in the air, a slight breeze into which to work. We already had enjoyed a morning of productive hunting and been rewarded with several roosters and a trio of quail. Which is why when guide Kyle Waggoner had asked if he could run his young dog, there had been no hesitation. “Heck, yeah!”
Five more minutes of chaos were enough for Kyle, and he decided to apply the reins. “Happy, c’mere, boy . . . . Happy!”
I glanced about for the most appropriately named dog I’ve ever known. Nothing. Then I noticed a suspicious white patch 20 yards away.
“Um, Kyle, I think Happy is stopped over here. He may be on point.”
The words were barely out of my mouth when it was like the dog had stepped on a land mine. The air around him filled with wings, as a dozen bobwhites blew out of the grass and made for a nearby windrow. Thankfully I regained my wits in time to scratch down a straggler.
These days, the opportunity to take wild quail as part of a mixed bag with pheasants is something special. (The chance to do so as reward for a young dog’s “lightbulb moment” even more so.) It is the result of hard work, focused habitat management and proper caretaking of a valuable resource. And nowhere is this more evident than at Nebraska’s Wine Glass Ranch—home of the guiding operation Open Country Adventures (OCA).
Located in the town of Imperial, in the state’s southwest corner, the Wine Glass Ranch has a rich history. A white cement post marks where the Great Western Cattle Trail crossed the property in the late 1800s, and the ranch itself was established in 1888 and has been owned by the Pribbeno family ever since. Today it is a 24,000-acre working farm and ranch, growing mostly corn, wheat, millet and milo in addition to having an active cow-calf operation and offering custom grazing.
The family had run a small hunting operation until four years ago, when it decided to take things to the next level. That’s when Kyle Waggoner was brought on board. Kyle is a jack of all trades, having been a melon farmer, a rancher, a lumberman, a builder, a financial analyst, a guide . . . . (“In other words,” according to his wife, Shannon, “he’s never grown up.”) He is the operation’s chief cook and bottle washer and involved in every aspect of the business.
Through Kyle’s efforts, OCA now offers bird hunting on 4,000 acres of the ranch plus another 1,600 acres of leased land. Included are three controlled shooting areas of about 600 acres each. But the main focus has been improving habitat. Kyle has planted more than 50 food plots—many placed strategically not only to benefit wildlife but also to take advantage of terrain features and shelterbelts in order to get birds to fly. (He doesn’t like to use blockers when walking fields.) On CRP land he has been improving cover by letting weeds prosper and planting warm- and cold-season grasses. And throughout the ranch he has been installing guzzlers, providing supplemental water in a region that typically receives 18 inches of precipitation annually.
The result has been an influx of birds: pheasants and quail as well as prairie chickens. (OCA does release pheasants on the controlled shooting areas, but Kyle says that about half of the roosters taken on the property are wild.) Estimates are that there are now six or seven coveys of bobwhites ranging in size up to 30 birds each.
In fact, it was the offer of quail that initially drew me to OCA. I had stopped to chat with Kyle at his booth at the 2014 Dallas Safari Club Convention, and as I looked through pictures of happy hunters with pheasants, I kept noticing small brown birds among the roosters. “Oh, yeah, we have quail,” Kyle had explained. “But they don’t get a lot of pressure. You have to work a little harder to find them.”
Before I left we had penciled in a hunt for late fall. That time of year would mean cooler weather and maybe even the chance to do some waterfowling, which OCA offers as an add-on.
So on December 1 my flight landed in Denver, where Kyle was kind enough to meet me. With him was Reid Bryant, Wingshooting Services Manager for Orvis, who was visiting OCA as one of Orvis’s Endorsed Wingshooting Grounds. We threw my bags in the back of the truck, put the Front Range in the rearview, and headed for Nebraska.
Within three hours we were in Imperial, population 2,000-plus. Kyle gave us a quick tour, pointing out the popcorn factory, the restaurant that recently had closed because it was too busy (the owners didn’t want to work that hard) and, oddly, the Midwest’s largest Corvette dealership—which sells farm machinery as well. He also showed us The Balcony House bed & breakfast, where the majority of OCA’s guests stay.
Ten minutes outside of town we pulled into the Wine Glass Ranch and OCA’s headquarters: Rooster Ridge. There I moved my gear into a bunkroom that Kyle added last year for guests who want to stay on the property and don’t mind “roughing it.”
With a couple of hours of daylight remaining, Kyle wondered aloud whether a short hunt might help work out the kinks of a long travel day. A mad scramble to change clothes and grab guns ensued, and within 20 minutes we were walking an overgrown field.
Susie and Roanie, two of Kyle’s three-year-old shorthairs, covered the ground thoroughly, but it wasn’t until we were at the end of the field, circling an abandoned farmhouse, that the pair locked up. Reid strode in confidently, and a covey of a half-dozen quail boiled out of the weeds. He caught up with one with his second barrel before the little rockets turned on the afterburners.
On the return swing Reid added a rooster to the bag, and then it was back to the lodge for cocktails and dinner. There we met four hunters from Georgia and their guide, and the group joined us for a drink before heading to the B&B.
The following morning’s first effort was for prairie chickens, as Reid had never shot one and Kyle knew an area that a large flock had been frequenting. Parking the truck on a grassy knob, we glassed in all directions, hoping to spy birds feeding or flying. But it was not to be. Kyle reasoned that because cows recently had been brought in, the chickens had moved elsewhere. After a half-hour we decided to move on as well.
The next stop was the first bird field of the day. Before heading off, however, Kyle engaged in a pre-game ritual: prepping the dogs’ feet with sports wrap and electrical tape. He explained that it was to protect from sand burrs, goat’s head and the occasional cactus. Susie and Roanie didn’t seem to mind the “boots,” as they charged away without missing a step.
We set off behind the dogs under a brilliant blue sky, with temperatures in the 30s and a whisper of wind. And with cover that was easy to negotiate, it didn’t take long to fall into the rhythm of the hunt.
Several years prior I had hunted northern Nebraska’s Sandhills for sharptails in what could best be described as long marches punctuated by short bursts of action. This was nothing like that. The dogs pulled us along at a perfect pace, with just enough steps in between points that the effort never felt forced.
The variety of birds kept things interesting as well—not knowing whether a long-tailed pheasant would cackle skyward or a covey of bobs would buzz out of the grass. The closest thing to a clue was that the quail seemed to favor the shelterbelts while the pheasants preferred open cover.
By lunchtime we had three big roosters in the bag and an equal number of quail—with many more empty hulls in our vests. Kyle was disappointed that we hadn’t found more quail and speculated that the Polar Vortex that had hit the area several weeks earlier had done more damage than originally thought. He said that temperatures had dropped to minus 22 degrees and that he had found a group of a half-dozen bobwhites huddled together frozen solid. “Quailsicles,” as he called them.
After refueling with chili at the lodge, we headed back out—and this time found the quail. In one hour we had cracks at three coveys, including a gang of 30 birds and the group of a dozen that I mentioned young Happy pointing. The third covey was near the abandoned farmhouse where we’d hunted the previous afternoon, and when we finally rooted it out from amongst the tumbleweeds, one bird ran the gauntlet in front of Reid and me, drawing four shots, none of which cut a feather. Ah, wild quail!
We returned to the truck, where I traded my gun for my camera, and I spent the rest of the afternoon following Kyle and Reid as they worked a pheasant-infested food plot. Reid dropped three roosters with three shots as icing on an all-around wonderful day.
Reid had to leave the following morning, but before he did we were able to sneak in a waterfowl hunt with the four gentlemen from Georgia. Unfortunately the temperature was such that the creek we set up on kept freezing, and all of the icebreaking and decoy rearranging that resulted were enough to convince the hundreds of ducks and geese we saw to keep their distance. Reid did end up taking one drake mallard, but that was the total bag.
After bidding the group adieu, Kyle and I drove to the “South Ranch,” one of three areas that comprise the property (the other two being the “Main Ranch” and the “East Ranch”). Kyle had planted food plots there but, because plenty of good hunting was available around the Main Ranch, no one had hunted the spot that season.
When we pulled in near the grain bins, we could see that the corn had been harvested, leaving isolated patches of grass around “lagoons,” or wet spots, in the fields. (Picture huge doughnuts, with the lagoons being the “holes” and 20-yard swaths of grass being the “cake” encircling them.) Can you say, “Pheasant magnets?”
It didn’t take long to confirm our suspicions, for as soon as we crossed the cut corn and loosed the dogs in the grass, the pheasants came pouring out. In one lap we put up two dozen roosters and a dozen hens, and I knocked down three gorgeous cockbirds. These were all trophy birds, too—holdovers from previous seasons with handsome, long tails. Kyle and I couldn’t stop laughing, like kids who had discovered something too good to be true.
We snapped a few photos as proof and, because this was my final afternoon, decided to make one last push for quail. I mentioned that I had already shot plenty of birds and would enjoy seeing Happy run one more time. Kyle agreed that that would be a nice way to finish the hunt.
And the choice turned out to be a good one. For not only was the young dog a pleasure to watch—a picture of pure joy bouncing through the cover—but the puppy prodigy pointed another covey, from which I took a single.
It was the perfect ending to an epic open-country adventure.
Author’s Note: For more information, contact Kyle Waggoner, 308-882-8020; [email protected].
Ralph Stuart is Shooting Sportsman’s Editor in Chief.
An Open-Country Gun
With the prospects of long walks and the potential for bags to include pheasants, quail, prairie chickens and even waterfowl, I opted to carry a Fabarm Elos Deluxe 20-gauge on my open-country adventure. The over/under had 28″ barrels proofed for steel, 3″ chambers and a vent top rib. It came with five flush-mounted screw chokes, and I kept the one marked “Medium 5/10” in the bottom barrel and “Long 7/10” in the top. The stock had a squared-off forend, a checkered pistol grip and a rubber recoil pad. The polished-nickel receiver featured scroll and game scenes: a pair of flushing bobwhites (appropriately) on the left side and a pair of flying doves on the right.
With a weight of 6 pounds 9 ounces and a rounded steel action, the gun was light enough for all-day carry and felt good in the hands. It also fit well and pointed easily, helping me get on pheasants and quail quickly. Following my hunt with Open Country Adventures, I traveled north to hunt waterfowl with friends. The Elos worked great for quick shots at ducks over decoys and close-in geese. When an errant flock of pigeons buzzed the blind, my buddy grabbed the 20 and snap shot a bird. (He didn’t stop grinning for a half-hour afterward.) Plus the nice engraving gave us something to admire during slow times in the blind. —RPS