December 16, 2020
By Josh Dahlke
Survival of the fittest. Charles Darwin probably never visited the Nebraska Sandhills, but the area and its hardy residents are pure representatives of his famous theory.
From the beasts and birds to the men who chose to homestead here, all the way down to the native grasses that anchor the fragile hills from drifting off the map—the Sandhills are home to true survivors.
The Fink family ranch is deeply rooted in Sandhills history. In 1904, Chester Fink took advantage of the Kincaid Act, which allowed ambitious settlers to claim 640 acres (one section) of non-irrigable land. Essentially, the U.S. government hoped to lure folks into making some kind of living out of the drought-ridden ground. Many tried, few succeeded. Chester was wise enough to diversify beyond cattle and launch a Ford dealership across the road from his sod house—a pivotal move that cemented the foundation for a strong Fink family legacy in the Sandhills.
Amidst the darkest days of building a life in the treacherous hills of Cherry County, there's one constant beam of light that shines through in Chester's journal entries: wildlife. He appreciated the abundance of critters in his big backyard, and going out with a shotgun to collect dinner was a blessing he praised in ink.
The Fink Ranch of today is run by Chester's great-grandson, Scott, and Scott's wife, LaCaylla, along with a couple of youngsters who will most certainly be given the chance to carry the torch. While remnants of the old Ford dealership might be hidden beneath a pile of Sandhills dust, the cattle operation is thriving, and Chester's hunting heritage has been revived in another form of income for the ranch: Goose Creek Outfitters.
Much like his great-grandfather, Scott Fink recognized the splendor of Sandhills wildlife, taking it a step further by tapping into a renewable resource that could bring joy to visiting hunters and revenue to his family.
Take one look at the Sandhills and it can be difficult to envision thriving populations of … anything. But peel away the layers, and it becomes obvious how so many species have managed to proliferate among the hills. As a whole, the Sandhills region is true wilderness, noted as one of the largest contiguous tracts of undisturbed prairies in the country. More than 300 vertebrate species make tracks and take wing across the region, including a tremendous variety of game animals that capture the attention of hunters from near and far.
Bucks and Birds
My introduction to the Sandhills took place in 2014 when I traveled to Goose Creek Outfitters (goosecreekoutfitters.com) for a rifle deer hunt with four friends. Despite vicious winds and a sub-zero cold front, our group tagged out in three days with a blend of gorgeous whitetail and muley bucks. The hardest part of this hunt was leaving.
Two years passed before my hunting trails led me back to Goose Creek for a much-needed reunion. Once again, I booked a deer hunt with Scott and LaCaylla, and took my rifle for a ride in deer country. At dawn on the first morning of the hunt I spotted a giant whitetail chasing a hot doe into a cedar thicket. An eight-hour showdown unfolded with multiple close calls as I patiently scanned the scene from a high fencerow perch. The 150-class buck finally emerged long enough for me to place a clean heart shot, capping off a suspenseful day in the Sandhills with overwhelming glory.
Brad Fenson, my good friend and fellow wild meat enthusiast, who also contributes to Game & Fish, is a regular at Goose Creek. He had enlightened me to the mixed bag available in the hills during November, stretching beyond antlers into feathers and fur. With an early ending to my second deer hunt, I was afforded extra time to grab a shotgun and go after birds. It was a blast knocking down my first-ever prairie chickens, but I knew I'd have to make a better plan on my next Sandhills adventure to seriously get into the game.
Booming deer populations. World-class wingshooting. Massive flocks of unpressured wild turkeys. Brazen coyotes. Pick your flavor and the Sandhills can deliver. The best part about this diverse menu is that seasons overlap, allowing you to sample a wide swath of
Nebraska's finest hunting when you pull up a seat at the table.
Nebraska is one of the increasingly rare, magical states that offers over-the-counter, statewide deer tags to nonresidents, and many of the units allow for the harvest of any buck (mule deer or whitetail). Also incredible is that you can harvest a total of two bucks by purchasing two deer permits in any combination. There are some special draw units that use a quota system, and unsuccessful applicants are awarded preference points for increased odds in subsequent drawings. Archery season (including crossbow) typically runs from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31. Firearm season usually starts the second Saturday in November and spans nine days. Muzzleloader season joins the remainder of archery season for the entire month of December.
If swinging on birds is up your alley, the Sandhills are flush with upland and waterfowl species. Prairie chickens, sharptails, pheasants, quail and partridges are all found here. Upland seasons generally span from Sept. 1 through the end of January. Duck and goose seasons are divided by zones, but overall you're looking at dates ranging from early to mid-October well into December.
Of course, migratory bird action is hit or miss, largely dictated by weather conditions and other unpredictable factors.
Turkey hunting is usually synonyms with spring, but there's a lot to be said about chasing fall flocks. In Nebraska, you can do this from mid September until Feb. 1, which is an ideal time frame to keep a turkey tag in your pocket just in case you stumble into a vocal drove during your wanderings.
Finally, another option that all opportunists can appreciate while visiting the Sandhills: coyotes. As a nongame species, coyotes can be taken all year in the state (nonresidents must have a small-game hunting permit).
Compared to the rest of America, Nebraska has a reputation for a relative lack of public hunting land. However, don't overlook the state and federal ground that is available, because high-quality tracts are ripe for the picking if you do your homework and hunt smart. Paying trespass fees or knocking on doors for private-land access can be fruitful tactics as well. Working with an outfitter is often the most efficient use of your time—and time is always money. Regardless of your access strategy, lean on a digital scouting resource such as the HuntStand app to arrange all the nuts and bolts as you put together your hunt. The app contains public and private land maps, property owner information, detailed weather forecasts, wind maps and a wide swath of mobile-digital tools to help you make the most of your time in the Sandhills.
The Sandhills Slam
There are various "slams" in hunting to honor major feats, typically involving the harvest of several animals under one particular umbrella. At Goose Creek Outfitters, hunters can go after the Sandhills Slam. To earn your Sandhills Slam, you need to collect a deer, turkey and at least one upland or waterfowl species during one trip. Logistically critical to this mission is wrapping everything around a deer hunt.
When fate dropped me at the Fink Ranch for a third time, I was dead set on joining the Sandhills Slam club. During each of my previous hunts with Goose Creek, I had seen combinations of animals that would allow me to reach Slam status, so I knew it was an accomplishment within reach. This time I came prepared. With a rifle and shotgun packed in the truck, it was go time.
Sandhills deer hunters can be successful by sitting in a stand or by spotting and stalking. For me, exploration is half the fun of hunting, so almost always I'll opt for boots on the ground when it's a viable tactic. These hills are ideal terrain for creeping into rifle range of an unsuspecting buck.
I spent day one of my deer hunt scouring the hidden folds of familiar territory with a familiar face. I had killed my first muley buck here with Eric Wegener five years ago; we were blessed to reconnect and cut fresh tracks. Without skipping a beat, Eric and I set out in search of another Sandhills monarch. Just hours into our journey, a handsome 4-by-4 buck came into view as we cautiously crested a hill. Contently bedded, the muley gave me ample time to set up a shot. I passed. Such a decision is a roll of the dice, often concluding in grinding teeth and blinding hindsight, but I wasn't prepared to end this hunt so soon. The hills spoke to me, whispering in my ears with promise of a greater reward.
The hills kept their promise. I joined up with Scott back at the Fink Ranch and jumped in his pickup for a midday glassing session. We drove into a Sandhills pasture, bumping along slowly and attaining more visibility into the surrounding hills as we gained elevation.
While we stood in the truck bed to glass, suddenly a tall-tined muley buck and his girlfriend exploded from a nearby crease and ran out of sight. I grabbed my rifle and stalked in their direction.
As I closed the distance, I ran into a bedded warrior with a head full of broken antlers. With the wind in my face, he was completely unaware of my presence. I made a wide circle to avoid blowing him out, ultimately safeguarding my stalk on the other buck. Sneaking through the Sandhills is a thrilling affair, knowing that over any given rise you could run into a gagger.
There he was. My target buck was relaxed, nodding off in the warmth of his afternoon bed as his doe kept watch. Retreating behind a hill, I gathered myself and envisioned the shot. I crawled back up to the hilltop, allowing just enough room to set up my shooting sticks and kneel into position with a small window through the blowing tufts of grass and stiff yucca clumps. Breathe. Squeeze. Lights out!
With a buck in the truck and two full days ahead, I joined my buddies back at the skinning shed to salute another unforgettable deer camp. We made meat and traded stories, reveling in the spoils of our Sandhills trophies. Now it was time to grab a shotgun and pluck some feathers.
After a series of exciting setups and a peaceful walk through the hills, the venison in my cooler was joined by two fresh Merriam's turkeys and a beautiful prairie chicken. At least one pheasant and a couple of mallards would've also joined the party were it not for poor shooting, but my Sandhills Slam was complete … and I've got plenty of excuses to return for another round.
As one of the largest ammo companies in the world, Federal is known for pumping out premium products on a grand scale. But it might come as a surprise to learn that a sacred space is reserved in Federal's massive Minnesota factory for ultra-premium handloads. The Federal Custom Shop is where the company's most experienced ammo engineers build rounds—one by one, with the tightest imaginable tolerances—for hunters who demand nothing but the best. From TSS shotshells to centerfire rifle cartridges with an impressive variety of bullet options—including many not available in Federal factory loads—the Custom Shop delivers true white-glove craftsmanship inside every fancy black box. Seriously, the guys wear white gloves.