South Dakota Prairie Chickens and Sharptailed Grouse by Horseback
There are hunting seasons for greater prairie chickens and sharptailed grouse in several states. However, among all the locations where both species are found, I know of only one outfitter that hunts from horseback. That outfitter is Bob Tinker of Tinker Kennels and Horsefeathers Lodge near Pierre, South Dakota. This past September I spent several days hunting on the more than 100,000 acres of private lands that Tinker has leased. He concentrates his efforts on prairie chickens and sharptails and while South Dakota is known for pheasants, he leaves them to other outfitters.
While the season opens the third Saturday in September and runs until January, Tinker offers hunts from opening day until the first weekend in November. Early in the season, the birds are in smaller family groups and generally hold well for the dogs. By the time the snow flies in early to mid-November both chickens and sharptails form larger coveys and become difficult to hunt and often flush wild.
Tinker has been breeding setters since 1983, guiding hunters since 1988 and made the switch to all horseback hunting in 1996. He has been at it ever since with an 80 percent re-booking rate. Tinker hunts with a 60-mile radius, or about an hour drive, from Pierre. Hunters stay at his comfortable Horsefeathers Lodge on the outskirts of Pierre. Tinker hosts only one group at a time of up to four hunters. He does not employ additional guides so each group gets exclusive use of the lodge and is accompanied by Tinker while hunting.
The tractor-trailer rig for horses, dogs and hunters.
A typical day starts with an early breakfast then the hunters jump in a specially made Freight Liner diesel that is used to pull the horse trailer. The tractor trailer rig transports up to four clients, five horses and nine dogs. Tinker breeds his own line of big running English setters and is on his 14th generation. His horses are Tennessee Walkers whose gait is long and can walk at a fast pace before breaking to a gallop. The result is a more comfortable ride than on most horses.
The horses are loaded into the trailer saddled and are ready to go.
When the clients reach the hunting area it only takes a few minutes to mount up and put a pair of dogs on the ground. If there are four hunters, when the dogs go on point two hunters dismount while the other two observe which sets up a rotation of only two hunters on the ground for each point. It works out well and everyone generally gets ample shooting opportunity.
Bob Tinker on horseback and Dan Connellly walking.
I’m not an accomplished horseman but found the horses easy to handle and easy to ride. However, I was a bit surprised at the level of fitness required for three days of horseback riding. Once you are off the horse, the walking is easy over rolling terrain. In contrast, getting off and on the horse dozens of times each day pushes the hunt into the moderate category (particularly if you are a big guy).
We hunted three different properties and one day flushed mostly sharptails, the second day all prairie chickens and the final day was an equal mix of both species. Limits are three birds daily in combination and we had the opportunity to bag limits each day. One day we fell short for one reason or another including shooting ability. As you might imagine, this hunt is more about wide open prairies, big running dogs, horsemanship and unique birds rather than the number of birds in the bag. A day on the prairie with Tinker and his setters is a day spent enjoying one of the oldest and finest upland bird hunting traditions in North America.
The web site for Tinker Kennels
Check out the rest of these photos from Gary Kramer’s hunt at Tinker Kennels and Horsefeathers Lodge…
Gary Kramer is a photographer/writer based in Willows, California. Having traveled to 57 countries in search of fishing, hunting and photographic opportunities, he is among the most traveled outdoor journalists in the world. He has published five books, hundreds of articles and thousands of photos. His latest book, “Game Birds – A Celebration of North American Upland Birds” – is a 256-page coffee table book with 384 color photos that is the most comprehensive book ever written on all 34 game birds found in the US and Canada. Postpaid author signed copies are $65. Contact email@example.com, 530-934-3873 or visit his web site at www.garykramer.net.
Gary Kramer is a photographer/writer based in Willows, California. Having traveled to 57 countries in search of fishing, hunting and photographic opportunities, he is among the most traveled outdoor journalists in the world. He has published five books, hundreds of articles and thousands of photos. You can visit his web site at http://www.garykramer.net.