Monday, November 29, 2021

Autumn at Teach Éan

Photos by Jessa Farrell-Churchill.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Return to the Pine Ridge

So somehow four years got by us, but a few weeks ago Jessa and I finally returned, this time with daughter Ellie and retired dog Maxine in tow, to Fort Robinson and the surrounding Pine Ridge region of Nebraska. The drive up, mainly on Nebraska Highway 2 through the Sandhills, offered raptor sightings aplenty: the usual red-tailed hawks and American kestrels, to be sure, but also bald eagles, northern harriers (my first of the season), ferruginous hawks, and golden eagles. Additionally, not one but two good looks at coyotes, magnificent animals both, with lots of rusty red in their pelage, especially on the shoulders. My day was made even before we arrived.

Over the course of the weekend, we showed Ellie around the Fort and discussed its history, we drove scenic roads, we did some hiking—even the ancient Maxie covered a mile or more on her short little legs, and though I don't know what her perception of the scenery was like, she did seem to enjoy herself—all in the most glorious October sunshine. If there's a better time to be in northwestern Nebraska, I can't imagine when that might be.

We saw more ferruginous hawks, more goldens, and an osprey who was fishing Johnson Lake while we did the same. (In our brief, late-evening visit to Johnson, Ellie caught a couple of nice bluegills and I contented myself with a single rainbow trout; if the osprey secured dinner, I didn't see it.) And I was reminded of a raptor sighting from our trip four years ago that I didn't write about at the time.

Jessa and I had driven west from Crawford to Harrison, the only town in Sioux County; from there, we were headed to Coffee Park, located on Sowbelly Creek a few miles out of town. On the way there, I stopped in the gravel road to look at a hawk on a fencepost just in front of us. We were both looking through binoculars when Jessa said something about how cute the little bird was; I lowered my glasses from the hulking ferruginous hawk in front of me to give my wife an incredulous stare, only to find her still locked on a Richardson's merlin perched on another fencepost, literally across the road from my ferrug.

[Not that a ferrug can't be cute: like this one from Birdorable.]

Okay, back to this year's trip. As with the previous one, I was able to squeeze in some fishing, though of course not as much as I would have liked. In addition to the rainbow at Johnson Lake, I caught numerous rainbows at the Grabel Ponds, where the fishing was almost too easy. Other ponds: not so easy. The Cherry Creek Diversion Pond holds brook trout, and the Wood Reserve Ponds on Soldier Creek Wilderness are home to both brookies and cutthroats, but the fish had a bad case of lockjaw when Ellie and I visited. It's hard to be frustrated in such beautiful surroundings with such pleasant company, but I managed just a little.

The most rewarding fishing was on the White River on Monday before we made the long drive home. I caught brown trout and creek chub on terrestrial dry flies, there were deer and turkeys in the fields and a golden eagle overhead and the whole experience just felt...more authentic, somehow, than fishing the ponds had been.

Memo to me: Next time, don't be seduced by crystalline stillwater—skip the ponds. Try to find the fishable spots on Soldier Creek; they certainly exist. Fish the White River, return to Sowbelly Creek, try Squaw Creek despite the unfortunate name. Explore. Relax. Breathe.