Video: Huntin’ at Zeke’s

This is no lodge experience. Hunting at Zeke’s Rooster Ranch is the North Dakota equivalent to a Vermont deer camp, only on a grander scale. During pheasant season, men and dogs congregate from all over the country to hunt pheasant and enjoy some time off the grid. To explain the history of how all these men are connected and how I got there would take volumes, but basically it’s a dog and pheasant show run by a group of men from Alaska who happen to work for the company I worked for when I was guiding up there a few years ago. The other common denominator is Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels, as most of these men own Wildrose dogs, I happen to be writing a book with him, and my dog Murph is a Wildrose dog, as well.

Southwestern North Dakota is remote. The town of Scranton, which is pheasant central, takes about 30 seconds to drive through. There was a spot near Zeke’s ranch you could drive up to, pull off the road and if you turned in the right direction and stood on one leg you could get maybe a bar or two if you needed to make a call.

Zeke grew up in Scranton. He owns the local bar and restaurant, and a good deal of land with access to a lot more. The ranch is an old farmhouse with bunkrooms, and the garage serves as the social hall and bar. There are a few barns and a number of camper trailers, a parking lot full of big trucks with dog boxes, and all this surrounded by not much of anything but grass and farmland—for miles and miles—and miles.

At any one time, there were between 15 and 20 hunters and as many, if not more, dogs. What made this particularly interesting was that most of them were Wildrose dogs and virtually all trained by Mike’s operation. Mike’s specialty is “the gentleman’s gundog,” and manners are as important as hunting ability. At any time in the evening, you could walk in the bar/garage and find a dozen dogs all sitting quietly on their mats in displays of perfect gentlemanly behavior. Thank God Murph wasn’t there. I have work to do.

Each morning, we saddled up and a caravan of trucks followed Zeke out to the morning’s hunt down endless and featureless section roads until he would pull over and signal this was the spot. An army of blaze would form on the side of the road surrounded by dogs, and Zeke and his partner Larry would draw out the plan on a white grease-pencil tablet, showing us the lay of the land and how we should push through it. Soon there would be a line of blaze hunters spread across the field moving slowly forward like colonial skirmishers, with the dogs quartering in front and pheasants rising from the grass accompanied by the shouts of “Rooster!”or “Hen!” as it were. Hens were off limits, and often the light and young immature roosters made for serious second thoughts on a shot.

This went on all day from one spot to the next, the numbers of hunters diminishing as more and more limited out at three roosters a day. You didn’t want to be the last guy to limit out.
After a particularly great morning when limits were taken early, some of us made a trip north to the Badlands for some sharptail hunting, which was just some icing on an already damn good cake. We left the pavement after about an hour and then drove down an ever-diminishing quality of dirt roads until we found ourselves atop a ridge cut by draws and views that were limitless. We hunted the draws and were rewarded with some good shooting, but perhaps even more with a glimpse of a land that hasn’t changed much since the Plains Indian migrations moved across this country following the seasons. This was a place where you could see it without sifting through much if any of the clutter we tend to strew across the land.

Maybe I’ll get invited back. Maybe I won’t. But it was a good and genuine experience with good men and great dogs in a place that reminds us how big this country really is. There are moments when feeling insignificant in the face of a staggering view is a true comfort.

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