- Associated Press - Monday, October 2, 2017

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - In 1879, a guy by the name of Sam Clemens was on the last leg of a months-long tour of Europe and got a little homesick.

Mr. Clemens had grown up in Missouri, learned to pilot riverboats and became famous for the novels he published under the pseudonym Mark Twain, the Capital Journal reported . For several months, he’d subsisted on the fare found in some of Europe’s finest hotels. Clemens, apparently, was not impressed.

Clemens wrote many times of his disdain for European cuisine, in fact. And, as his tour of the continent was winding down, he penned a list of 80 dishes he was most looking forward to eating upon his return to America. Featured prominently on that list was the prairie hen, a bird better known today as the greater prairie chicken.

It was that little bit of history that helped inspire Jim Munson of West Yellowstone, Montana, to do a bit of digging on how to properly prepare prairie chickens. He and a group of his friends had been trekking annually to the Fort Pierre National Grassland to hunt the grassland birds for many years. They just hadn’t quite got the hang of cooking them.

Eventually, Munson stumbled onto a recipe posted online by none other than Tony Dean, the noted conservationist and TV personality from Pierre. The recipe boiled down to something very simple - treat a prairie-chicken breast like a steak. Sear it at a high temperature for about a minute on each side.

Munson and his two, long-time hunting buddies, Ken Herring of Adel, Iowa, and Dave Cummings of Waterloo, Wisconsin, were on their 25th pilgrimage to the grassland on Sept. 17, as they sat in the early evening hours with their tired pointing dogs, sipping on cocktails and waiting for dinner to cook. It was the second day of South Dakota’s grouse season.

They’d pitched a camp against the western edge of the short, scrubby shelterbelt at Richland Dam, one of the grassland’s larger ponds.

“We found out this is one of the few places you could hunt prairie chickens in the traditional way over pointers,” Munson said of the group’s first trip a quarter century ago.

The Fort Pierre National Grassland is one of the few places where prairie chickens have been thriving in recent decades. Their population on the grassland has been increasing slowly over the long term. Though, that fact was hard to tell from Munson, Herring and Cummings’ hunting success. They’d killed a few birds and said they hadn’t seen as many grouse this year as they had in other years.

Still, the trip was worth the effort, they said.

“It’s not about the hunting anymore,” Munson said.

Things have changed a lot over the 25 years the group has been hunting. For one thing, there’s more cropland than there used to be, Herring said. There are more people chasing prairie chickens and sharptail grouse than there used to be, as well.

In all, there were more than 10 grouse camps set up along the Richland Dam shelterbelt. A few dozen yards to the west of Munson, Herring and Cummings’ camp was a camper belonging to Steve Smith of Lebanon, S.D. and Chuck Luscombe of Belle Fourche.

Smith and Luscombe were relaxing with Fowler, Smith’s wirehaired, pointing Griffon, after walking several miles. Fowler had covered 12 miles by the end of the day, Smith said. In all that walking, the trio collected two sharptail grouse. They’d seen plenty of birds though, they just couldn’t get close enough for a shot.

“The dog would get close but the birds would flush wild,” Smith said.

He and Luscombe said they’ve been hunting together since the 1970s. They started hunting grouse on the grassland about five years ago, partly because there’s so much public ground they can hunt and partly because they both have deep respect for the prairie.

“Just being here is worth it, even without the grouse,” Luscombe said.

As for Munson, Herring and Cummings, Tony Dean’s prairie chicken recipe has helped deepen their love of the bird.

“There was no greater advocate for South Dakota, than Tony Dean,” Munson said.

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Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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