Going Places


There is a place in south-central Montana, not far from Dayton, Wyoming, where dawn spreads across an expanse of rich green and brown rangeland. It is a sublime experience, this plateau at dawn, dropping off into draws aflame with aspens and horizons that stretch to a panorama of the Big Horn Mountains. And every morning during my brief visit a large covey of sharp-tailed grouse gathered in the sanctity of this place.
    It’s called the Barrett Bench, and to gain access to the extraordinary half-million acres or so of the Padlock Ranch where it lies, you’ll need to be with a guide—preferably walking behind an anxious pointing dog with all of the anticipation such a setting creates.
    Two falls ago my guides were Don Luse, then a resource manager for the ranch, and Steve Hilbers, an upland guide with an experienced and energetic Brittany. (Hilbers is also a renowned fishing guide and co-owner of the Bighorn Trout Shop, in Fort Smith.)
    I had never seen as many sharp-tailed grouse as the 40-plus we moved on the Bench that day. Hilbers’ dog, Jack, quartered into the wind as we approached through shin-deep grass and forbs. But these grouse were not going to hold under pressure. At first contact with the outliers, Jack twitched and stutter-stepped and a bird set out for distant cover. It was followed by the chaotic flushes of the nearest singles and pairs.
    Covey flushes fluster me, and I quickly picked a bird too far, jerked my Weatherby 20-gauge to my shoulder and missed. By the time I recovered, the first wave was gone. After reloading, more birds fled in singles and pairs, and I managed to catch one out in front. Don, carrying an old Parker, brought down a crosser.
    We walked the rest of the morning under a huge blue sky, enjoying intense points on scattered singles. By 11:30 the temperature had risen into the 90s and, concerned for Jack and the little French tri-color, Hannah, we called it a day.
We were back the following morning at dawn—refreshed and with another bird hunting guest along. We broke up the covey again and happily chased it up and down draws for a full day.

Since 1943 the Scott family has expanded Padlock Ranch from 3,000 acres to more than 475,000 in three sections, the biggest blocks straddling the Montana-Wyoming line. The ranch emphasizes resource protection in both grazing and timber management, as Luse described in enthusiastic detail. It’s a long-term view that husbands wildlife habitat—including the grass-and-forb rangeland that sustains prairie grouse—while providing a sustainable ranch economy.
    Visitor opportunities rely on the authentic ranch experience and Padlock’s diverse natural beauty. Most visitors go for working-ranch vacations: the opportunity to ride & rope with real cowboys by day and enjoy the comfortable luxury of the large, log-built Wolf Mountain Lodge in the off-hours.
    Bird hunting is for sharptails, Hungarian partridge, sage grouse and pheasants—with opportunities for the latter on four large preserve parcels. While I was impressed with chasing around 40 or 50 grouse for a couple of days, Luse said that numbers on the ranch are still recovering from a drought and that 100 to 150 grouse per day can be expected. He said that last fall “grouse numbers were wonderful” and that hunters also were finding an average of six coveys of Huns per morning in the crop-planted valleys. He mentioned that horseback hunts are now available.
    Wolf Mountain Lodge offers eight guest rooms and everything you could need for comfort and relaxation, including little to no cell-phone service. Meals are ranch-house style, with plenty of hearty food served at a large round table. I thoroughly enjoyed the company of the working-ranch guests, and the lodge staff was helpful, with an unobtrusive sincerity both authentic and refreshing.
    For more information, contact Padlock Ranch, 800-655-2848 or 307-655-2264;

  • By: Ed Carroll

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