From afar, a small white farmhouse stood alone on the prairie, resembling an illustrator’s rough pencil sketch. As we drew closer, the scene slowly became a blurred watercolor as it was backdropped by the horizon’s fluorescent reds and lavenders of the fresh evening dusk. Finally, the natural angles of the gravel road and the highline poles provided a clear perspective, converging our focal point onto the painting’s vivid front porch.
And, it was there, in fact, that an artist from Missouri sat on a rocking chair, surrounded by new friends from across the nation, all discussing everything from bird dogs to bourbon. There was a publisher from Alabama telling a story and a writer from Minnesota taking notes. A guide from Wyoming was manning the grill while a photographer from Colorado and a clothing merchant from Texas laughed at the tales in the air. Although they had all just met for the first time that very evening, the draw of the uplands brought them together in Nebraska to enjoy the conversation and cold beverages, eagerly anticipating the next morning’s hunt for prairie chickens in the High Plains heat.
Just as the sun went down, a dual-wheeled truck pulled up with its windows down. Nick Fowler stepped out and shook everyone’s hand. Nick is a farmer and rancher, and this was his land. A young boy of maybe three or four, named Grady, stuck his head out of the passenger window with that sly smile that energetic young boys have. Nick, his father, helped him down with one arm, and made his son greet everyone with a sturdy handshake just like his father had done before. We soon learned the history behind Nick’s generational family farm, as if it wasn’t clearly evident from the fact that Grady’s worn, little cowboy boots and tucked-in plaid shirt almost perfectly matched his dad’s, too.
The Kuenning Family Farm has been sustaining the resources on the High Plains of Nebraska for decades, with Grady’s generation being the fifth. They farm and pasture thousands of acres—15 minutes from Colorado and 2 hours from Wyoming—while managing over 5,000 head of cattle. Nick and his wife are part owners of the business with his brother-in-law, Brandon Kuenning. All armed with advanced college degrees in agriculture—Nick focuses on the cattle, Brandon farms the land, and the rest of the family pitches in as much as possible. The patriarch, 95-year-old Wilbur Kuenning, moved to that area of Nebraska in 1936 and still helps on the farm today.
The landscape of the High Plains is larger than most realize, reaching from Wyoming and South Dakota on the north to as far south as New Mexico and Texas. The lifestyle necessary to live in Western Nebraska year-round is not meant for the weak and weary. The actual Oregon Trail passed right through this very area, with the ruts of wagon wheels still visible to this day. Driving through during the present time, a passerby migrating west on Interstate 80 will notice plenty of barbed wire and the occasional towering butte, but not much else. The region has one of the lowest population densities in the nation with small towns and agriculture still surviving, hanging on for dear life.
The semiarid climate lends itself to a look of harshness from vast expanses of prickly pear cacti and scrub brush. But don’t let the lands fool you on first blush. Lack of rainfall makes farming tough and irrigation necessary. But the dry lands benefit pastures and cattle with the natural short grass of the plains, providing abundance of another kind for those who are looking for it: namely habitat supporting upland birds hidden and often unknowingly thriving amidst the cruel climes.
Bucket-listed by many of us, the greater prairie chicken, Tympanuchus cupido, literally booms in this habitat. The epicenter of their world is called a “lek,” more commonly known as a booming ground, where males dance and impress females during the spring mating season. They stomp their feet, jump in the air, and make audible calls for attention. Their telltale feathers near their ears stand straight up while the orange-colored sacs on their necks blow up with air in a display meant as a majestic show of bright colors and agile acrobatics for their mate.
In general, the habitat of the prairie chicken is the short grass utilized as pastures by ranchers for cattle. The birds prefer to use their eyes to detect predators approaching from long distances on the prairies. The leks where they congregate at certain times of the year—some of which have been used by birds for over 100 years—are special places that are worth protecting through conservation.
The ringleader of our eclectic collection of hunters was Kyle Waggoner from Lander, Wyoming, whose passion for hunting these elusive birds grew over years of chasing them in these conditions and in these places. His time on the plains has granted him an appreciation for how these birds operate in the land’s expanses. When asked why a traveling hunter would want to chase prairie chickens in Nebraska, he says they’d delight in the challenge of finding them. Prairie chickens can be reclusive, requiring hunters to burn boot leather for miles and miles to savor success.
But this effort can light a fire under any uplander, too. Kyle loves the wide open spaces, where his string of German shorthaired pointers and Gordon setters can roam within sight and without worry or correction. He lives for the connection between the prairies, the chickens, and his dogs. Before moving to the higher elevation of Wyoming, he grew up on the plains of Southeast Colorado in close proximity to Kansas and Oklahoma. He got his first bird dog when he was 8 years old, and these prairie chicken hunts now give him the opportunity to bring his passions back to their root.
From his home base in Wyoming, Kyle owns and operates the Lander Fly Shop and runs the Wind River Wingshooting program, guiding for multiple upland bird species—sage grouse, blue grouse, chukar, ruffed grouse, Hungarian partridge, and pheasants—and sharing his talents for finding these birds with other upland hunters. While guiding in Nebraska many years ago, he noticed that the neighbor’s cows had gotten out, and he witnessed Nick tackle a calf in the front yard of the homestead where he was staying. He helped Nick round up the rest of the cattle that day, the two became friends, and the rest is history. They work together to provide the prairie chicken opportunities, and through this, in part, Nick is striving to instill generational traditions in hunting just as his family has successfully done through their farming heritage.
Although the hunters enjoyed the stories told and the company of that first evening, they retired to bed at a reasonable hour, knowing that an early morning was coming. It was to be a hot one on the High Plains—95 degrees to be exact.
With an early start, Kyle released his dogs on the pasture in the remaining cool air. Running a brace of a seasoned shorthair and an up-and-coming setter, he calmly let the dogs roam the hillsides as the hunters put on the miles. The sun was rising while the beads of sweat started to fall. Yet, the only thing that slowed down the dogs were brief stops to pull cacti from their paws and to lap up water, of course. One mile became two, and then it happened.
On the walk’s half-way turn, a lone rogue flyer flushed ahead on the hilltop. Kyle directed the dogs toward the hillside with a feeling that more birds were there. On the approach, the young setter, named Beau, locked tight on the crest of a steeper ridge and held long enough for hunters to arrive. Prairie chickens started popping from the pasture like corn kernels in a frying pan. Multiple shots rang out in different directions, and when the group convened, they celebrated as if they were longtime friends, proud for having the weight of feathers in their hands.
On the way back, the view of the land was spectacular with only hunters, dogs, and one lonely cattle tank in sight in the distance. The heat required the hunt to be nearly over, but a break for hydration and cooling was in order. As Kyle dipped the dogs in the water inside the tank, Frederick Stivers, a professional artist from Missouri, had previously picked up a shoulder blade from a cow long gone, a victim of the harsh landscape. Miles from the truck, he sat down, pulled some tools from his pocket, and started to sketch the morning’s memories on the white, flat bone. Within minutes, he had created a portrait of Kyle’s lead dog, Happy, on the natural canvas—a truly unique opportunity to capture that moment in real time for eternity.
With the heat forcing the hunters to the safety of the white farmhouse, some sustenance was the plan to satisfy them for their earlier efforts. Because of prairie chickens’ dark, dark meat, some say that the bird has an unfavorable flavor. However, Sim Whatley, owner of the Duck Camp hunting and fishing clothing company in Austin, Texas, channeled his family’s Cajun connections to prove the old notion wrong. Just like he learned from his mother and had done many times before, Sim took control of the kitchen. A quick walk by the door revealed the tantalizing aromas of sizzling andouille sausage, fresh-cut onions, frying prairie chicken breasts, and Louisiana hot sauce. When all was said and done, he handed bowls of prairie chicken fricassee to everyone, and we all promptly toasted to a fine day and a fantastic meal. Don’t let anyone tell you different—prairie chicken can taste great.
With full stomachs and a successful hunt behind them, the group reconvened in a familiar place: the porch at the white farmhouse where the cool breeze, forgiving shade, and cold beverages fulfilled the rest of the evening. All the while, Frederick continued to sketch moments from the day on anything he could get his hands on: shotgun shell boxes, drink coasters, and white spaces on the pages of magazines. It was his way of documenting the feelings of excitement, moments of triumph, and reality of the hard work—forever. Everyone graciously accepted a gift from Frederick to commemorate the hunt.
Stories filled the air with hunters connecting through the effort of the dogs, the hits and misses, the fantastic food, and the shared camaraderie of the upland lifestyle. The trip had started as a rough pencil sketch that transformed into a blurry watercolor as we approached the white farmhouse for the first time the night before. But in one singular day, the vivid focal point of the front porch represented a piece of fine art, portraying amazing memories and a celebration of new friends in the High Plains heat of Nebraska.