It started with meeting a “sister” judge at a conference. When I found out she was originally from Eastern Montana, I had to ask.
“Do you have any connections back home, places a guy could pheasant hunt?”
“My cousin Mark lives on the family farm.”
I let things be. But when I got back to work, I emailed the judge and asked if she thought her cousin would be willing to allow me, and maybe a son or two, to hunt on the family farm.
“Sure. It’s over 2,000 acres. I’m pretty sure that would be fine.”
She gave me Mark’s email. I sent off a message, including how I’d met his cousin. It took a bit, but I eventually heard back. Mark was more than happy to have me come and visit, check out the farm, and talk over possibilities.
I wanted to find a better place to hunt pheasants than the locale we’d been hunting. Ashley, North Dakota had been the place my dad and his buddy Bruce settled on to hunt when South Dakota proved too expensive. Like Harry, I have no interest in paying a farmer to hunt. I’ll stick to public land or unposted private land (ND, like MN requires land owners to post their land or its assumed the land is open to hunting). Given the number of hunters around Ashley, the diminution of PLOTS (private land open to the public) in close proximity to the town, the increasing number of farmers posting their land “No Trespassing”, and given the terrible experience we had hunting near Ashley last year, I was bound and determined to find another place to chase pheasants.
Dagmar, Montana where the farm in question is located, is just across the border from Grenora, ND; about an hour from Williston where my second son Dylan lives. After spending four days with four dogs and five guys and shooting one pheasant last October in Ashley, I decided to use my second week of non-resident pheasant hunting in early November to investigate hunting possibilities around Williston. The results are chronicled elsewhere but suffice it to say, there were birds. There were few hunters. There were many, many places, including PLOTS and federal waterfowl management areas and unposted farm land I was able to hunt with my little Brittany, Leala. We limited out two of four days in the field. But more importantly, I got the chance to meet and visit with Mark and his friend Brad at a Grenora eatery before ending the night with a glass of good wine at Mark’s house.
“Anytime you want to hunt here, just let me know,” was Mark’s parting gift to me as I left Montana with a smile.
Here’s the thing. I’d stayed with Dylan last November. But Dylan sold his house in Williston and moved his wife and kids to Duluth. For now, he rents an apartment, works the oil fields, and commutes to Minnesota every other weekend. Meaning I’d lost my place to stay. When I asked Mark in an email whether there might be a house for rent or a motel in the Dagmar/Grenora area where we could stay, he simply wrote back: “You’re welcome to stay here.” Now that’s Montana nice!
I didn’t know what the logistics of Jack, my youngest son, and me and three hunting dogs staying at the farm would entail. I packed cooking gear, propane, a camping table, and food (thinking we might end up cooking meals outside) and our gear in a small trailer we were towing because the back of the Jeep was full of dogs and kennels. I even locked our shotguns in a roof-top carrier to save space. And just before leaving Duluth, I had a small leak in my nearly-new rear passenger tire repaired at Fleet Farm, where I’d bought a set of Coopers in June.
“Good to go,” I was told. “We didn’t find a leak but we re-beaded the tire. It should be fine.
As a precaution, I packed my portable air compressor, fully charged, in the cargo hold of the Jeep. Good thing I did: I had to refill the tire multiple times during our eight-day trip. I didn’t want to pull the tire off and use the spare because the treads on the spare and the Coopers are so different, On the long trip to Dagmar, we stopped every 100 miles or so to fill the tire; sometimes at a gas station, sometimes from the portable compressor, which was a pain in the ass but doable.
Arriving at the farm, we were greeted by Mark, set up the three dog kennels in the basement (out of reach of the family cats), unloaded our sleeping bags and Duluth Packs, and were shown our bedrooms and the guest bath. We planned to spend a week. We’d hunt the farm and publicly accessible Montana land for three days (Montana has a three-day non-resident small game option) and then hunt Northwestern North Dakota for the remainder of our stay. My oldest son Matt and his buddy Reid were scheduled to come out and stay with Dylan in Williston. Once Matt and Reid arrived, Jack and I planned to meet up with them and hunt together.
The first morning on the farm, Brad treated us to homemade breakfasts big enough to satisfy lumberjacks. Since it was the weekend and Brad was visiting, we piled into his new pickup truck, Jack’s Lab Kena and René’s Lab Violet crammed in the back seat with Jack and me. Imagine allowing strangers and dogs to dirty up your unblemished leather upholstery! I hadn’t expected Brad or Mark to serve as our hunting guides but for the first two days, that’s exactly what happened. Our hosts also introduced us to folks at Dagmar Central (the only eatery in town) during lunch so we could experience the local culture. Back in the field after eating the luncheon special (I treated), we saw four moose but didn’t down a single bird despite numerous chances. After a fruitless but memorable day in the field, Brad and Mark cooked us a beef roast, complete with all the trimmings, for dinner.
I woke up early Sunday morning and took the Labs and Callie (my eight-month-old Britt) into a nearby slough to hunt before Jack was awake. With good dog work and a lucky shot, I had a rooster in my game vest by seven.
After breakfast Jack and I worked the western end of that same slough. I downed another rooster at the edge of a field and all three dogs took off after it as it raced for cover, the commotion reminding me of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Despite being the oldest and slowest, Kena ran the rooster down and made a nice retrieve. We missed another rooster in the slough but Jack connected with not one but two Hungarian partridge that the dogs rousted and Kena and Violet retrieved.
On Monday, our last day hunting Montana, Jack and I ventured north on our own. We found some very nice public-access land to explore. Montana trespass law considers all private land to be posted unless you have the landowner’s permission to enter. The trade-off is having something like seven million acres of public land and private land to which landowners allow public access. North of Dagmar, we found a big piece of accessible bottomland and worked it hard. We had no luck until, as we headed back to the car, Callie, who was beginning to shine despite her young age (the day before, she’d locked on a nice covey of Huns, holding them until Jack and I got in position and each shot one) started going nuts. She booked across an earthen dam with Violet and Kena in hot pursuit. Wouldn’t you know it? After walking miles and not seeing a bird, the dogs got up a handful of roosters and hens. Jack managed to put a bead on a beautiful male pheasant, shot, and dropped it in thick grass where Violet made her first-ever pheasant retrieve. After a hard day of hunting, it was a real treat to come back to the farmhouse to find Brad had picked up Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. Talk about spoiling guests!
“When your other son and his friend get to Williston, you’re all welcome to stay at my place in town,” Brad offered as we ate chicken and mashed potatoes and corn and coleslaw. “There’s plenty of room and you’ll be closer to the hunting in North Dakota.”
I texted Matt about our change in plans. Jack and I would hunt around Williston on Tuesday and meet up with Brad at his house. The hunting was again superb and, when we pulled into Williston at dark, our vests were full (including a Hun that neither one of us shot but Callie found and retrieved) and our legs were weary. The house in town had a big, fenced-in back yard where the dogs could be off leash and Jack could clean birds. It also had cable!
Since Chris, my third son and the designated bird cleaner, couldn’t make the trip, Jack took over those duties. I’d received a nice bird cleaning kit, complete with knives and shears, after making a small donation to Pheasants Forever. That kit allowed Jack to make short work of things.
Content after four days of great hunting, I sipped beer and watched election returns and thought about how lucky I was. My old man had forsaken pheasant hunting in South Dakota twenty-odd years ago because farmers were charging hunters a hundred bucks a day per gun to hunt. Here we were, essentially strangers to Mark and Brad, benefitting from their largess to a degree that was down-right embarrassing. When I asked Mark about paying for our stay, he waved me off. After our uneventful hunt on Saturday, Brad even bought a Montana non-resident license (he lives in North Dakota) to hit the fields with us in hopes of improving our odds.
Jack and I couldn’t sleep Tuesday night. The topsy-turvy world of Electoral College politics caused us distress. But, as we drove out of Williston on Wednesday morning, things started looking better for Uncle Joe. We’d both voted for Biden and Harris by mail. We’d done what we could. But the suspense, with Jack monitoring his phone all day, was nearly unbearable.
We shot some nice roosters Wednesday, which gave Jack more time to practice cleaning birds. In celebration of my 66th birthday, we joined Dylan (who doesn’t hunt) at the Williston Brewing Company for dinner. It was great to catch up with my second son, though again, the pall of uncertainty regarding the election hung in the air like a funeral shroud. The three of us talked in low tones as I sipped stout and fretted about the fate of our nation.
Matt and Reid arrived Wednesday night. We hunted hard on Thursday and had some success, though we missed opportunities when a covey of sharptail grouse and a big covey of Huns escaped with nary a loss. Kena retrieved a live but injured rooster someone or something had downed; a bonus bird credited to Jack since Kena is his dog. Later in the morning, Jack potted a rooster over water. The bird swam seventy yards across a small pond. Violet dove in after the pheasant, followed it across water, and found it hiding in cattails along the opposite shore. Later, Reid downed the prize of the day; a rooster that looked like a peacock given the length of its tail.
The value of taking a hot shower after putting in eight to ten mile days in the field can’t be overstated. Additionally, we had the use of Brad’s kitchen to prepare meals. For breakfast, we scarfed instant oatmeal, breakfast bars, juice, milk, and hot coffee. For lunch, we packed sandwiches and snacks and water and juice to eat and drink in the field. At night, Matt and Reid made complete meals while Jack and I subsisted on canned soup and Dinty Moore stew though, on our last night in Williston, I splurged on pizza. I stopped by a local pizza parlor (wearing my mask) to order on the way to Brad’s house, returning a half-hour later to pick up two freshly baked pies.
Was it all smiles and giggles? No. There were occasional tense moments in the car and in the field. But most of our time together was spent agreeably; hunting, sharing the same old stale stories, and marveling at the work ethic of the dogs. Kena, Violet, and Callie performed like champs, though try as we might, we couldn’t convince Matt’s Lab, Greta, she was bred to hunt. Oh, Greta enjoyed herself, tagging along, content to watch-but not participate-in the action. But she never got “birdy” or evinced interest in the actual hunting part of things. That’s OK. She’s a great family pup, much loved, and had a great vacation on the Plains!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t recount some additional details. First, everyone shot a rooster or two. Second, Violet, only a year and a half old, came into her own. She not only made that water retrieve, she ran after a rooster I hit, chasing it a half-mile down a ditch until she caught it and brought it back to me. Callie, though only a pup, displayed true championship abilities to find, point, and retrieve birds. Her stamina is truly amazing, And what can I say about Kena? I hit a rooster in cattails so thick, I couldn’t walk through them. She found the bird, grabbed it, and brought it to me like the veteran she is. The best part about the dog work? We didn’t lose a single bird over eight days of hunting.
In the end, I experienced a legacy hunt. As always, the Munger dogs outshined the Munger and Amborn sharpshooters. We got some birds and missed some birds but that’s OK. They’ll be there next fall, when God willing, we’ll be back for more adventures on the prairie. Nothing is certain in this world except this: The kindness of strangers, as proven by Mark and Brad, knows no bounds.
Thanks, guys, for making an old man’s dream come true.
Postscript: The tire? On the way home, the temperature warmed up and it stopped leaking. I brought it back to Fleet Farm and they diagnosed the issue: I had a broken rim. Fleet Farm put my spare on, wrapped my tire and rim in plastic, and stowed the rim and tire in the back of my Jeep. I found a replacement rim online. It arrived and I made an appointment. Fleet Farm removed the spare, pulled the tire off the old rim, remounted the tire on the new rim, mounted the new rim on the Jeep, and charged me sixteen bucks for all their trouble. Sixteen bucks!
I’m buying my new chainsaw and gas grill from Fleet Farm.