The fabled North Platte River slithers through the American West, holding enviable numbers of Canada geese and mallards. WyoBraska Waterfowl’s JJ Randolph has guided along Wyoming’s North Platte River since forever. With the storytelling ability of someone that’s guided for decades, he describes getting started, important influences, and why this region holds so many waterfowl – all where one of the Wild West’s most historically significant events occurred.
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Hunting the Wild West During a Pandemic
I’ve been a waterfowl guide for 30 years because I’ve learned to not get upset about things I can’t control.
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host, Ramsey Russell. Join me here to listen to those conversations. Y’all imagine the Wild West. Just close your eyes and imagine the Wild West, and I mean Dances with Wolves, cowboys and Indians. Wild West covered wagons crawling like ants down the Oregon Trail, westward bound these little scooters are sailing across the prairie, in an ocean of short grass prairie, red rock monuments and purple mountains in the background. Now just imagine hunting there back then, and imagine hunting there now where the landscape and the land has hardly changed at all. I’m talking spectacular hunts for the rock stars of North American mallards and Canada geese. How do you like that idea? Well today’s guest, JJ Randolph of WyoBraska out in Wyoming, parts of Nebraska. WyoBraska is part of our US Hunt List team and I’d like to introduce you all to JJ Randolph. How are you JJ?
JJ Randolph: I’m good Ramsey. Good morning.
Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir. It is a good morning. I tell you what, it’s a beautiful morning. What’s the weather like out in Wyoming today?
JJ Randolph: You know, I’m going to be honest with you. It’s a beautiful Wyoming day. It’s about 70°, partly cloudy and I’m sitting at the golf course. When we get done with this conversation, I’m going to go play a little golf, so I’m not complaining.
Ramsey Russell: Just to catch up, it’s been a while since we talked. When I talked to you last, the world was quite normal. And now this whole pandemic, how has Wyoming, I mean cowboy country out in the Wild West, is wide open. How have y’all been hit by this stuff? Has it changed anything?
JJ Randolph: It has. I mean we’re like everybody else. We’ve not been locked down or whatever but all the restaurants are closed and that kind of stuff, and we don’t have as many cases as other parts of the country but of course we don’t have very much population either. So my wife has been working every day, I’ve been wearing a mask and all that kind of stuff, and it sounds like things are maybe getting ready to take a turn and start opening back up. But it’s been okay for us in Wyoming. We’ve been – I’m supposed to be guiding fishermen this month and of course haven’t had much work. But guess what? I’ve been doing a lot of fishing with my wife and my son and my friends and we’re making the most of it, good thing. I’ve been a waterfowl guide for 30 years because I’ve learned to not get upset about things I can’t control.
The Origins of Hunting for JJ Randolph of WyoBraska Outfitters
Every year I dressed up in waders to go trick-or-treating as a duck hunting guide.
Ramsey Russell: Oh boy, you’ve got to be that way to be a waterfowl guide or a duck hunter today. You just let it go – controlling the uncontrollable. JJ, tell me a little bit about yourself. When did you personally start duck hunting? And what were some of your influences? How did you get into this?
JJ Randolph: You know Ramsey, Michael Kaylor, who’s my stepfather – you’ve met him. He handles all my reservations and that kind of stuff, and our marketing and stuff like that – was an avid, passionate duck hunter, goose hunter. As I was growing up as a small child and I guess as early as 7, 8 years old, he started taking me to the blind and honest to God – and I’m not making this up – for me it was one of those things that I was like, man, this is it. I love duck hunting. In fact, I’m not making this stuff up. I dressed up as a duck hunting guide for Halloween when I was like 8, 9, 10, 11 years old. Every year I dressed up in waders to go trick-or-treating as a duck hunting guide. I got in trouble in high school on numerous occasions for skipping school and going duck hunting. And I can remember having a conversation with my parents where they were chewing my butt about skipping school, and I honestly said to them, “You guys, I’m going to school. I went duck hunting today, I’m going to be a duck hunting guide.” And my dad, Michael, my stepfather who like I said now does my marketing and bookings literally looked at me and said to me, “Jason, you will never make a living as a duck hunting guide. You’ve got to do something for a job.” Well, guess what? He now handles all my reservations and he now works for me. So that’s how that came about and I grew up hunting with Michael and we hunted on the Platte River west of Omaha a lot. We hunted all over the state of Nebraska. We had a flying boat that we took, oh man, we had so many different reservoirs and places in Nebraska with that blind boat. And we hunted a lot on the Missouri River on the Nebraska South Dakota border. And I got to hunt with some guys. I got to hunt with Dick Schultz, who is a World Champion duck caller. I got to hunt with Wendell Carlson who was a World Champion duck caller. Spencer Brooks is a guy who taught me how to duck call and taught some World Champions how to duck call. And these guys were all my influences – and some of the guys I hunted on the Platte River, west of Omaha with my dad, John Allen and some other guys, and Spencer Brooks came over to our house every Wednesday night for about two years. They gave us – we all met there and got duck calling lessons from him and that passion just grew and that’s kind of where the love of it all happened for me I guess.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, Amen. That’s a heck of a foundation right there JJ. You know because you’ve been hunting the North Platte River your whole life?
JJ Randolph: Yeah, I have, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: How did you end up in Torrington, Wyoming? That’s kind of the headquarters where y’all are further. How did you get to that little cowboy town to run this operation?
JJ Randolph: Well, so I went to college for a little bit. I had a real good time in college, but I didn’t learn too much. I was doing a little too much duck and pheasant hunting even then and not going to class like I should have been. So after a year of that I said, well, I’m wasting mom and dad’s money here, I better move on to something else. And I moved out to Utah. I got a job as a golf professional out there. I grew up playing golf and got a job as a golf pro, but I wasn’t very happy doing that a couple of years into it. I said, I want to start, I want to be a guide. And I went out in eastern Utah, at least some corn fields out there and I started a small guide service where I’d have guides come up. Basically, I was just getting enough money to afford to go out there and go hunting, and I loved working my dogs, my Labradors so much I needed guides to come and shoot birds for my dogs. So that’s kind of got me into guiding. I said, I need more hunters, I got to get more retrievers, you know. So I got guys coming and after a bit I started guiding fishing for a place in Park City, Utah in the summertime. And that led into me going to guide fishing at an Orvis endorsed lodge in Northeast Utah called Falcon’s Ledge. From there I did all their wing shooting and fly fishing for them. One day some of those clients said, hey, we’ve heard about this snow goose hunt in Nebraska that this guy does and would you book a hunt, we’ll take you with. So I booked this snow goose hunt. We did that, that was great. The guy who guided snow goose hunts there, Dave Beam was his name, also did North Dakota in the fall. We struck up a good relationship on that trip and he said, I would love it if you would come to North Dakota this fall and guide for me. Well, I said, okay. So I went to North Dakota started guiding for Dave. I ended up guiding in North Dakota for about 15 years for two different outfitters and stuff like that. During this time, Ramsey, I guided for multiple different outfitters, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah multiple different guides. And to be honest with you, every time I went to work for one of these other guys, they were either half outlaw, or half drunk, or they never seemed to run a very good business and I always said, God damn it, I can do this better myself. One day I decided the last guy I was working for was paying me like nothing, and I was working until midnight, 11 o’clock. After two hours of sleep, I went asking for a break and he looked at me and said, JJ, he said, I could find any high school kid will do this job for 50 bucks a day. And I looked at him and I said, well you better go get looking for those high school kids, and I kind of walked out of there. I said, never again. I said, I’m opening my own business. Well, I grew up hunting with Michael, my stepdad out there in Western Nebraska and the North Platte in some different areas out there that I knew, and I’m from Nebraska. I grew up there. I said that’s where I want to be, and so I went to Western Nebraska and I started looking for leases and they were really expensive and I didn’t find any. And I rolled into Wyoming, and man, the birds there! When I went and scouted around for a few days, I thought my God, look at all these birds, you know? I mean there were just birds everywhere and I got knocking on some doors and people were so friendly. And this one guy said, yeah man, I’ll lease you a field. And I got one field there and that was kind of how I got started in the area. I had some clients I had gathered over the years that immediately said, hey, we’ll come hunting with you in Wyoming. I had one blind out there the first two years and I got guys to come out and start hunting with me. And then it kind of blossomed from there. I met a guy named Tom Harpstreet who was a big farmer in the area. And he and I built a very good friendship and he started, I leased his land from him. And then I had more land and more hunters and then it grew from there.
Ramsey Russell: One of the great things I’ve noticed, you’re able to talk about a lot of your associations, a lot of landowners, about the towns and locations is because it’s not a freelance country. I mean, you’ve got these – what I saw, unfortunately, we’re out there. You’ve got these really nice flyways under lock and key. I mean, you’ve got good long term relationships. It’s private property. You’re not worried about somebody coming in, big white traders showing up from out east and knocking on doors and taking over the country, are you? I mean that that country is locked up in it.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, it really is. It is all, if you don’t have some leases or own some land, or grandpa owned some land. We do have a few public areas around there that the public can go. But cash to go around and scout up the geese landed in that field. Let’s go knock on that guy’s door and if you let us hunt that just doesn’t happen no more.
Ramsey Russell: I grew up as a duck hunter down here in the Deep South and I’ve heard a lot about the North Platte River and it took coming out there and spending a few days with Jake, of course, and I came out with Mr. Monaco, we had a great hunt. But it’s just being there when I really learned the magic of it all. That North Platte River starts in Colorado up on one of the highest peaks and snowmelt that comes in and starts running it goes a little bit north runs through your area it goes all the way through Nebraska. Eventually the North Platte South Platte River turns into the Platte River, turns into the Missouri River. And it was just amazing to me that all that water ends up coming right down here to Mississippi at some point in time it’s in the upper reaches of the Mississippi Flyway, but you also catch a lot of Central Flyway stuff. But JJ, let’s talk about the North Platte River in your area because there are reasons (plural) that is such a productive area. Can you talk a little bit more about that habitat or that resource in your area?
The North Platte River Hunting Habitat
We got all these warm water creeks that the ducks just pile onto and that will keep them there even when it gets terribly cold.
JJ Randolph: I can and you’re right that the North Platte comes off the north slope of the Rockies. It runs more and it goes up around Casper, which actually is where I am right now because this area as it comes north office Rockies and runs, it makes a big horse shoe around Casper, Wyoming and goes back south. But this area when you’re above Glenda Reservoir or whatever, it’s all its world class, world famous trout fishing which a lot of people, duck hunters don’t know. It is unbelievable trout fishing and as you come through this area, there’s pretty good duck and goose hunting here too. Now what it lacks is the agriculture in this area, there’s no corn field, there’s a few alfalfa, but there’s not anything to hold the ducks here once they get here. But there are a lot that migrate down through here. So if you’re out on the right day, those migration days, you’re going to have good duck hunting on this part of the river too. But as it goes south and it gets down to where I am at Torrington River Valley or North Platte River Valley down there, then all of a sudden agriculture takes over. Now we’ve got feedlots, cornfields, wheat fields, winter wheat, all those crops that hold mallards and Canada geese. Now on top of it there, when you get down around that North Platte River and it runs – and I’m talking from in Wyoming there all the way across the Lake McConaughy and even on the other side of Lake McConaughy along that North Platte River valley besides the river – and all the seed that the ducks have, you can’t believe how many warm water creeks there are. These warm water creeks, they just bubble up out of the ground at like 50 degrees and run 48 – 50 degrees year-round. Okay, so in the dead winter we’re in January and it’s 10 below, and the river slushes up and the lakes are frozen. We got all these warm water creeks that the ducks just pile onto and that will keep them there even when it gets terribly cold.
Ramsey Russell: It can get terribly cold in Wyoming right?
JJ Randolph: It sure can, and it can be warm too. I mean we got kind of a weird little, we’re like the banana belt down there, which is another reason why the birds hold there. We do get cold, we do get snow, but it doesn’t last long, maybe a week or so and then it’ll warm back up into the forties again and that keeps the birds on their toes too. Go from the warm water creeks now back to the river, that kind of stuff. The other thing that helps our area is the amount of refuges. We’ve got a couple of State-operated refugees that are Big Lake that hold the birds. You’ve got to have a place for those birds to roost or otherwise they leave. People badmouth refuges sometimes hunters do, because all the birds are going in the refuge. Well it wouldn’t even be there if it wasn’t for that refuge. So sometimes you’re going to have those days. But as soon as you get a storm or some kind of weather, you’ve got the birds there, you’re going to have good hunting. So we’ve got a couple of different refuges and we’ve got a six mile section of the North Platte River that is a reserve. Also there’s a landowner agreement where the landowners have all gotten together over the years. Instead, we’re not going to let anybody hunt down here and it’s become reserved and it holds, oh, I mean it will hold, I’ve seen 100,000 ducks on that reserve and I’ve seen 50,000 geese. I would say just a normal average year, you’re going to have 50,000 mallards and 20,000 geese down there and that’s just on that reserve, not the other parts of the county. And as you go down into Nebraska it’s the same way. There’s a few different spots down there that are reserved and those spots, the birds find them and those are the roosts and you can’t shoot them on the roost, but you and I kind of talked about earlier. You’ll notice that yes, I do have some blinds on the river. I do have quite a few warm water creek blinds, but I got a lot of corn field blinds and some ponds also that are off of those rivers. The birds roost on that and then when they come out to feed, we get them in the corn fields, we get them on these ponds, in that kind of place. So they don’t always take to the river just because we want that to hold the birds.
Ramsey Russell: That was a very impressive revelation when we came out there and hunted with you kind of left, that was awesome. You know, when I think of hunting the North Platte River, I think as a duck hunter from the south hunting on or in the North Platte River. Knee deep in the water on the edge of a blind, something like that on the river. I’m aware of state and federal sanctuary there that’s needed – ducks and geese need somewhere they can go without getting shot at. But man, right there where we were hunting, that’s a substantial co-op by private landowners committed to providing that resource of sanctuary, inviolate sanctuary for waterfowl. Those are landowners as I envisioned it, those are landowners just sitting around the coffee shop saying, hey, you know what? We all just get together and put our properties to get along this river and not let anybody shoot. It’s a great habitat for ducks. Is that right? I mean, these decide for the resource.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, that is basically it. There was a guy named George Rakestraw back in the late seventies that kind of got this whole thing going, trying to boost our Canada goose population around there, which he did a tremendous job by the way. But he kind of brought all that up and he got a couple of those refuges put in place. And I think he started that conversation with those landowners. And then, yeah, basically, you’re right. You’ve been in our coffee shop, you can see how that could happen. And you know what I got to tell you is it’s a godsend because this is what a lot of people don’t realize is we all love to hunt and all that kind of stuff. But what it does for the community, people don’t understand. I mean, I got 25, 30 guys in that breakfast buffet every morning and she might not have that business without me. We got guys staying in the hotels, filling up the gas stations, going out to restaurants to eat every night. None of that would have happened without the reserves and the birds to be there. You don’t have those refugees, you don’t have those birds. Those people aren’t eating in that coffee shop, blah, blah, blah. So there is, you know, what they did, they probably didn’t know at the time what they were doing. But it’s pretty amazing.
What Brings in Waterfowl to the North Platte River
If we get snow, just about every time those mallards have come out and hit those fields.
Ramsey Russell: No, it’s got a far reaching effect beyond just the hunters and the duck. That’s a great point JJ. Let’s talk a little bit about the hunt itself because we hunted a couple of different areas out of your pit blind. But it was in the traffic. It’s coming from those sanctuaries or from that landowner co-op to different areas and we were kind of running traffic. I wouldn’t, you know, I’m from Mississippi, but I wouldn’t call it warm when we hunted there, but it wasn’t as cold as it could get. I mean it’s windy and just typical high plains hunting. But talk a little bit about those Canada geese because I did a little research and that’s what old Frank Melrose would have called the highland population of Canada geese. It was a mixture of small, large and medium sized geeks. Is that pretty normal? All those different races of Canada geese coming through.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, our little geese I don’t know what you they, you call them lessers or Keppler’s and it’s hard to discriminate between all the subspecies or whatever. But our little geese come through first, come through earliest. They’ll show up mid-November if Canada gets weather and that kind of stuff. And our goose season usually opens up like around the 20th of November and I would say when we’re shooting those early geese, a lot of them are those little geese. Boy, they decoy great for about two weeks and then they get pretty tough for us. And then where all the guys are sitting there going, okay, bring on the big boys, we can talk to the big boys. Then, so later in the season usually 1st, 2nd week of December, I watch Montana’s weather. Now my birds come down, they go down that big horn, Yellowstone Missouri, all those Montana Rivers. And they hold up there until they get weather there and then they’ll come down to me. So I watch Montana. I look at Billing’s forecasts and other places around there, and as soon as I see them getting cold and mainly snow, not so much cold but snow. You’ve got to cover up the feed to move those big geese and those late season mallards, they can be, you freeze up along the water, I don’t care, they’ll still find them to eat. You’ve got to have snow so they get eight inches of snow or more. I say, “Boys look out here they come,” and those birds come down to us, and so we get those bigger geese the second week of December and then we’ve got them all the way to February. Now if it’s a cold year, the little geese, they kind of move out in the middle of the season, like December, mid-December to mid to late January. You don’t see as many little geese, but the reverse migration will start about the end of January and my goose season goes till mid-February and so we get a couple of weeks of hunting those little guys when they come back as well. So we got kind of – the big ones are bread and butter because for us there is a decoy they pass and you can really talk to him with a call, and that’s kind of our bread and butter. But those little ones, when they do it they’re pretty fun, but we do get a little frustrated with them. If there’s two around the middle of the season, by then they’re so dang smart, it’s like, gosh here come some more of those little ones there.
Ramsey Russell: Most of the big ones according to Bell Rose are a mixture of the giants and predominantly the Western same thing within Utah and not true giants, but big ones. And then we did shoot, I do remember shooting a few ducks. It was not snowy. It was cold but not particularly cold. It was warm during the day and we shot a few mallards out in the field. But mostly we shot mallards on a tank you had over some water where the birds are coming into the low and do some stuff mid-day. But you would explain that there are times like during the snowy weather that’ll make those birds want to hit that high carbohydrate corn. You do shoot mallards sometimes in the fields, is that right?
JJ Randolph: Buddy, we shoot a lot of mallards in the field, we really do, it’s absolutely 100% has to be snowing. If we get snow, just about every time those mallards have come out and hit those fields. Now, trying to think like a duck, whether they think our food is going to get covered up, we better get out there and get it now, or what they think. But you get any kind of snow and the snow stays on the ground for a few days, as long as we’ve got snow on the ground, those mallards seem to come out and hit those fields every day. Now during those times if the mallards are hitting the field, I can leave my ponds alone, and my warm water creeks alone, and my river spots alone, and let those birds roost there. I’ve got all the corn fields least right around and those birds come off and into those corn fields. We get our limit in the corn fields and never touch the roost, and you can really try and milk it that way for as long as you can until the snow melts again and the birds go back to doing what they were before. But if we get some weather like that, it’s unbelievable. Mallards had in fact, my guy took a big conversation this year about when you get those days, you’ve got to be careful not to shoot into those big flocks because we’ve got a whole season of hunters to run and you don’t want to burn the birds. And so we’ll have flocked to mallards 500, 1000, even 1500 all of a sudden just, boom, come into those form fields on you right off that refuge. And you just got to say, “I’m sorry guys, but we’re going to watch the show here.” There’s no way we’re only going to kill three ducks out of this block. There’s no reason shooting in 2000. Let them go until you get the smaller bunches in when it’s good and it’s a snowstorm and you can be picky like that, you know? And so it works well.
Wyobraska – The Most Comfortable Blinds
And then, like you say, no matter what the weather is like, you can stay out there because we all know the crappier the weather, the better the hunting.
Ramsey Russell: You’re always busy with clients, y’all stay full out there. And I really end up talking to Michael. I talked to Michael a whole lot more than I talk to you. And he talks about, he said “Ramsey, you didn’t see nothing when you were out here.” He said, “Wait until it gets right.” Because he was talking about the 410 and 28 gauge hunts. And I don’t think he shoots a 12 gauge or even – I was wanting to hear him talk. But I mean there are times when those conditions hit, when that weather hits magical, that y’all are literally running 410 and 28 gauge hunt, those geese are coming so close, aren’t they?
JJ Randolph: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. When it’s good, my pit lines – you were in them – are really camouflaged, they’re ground level buried, they’re 8 foot wide by 16 foot long. They’ll hold five hunters and they’ve got a dog box on the end. So a dog and five hunters fit in there comfortably. We’ve got heaters, four or five different heaters hanging on the back wall, propane heaters and everybody’s nice and toasty. But I’ve got this great lid system that slides right over the copy of and you’ve got a camouflage net on it. You’re looking, you can see pretty good right through that camouflage net and everybody can – you got a rotating bar stool, you can spin around as the birds are circling and watch these birds which is great because that’s the whole thing is watching the birds work. But because your camouflage pit line, I mean when they do it, when conditions are right, I mean they’ll shoot, they try to land right on top of a blind sometimes. They do not see those blinds. And so because of that we can get some pro shooting. So I got a group from Minnesota come out, they’ve been coming, God bless them, 10 years or so. Now they are crack shots. They spend all summer sporting, play tournaments, it’s two women and two men and they spend all summer, dude, sporting clays, trap tournaments, all this stuff. They come every year. They bring nothing but 410 and 28 gauges and we had one year, two years ago, three days in a row, killed our limit on mallards and our limit on geese with nothing but 410 and 28 gauge three days in a row. And it is really spectacular. Now they’re crack shots and that helps. But it’s fun when the birds are working like that.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I’ve got a 28 gauge Boss Shot Shells has started making good 28 gauge loads. And I fully intend to bring a 28 gauge next time I hunt with you. But speaking of those pit blinds now look, Michael tried to describe to me before we showed up how these pit blinds were. When I think of pit blinds, I think of metal blinds stuck out in the rice field or something like that. That was by far the most comfortable blind situation hunting situation I had ever been into. Show up, crack it down in the wind blowing, it’s cold and you jump down, a lot of your decoys were in the blind somewhere, you try to grab the decoys out real quick, you jumped down in the hole, you did something, you turned on the heat, you pop back out. We put up the decoys like you wanted, it took, I’m going to say, start to finish 5 – 10 minutes to put out that spread. And when we climbed off into that blind, it was 16 feet long, 8 feet wide. It was like crawling into a little cabin. It’s built of thick lumber. I’m saying it’s warm, you’ve got these nice professional office chairs that revolve around. I can lean back, I can look up, your slides were not cumbersome, I can look through everybody down there, can watch the geese start to spend, you can watch them respond, you can do everything, and when the shot is called it’s just push the top back, boom up coming guns. But it was a kind of blind that who knows if you’re waiting out the ducks and geese because like that morning we hunted those geese coming off the roof. We got a little action. They continued west to go feed like, no, no, no, we got to wait on them to come back. You could wait it out, you can talk comfortably. I could not wear a coat by the time of year I was there. I could not wear a coat. I mean we just had to get basically undressed, so it’s like sitting at my desk it was so comfortable, sitting at the office one day on a cold winter day.
JJ Randolph: I’m glad you liked it.
Ramsey Russell: Oh I loved it, I’m telling you I loved it. It was amazing hunting.
JJ Randolph: Yeah well, here’s the thing is, I got these people fishing in the spring in the rain storm, and it’s windy out there, and I say guys you guys are nuts, it’s freezing out here. You sure you want to fish in this? And they look at me and they say well you’re duck and goose hunters, you got to be freezing all the time. And I said oh no, that’s not necessary. You can do it and still be warm and comfortable, and I tell you one thing that I wanted to do with this business that I feel like sometimes everybody else isn’t doing is a high level of customer service. I want to be able to take care of a handicapped person, an old person, a little kid, whatever it may be, and those blinds do that, and the fact that I don’t have a blind that I can’t drive a pickup truck or at minimum a 4-wheeler, but at least most of them are pickup trucks right up to and unload that guy. So we’ve got an older gentleman, or somebody with a disability, or whatever, I mean we drive 5 feet from the blind, unload them, get them in there, get the heater going, everybody’s nice and comfortable and it just makes it a more enjoyable day. And then, like you say, no matter what the weather is like, you can stay out there because we all know the crappier the weather, the better the hunting.
Ramsey Russell: Oh boy. It was the most Cadillac blind I’ve ever been to. JJ speaking with you, did you design those yourself or did you come up with some plans? I mean how did you do that?
JJ Randolph: I talked just a little bit earlier, I mentioned my friend Tom Harpstreet and I got to tell you this guy, God bless him. I wouldn’t be where I am without him. He designed that blind. He was my hunting partner. I met him, Torrington got this hunt called the two shot goose hunt. It’s a big charity thing for the community every year. A charity hunt. The governor comes. They always have a celebrity, Tim Ground used to come to it, and some other guys, and stuff. And when I first started working in Torrington, somebody said, you got to put your pit in this two shot goose hunt and the community will appreciate it. And plus you get to go to the dinner. I said, okay, great. And I drew this guy Tom HarpStreet, it was just a local guy in Torrington, a local farmer and businessman there. And I got him in my blind and we hit it off. And after we got done hunting that day, he said, JJ you’re a pretty goose caller. He says what are you doing tomorrow? And I’m just starting out, I said, I have no clients, I’m not doing anything. He says, well, I got a spot, I’d like to take you, you want to go hunting. And I said, yeah. So the next morning I met Tom at the cafe and he took me to this beautiful spot and God, we shot our limit of geese and he said that was great. He says what are you doing tomorrow, I’ll take you to another spot. I said well I’m not doing anything. He said let’s go. So the next day we went to another spot and he said, well, hey what are you doing tomorrow? I said I think I’m going hunting with you. He said yeah. So he took me to another spot. He took me to five spots in the next five days – every one of them was an unbelievable goose spot. And at the end of it, he said well here’s the deal. I need somebody to help me with all this stuff and you need some stuff to lease. So if you lease it from me and just set it up so I can hunt, then that’ll work for me. So that is where I got a lot of my good property and Tom designed those. He came up with that blind design, that was his design. Now he has since passed away, God bless him, 10 years ago and I’ve kept that blind going because I think it’s of the best designs I’ve ever seen. I made a couple of modifications but really not much. So I got to hand it to Tom for that blind design and then Tom passed away 10 years ago. I want to touch on this real quick – so we do a hunt in his name every year. The Harpstreet Memorial and it’s tomsusehunt.com and we have 50 kids on the last Sunday of January every year that the community helps out. I get all my goose hunting buddies in the community to donate their pits in time for the day, and we take 50 kids and take them hunting for that day, and we give away a bunch of prizes, we give away some shotguns that people donate. We have a goose calling contest and a big banquet at the end of the day, and it’s not a competition, it’s just fun for the kids and we do that in Tom’s name every year. So he was a big influence on me in that area.
Ramsey Russell: That’s fantastic. I’ve heard about that youth hunt too, Michael and I talked about it. That’s a fantastic program in this day and age, we need to get youth hunters involved. 50 kids show up to this, that’s amazing.
JJ Randolph: Yeah. It really is amazing Ramsey and it’s emotional for me because Tom was such a good friend and just the way the community has embraced that. I know, and I’m sorry, just I miss him, you know? But anyway, it’s a great thing and the parents that come up to me and go, oh my God, my kids waited all year for this. He has slept all night long in his camouflage clothing, it was his blowing that kept us all night, up blowing the goose call. I’m so glad that stays here so we can get it open.
What to Expect on a Waterfowl Hunt with WyoBraska
And then we do all day, I say we do all day hunts, or until you get your limit.
Ramsey Russell: Boy, that’s a powerful word, but that’s a heck of a tribute too. That is a heck of a tribute. Thank you all for doing that JJ. Listen, let’s talk about the typical program for anybody listening that might be interested in seeing what, let’s talk about the typical day, because for me, and I think Forrest and I talked about this not too long ago. If you said okay, we meet down at the cafe at such and such time, I realized after the first morning that I wanted to be there when they opened. But because that was a good start of the day. What was the name of that cafe?
JJ Randolph: Sweet Lou’s cafe.
Ramsey Russell: And you walk in and there’s, I don’t know, two dozen or more hunters from everywhere from Minnesota to California. Everybody who looks around their table, myself, John Monaco, Forrest. We had our table and it was just what a great breakfast. It was just the atmosphere of all your hunters sitting in here, mixing it up. How you doing, where you’re from? Well, I’ll tell you what, there was a guy, one of the local cowboys there, Craig, I got a menu said, what do you want to eat? And I said, I don’t know, a gumbo, but whatever’s easy, whatever it comes up. He brings biscuits and gravy, says, he goes, well, today’s breakfast biscuits and gravy is the best in town. It was hilarious. It was so much fun, you know, what a great start to the day.
JJ Randolph: Yeah it is, I’ll tell you, I’ve been having coffee and stuff with those guys for over 20 years now. And it sure is a lot of fun to get the hunters in there and they love it. They like talking to all you guys from different parts of the country and that kind of stuff. They all think it’s pretty neat too, but that’s how our day starts. We roll into the cafe, and have breakfast there, and you can hear all the town gossip and anything from corn prices to politics, and whatever goes on in there. And then we do all day, I say we do all day hunts, or until you get your limit. If that happens and if you get your limit in geese, well then we’ll go after limits in ducks. Or you get your limits in duck, then we’re going to go after limits in geese. So most of the time we’ll hunt almost all day unless it’s those fortunate times – which we do have quite often where we limit out early. But we’ll start today at the cafe and then you’re going to go out with your guide, I’ve got four full time guides that are just, they are really awesome, I’m thankful and blessed to have them because they are something else. So whether you go out with me or one of my guides, we’re going to head to wherever that may be that day. Now, some guys come in and say, hey, we want ducks, we don’t even care about geese. Some guys come in and say we want geese, we don’t care about ducks, and some guys come in and say, hey, we want both or, or whatever you suggest. So we’re going to start out that day trying to go after limits in ducks or limits in geese and once we get those, in the afternoon we’ll be pursuing the limit that you didn’t get. Sometimes we can get ducks and geese right in the same field, or same water spot, or whatever it may be. Other times we’re going to switch after the morning hunt. Maybe go to a field in the afternoon for the ducks or whatever that may be. But first breakfast, then head to the hunt, and then in the evenings there’s a couple different restaurants in town that the guys go to. We got some lodging but we don’t have a lodge where we serve food and that kind of stuff. So guys go out to a different restaurant in Torrington at night and I come make the rounds, come around, sit down and have dinner with you – I usually go hit a couple of different groups and I get kind of fat during the wintertime.
Adjusting the Hunt for Covid
It speaks a lot to who you and Michael are as a business.
Ramsey Russell: I really enjoyed that program. We stayed in – I can’t remember what y’all call it – the lodge house or the bunkhouse or something. And I wasn’t going to tell, you know, a bunkhouse. Okay. So I’m expecting a cowboy tack room or something. No, no, no, no, no, no. That house was nicer than my own. It was a beautiful house, nice and comfortable. The head per person count was cheaper than any hotel in town, I’m guessing very comfortable. We had our own bedrooms, our own bathrooms, whatever. It was just perfect man, it was so nice. But JJ, one thing I want to point out anybody listening is the way y’all run, y’all’s hunter programs through. Why do you run your group is not like – he was talking about the client experience. You want to capitalize on that. It’s a very unique structure because y’all don’t just take singles and whoever and put them all of the blind together like they might in other parts of the country. Y’all actually do groups. In other words, per day, it’s this much divided by 1-4 people, usually. And so I’ve got a flat fee of all-day pit blind, your group only. One person could have it to himself. Or you split it up among four people. And well, I’ll tell you what, talk about a timely little program that you go to speak to me about how y’all’s client service and customer service, and how you will respond to it. No, Covid, this pandemic, has not been without its share of pain. There are a lot of people I personally know and care about that have been hurt because we’ve been sheltered-in-place, deemed non-essential, whatever. There are people who’ve had their income interrupted or are people that are really, they’re hurt, they’re struggling. I know some guys that are struggling with their businesses. I know some guys that are struggling with their household income. So when Michael called me last month, he said, hey, Ramsey, we’re running a special this year. We’re going to do a little bit of a reduced rate and we’re going to accommodate one and two hunters instead of just four. We really want to be on board and understanding of this pandemic and invite people to come out here, still understanding things could be tough for some people. And man, let me tell you what, that’s a heck of a gesture. It speaks a lot to who you and Michael are as a business. That you all understand that, and say we invite people to come out here with smaller groups at a little bit less price because we understand there’s going to be a tough hole to climb out of for some people. That’s volumes about who you are, JJ.
JJ Randolph: Well, thank you. You can only do what you can do. You know, we try our best, but that’s a nice situation for people and we do it that way where we are making a special deal for two persons this year because we understand the situation that everyone’s in. But it is a nice feel to be able to have that blind to yourself over the years. But I’ve got certain expenses into it that I’ve got to get out of it, so you’ve got to have so much, otherwise it’s not I’m doing this for free. I’m a generous person and love people, but I got a family I got to pay for. So I got a little bit, I got to make a little bit there, but I like those small groups, I don’t like a big group, eight guys out there in a pit or anything like that. I like small groups, like everybody to know each other and get along. Mixing groups, or let’s put a single in here, or whatever for me over the years, it hasn’t worked too good. So I went to this quite a while ago where it’s a price per pit and whether you have one person or four people it’s the same price. And you can’t believe, I got two brothers that come every year that are both in their late seventies. I mean, they only hunt together once a year and it’s just the two of them and they come hunt, they get the pit to themselves, and come hunt for three days every year. I got a couple of different husband and wives that just want to hunt the two of them, and that’s great, we can accommodate that. It’s more fun that way.
Ramsey Russell: I agree. I like to mix it up. I personally like to mix it up with a lot of people at times. But the older I get, the more I just want to be with my people. It changes the dynamic because so much of what we really love besides shooting Canada geese and shooting mallards. So much of what, I’ve always said, real life happens between the volleys. You know, you’re in a blind waiting out the next flight, out the next flight. And it just changes the dynamic and I really like that aspect of your program now. One day, speaking of non-hunting type stuff, I got to hit this high point with you. But we did spend a couple of days all day more or less, in the blind, geese in the morning, ducks in the afternoon or just break midday to go grab a lunch, and holy, I don’t remember what the name that little town was. We stopped at a Mexican restaurant. Y’all like Mexican. Yeah, I like Mexican. So we go into a Mexican restaurant and boy, I mean just real authentic Wyoming Mexicans in there. Okay. You know it really, I hadn’t experienced that kind of Mexican food outside of the deep South Texas or into Mexico, but she comes up and says today’s lunch special is tamales. Well, many people, listen, may not know this, but look, tamales, they’re like a big Mississippi thing. I know you don’t think of tamales in Mississippi but it really kind of a big deal. There’s a world champion tamale cooking contest here in the Mississippi Delta. And so maybe I’m a little bit of a tamale snob and I’m just thinking to myself, she has done back there ain’t, no way. She said si senorita, the best tamales on earth are right here. And I’m like, no way, I come from Mississippi man, that’s a big order. And I’m here to tell y’all the best hot tamales on Earth are right there in that little restaurant and we went there two days in a row, we went back.
JJ Randolph: That restaurant, they’ve been there a lot longer than I have and I’ve been there a pretty long time.
A Historical Monument in the Middle of Hunting Country
But it happened right on our land and it’s the Grant Massacre.
Ramsey Russell: Perfect context. You know, we hit that little family breakfast, the little family restaurant for breakfast, had a lot of fun. We’d go out and hunt just until we’d go eat hot tamales and then at night there were several family cafes, or there is one up on the hill, great steaks or prime rib or whatever. I mean, it just really put a full context into the whole experience about doing that. But now one afternoon we took off, we did not hunt. I think we shot our Canada goose limit that morning and because we were filming Life’s Short, Get Ducks, we had to take a break. We want to go get some payroll right here in the Wild West. So let’s drive to old Fort Laramie. We drove over to Fort Laramie and filmed a little bit of different stuff and a lot of geese. We found a big goose refuge and filmed some geese, and were coming back. And I remember coming back and as we got outside of Torrington somewhere out there, I remember what have we got to where we have been hunting, we drove right past that there was a road sign that says something about a historical marker. The next day we were hunting, and I asked you about this, I said, JJ what’s that historical marker over there? And he said, oh well it was an important event out west. The Grant Massacre, there’s a big, like a headstone. We can stop and see if you want. We did. And out there in the middle of one of y’all’s fields where you hunt, the field to the east of us. What’s this big monument? I’m going to say it’s chest high and big, big piece of granite that said Grant Massacre and the story, you told me about that. Holy cow. I am right in the middle of Dances with Wolves, Wild West shooting geese in epic proportions. Could you tell us the story again about the Grant Massacre? I mean that is where the cowboy and the Indian war started. Right freaking there, we were killing geese right there on that point. Could you tell us that story?
JJ Randolph: Yeah. And that is, so the Grant monument for this battle, where I leased that ground is right where it all happened. I’ve got a goose pit right there. In fact, every year, when we go out there to dig and put the pit in, I’ve always stepped into the dirt looking for arrowheads or something. But it happened right on our land and it’s the Grant Massacre. Now the Grant Massacre, it was the first, it was the Indian, – it’s not a battle, but whatever confrontation that started the Plains Indian wars was involved in, and Sitting Bull and Red Cloud and all ended up coming to a head at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. But this is what kicked it off, and this all happened right on the property that I at leased from. At the time there were, and don’t quote me on the date, it was like 1856 maybe, it could be pretty close on that. But at the time, right there along the North Platte River, right where we hunt, was a village of Native Americans. I’ve heard reports of anywhere from 500 to 1400 Native Americans camped right along the river. Now at that point in time, Indian affairs and everything was still pretty peaceful. There weren’t, there hadn’t been any major confrontations with the Native Americans or anything yet. And the settlers and everything are rolling through in the covered wagons. They’re going to Fort Laramie, which was a major stopover point on that trail. Going westward, they could stop there and get supplies and that kind of stuff. There was a guy in charge at Fort Laramie and his name was Graton. I can’t remember what he was the guy in charge anyway.
Ramsey Russell: Lieutenant Graton.
JJ Randolph: Lieutenant. So I guess it was some Mormon pioneers were going by and one of their cows, they got loose, wandered into the village, whatever they just kept going. There’s this cow in the village and of course the Native Americans, I mean, hey, there’s a cow, let’s eat it.
Ramsey Russell: And there’s the Mormon settlers going, I’m scared of the Indians.
JJ Randolph: And there’s the Mormons that were going, I’m not going in there to get my cow because he’s scared of the natives, right? And so they eat the cows. Now the Mormon gets to Fort Laramie, he makes it on down the river, and goes into Fort Laramie and tells Lieutenant Graton, hey, those Native Americans stole my cow. What are you going to do about it? Well, the story is Lieutenant Graton was really one of these guys who wanted to make a name for himself and show something. So he gathered up, I believe it was 27 soldiers, and they went down there to where these Indians were camped right on my goose lease there, and he goes down there. Now the guy who was in charge of the Native American village, his name is Conquering Bear. I don’t think he was a chief, but he was a village spokesman type guy. He was the guy Conquering Bear. So Conquering Bear goes up to talk to Graton. Now the story I’ve heard, I believe it probably to be true is that, one, Graton and his troops were pretty drunk. Whiskey was a big thing back then well, it still is, but it sounds like they were pretty drunk. Two, they had an interpreter with them who apparently wasn’t that good of an interpreter. Said he spoke Sioux, but as it turns out, maybe just a little bit, you know. And so they get down there and go to Conquering Bear, and Graton says, I want the Indians who were involved in eating this cow, and they’re coming with me to Fort Laramie where they will be put on trial. And Conquering Bear says, hey, buddy the cow wandered in the village, we all ate some of it. I’m not going to give you those guys responsible. I’ll give you some horses if you want, to work.
Ramsey Russell: If the white man wanted him, he would have come and got it, he obviously didn’t want it, he just left it for us to eat.
JJ Randolph: Exactly. So he says, I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you some horses if you want that. And Graton says, no that won’t do. And by gosh, he went up on the hillside, turned around with his 27 soldiers and himself, and opened fire. And the first guy they shot was Conquering Bear. Somebody, boom, shot him. They shot another Indian. So there were two Indians that were killed. Well, you got 27 guys. And like I said, the rumor I heard was either 500-1400 Native Americans in the village, and they’re being shot at, I don’t know what anybody else would have done. I think I would have done the same thing. Well they run up the hill and they wipe out Graton and all his men.
Ramsey Russell: They were under attack.
JJ Randolph: They were under. Yeah, yes. So they go up and they kill all his men. And that’s the Grant Massacre. Well, word of this gets back to Washington of course, and of course that doesn’t go over well. We can’t have Native Americans killing our guys. So this is what really kicked it off. So they got the Grant Massacre. Well now they send General Harney in. General Harney goes down to Bluewater Creek, which is also along the North Platte River, down by Lesko and Oshkosh that area. Goes to Bluewater Creek. There’s a village of Native Americans camped out there on Bluewater Creek. They had nothing to do with the Graton Massacre, by the way. But General Harney goes in and does that terrible thing that they did back then, goes in while they’re still sleeping in the tents, and just massacres the whole village, like women, children, everything.
Ramsey Russell: Went Biblical on them.
JJ Randolph: Went Biblical on them. Well, that ignited, that set off the whole fire, and have now basically started the war between the Sioux and the Cavalry. And then after that you got the Fetterman Massacre, you got, you know, the Rose, all different ones. And it all escalates at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and we know what happens there.
Ramsey Russell: Right there where your hunts take place. At that time the Sioux Nation really didn’t have an issue. And I didn’t, I never read this in a history book, but they didn’t really have an issue with all those covered wagons, settlers coming through. Little bit of cultural differences going on. They didn’t see the future. They didn’t see history coming. They had no problem. They were live and let live. There were plenty of bison and plenty of whatever they were, deer and antelope playing on the range there. And they didn’t have a problem until that misunderstanding over a lost calf wandered off into their village and it resulted in one of the biggest genocide to ever happen in America. But it just rewrote American history. That’s amazing.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, it really is.
North Platte River Conservation and Hunting Issues
I mean those cornfields, winter wheat fields and that is part of the reason that our waterfowl population these days are so strong, because of the abundance of food.
Ramsey Russell: But, you know, changing the subject. That is such a great story and Forrest and I, of course, pose with our geese right there by that. That’s a great place, a little great place to pose with limits of Canada geese. You know, to me it was. JJ, has much changed? What about are there any conservation issues or anything like that in that part of the world? Because to me there’s highway, there’s road, there’s cornfields, there’s agriculture, but so much of the landscape around there just seems so relatively unchanged compared to other parts of the United States and what it may have been back in those days. Do you see or have a personal opinion on any depending conservation issues or hunting issues in that part of the world?
JJ Randolph: Well, I’m pretty blessed in our area. You know, as far as doing anything more for conservation in our area, we don’t nest a lot of birds. We nest some Canada geese. We don’t nest a lot of ducks in Wyoming. They’re going further north, but we do nest some Canada geese. So a little more nesting habitat might help. But man, things are not a whole lot different here than they were back in the days of the Grant Massacre. I mean we’ve gotten a lot more agriculture, but that’s good for the waterfowl. I mean those cornfields, winter wheat fields and that is part of the reason that our waterfowl population these days are so strong, because of the abundance of food. And so I would say that has kind of actually maybe helped a little bit. And waterfowl counts traditionally at this point in time are pretty high. I don’t know what the exact counts were like when Lewis and Clark came through, but today’s age, I mean these are the good old days of waterfowling and really, I mean we’ve got you can choose 5 mallards and 5 Canada geese a day where I am, I mean that is that’s generous. I think that’s an excellent limit. I mean, you got it. You got four guys out there, that’s a lot of shooting. Then when you’re trying to go after both limits, and I don’t really know there’s a whole lot more in my area you could do. Conservation-wise, I’m always up for establishing more refuges. That’s the one thing I think holds birds. If you want to hold birds in your area, you’ve got to have reserves, you’ve got to have refuges. So if there were anything I personally could do, I would tie up more of the North Platte River for refuges then there is there already, and the problem you find with that is, everybody likes to hunt the river. And I understand that, I like to hunt the river too, but what you also need to understand – if you look at like the refuge on the river we’ve been talking about – if you’ve got multiple miles of the river that you can leave for reserve, you don’t ever have to hunt that river because you can hunt the fields and the ponds and whatever just off of that river and leave that river alone. And you still got, you’ll have more birds than you ever had before. So I guess that’s about all see in our area, and I’m not a biologists or conservation expert or anything, but to me, things look pretty good where I’m at.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I’ll tell you what JJ that’s a great answer really is, there’s so few places on earth that seem as wild, as natural as they used to be. And that really, to me, that really defined hunting that part of the world with you. It just was so natural, it was so well managed, and it was just kind of like stepping back into history, and I want to end on that note because it is such a strong note. Folks listening, JJ Randolph. WyoBraska Outfitters, US Hunt List, Wyoming, check it out. JJ have you got any parting shots? How can people get in touch with you?
JJ Randolph: WyoBraska Waterfowl is our website, Facebook, Instagram, all that kind of stuff firstname.lastname@example.org is our email. My phone number is 4359013825 and you can email Michael, or call me, or whatever. We’d love to get it – that’s how you can get in touch with us.
Ramsey Russell: And I know you’re fixing to go play some golf and I’m sure you’ll be getting back some of that world class trout fishing soon enough, aren’t you?
JJ Randolph: Yeah, I will, I will. You know, well hopefully the world gets up and going again here pretty soon. We can get back to hunting, and fishing, and spending time with each other.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for listening to Duck Season Somewhere. Hit me up @RandyRussellGetDucks. Check us out on Instagram social media. Please rate, share, comment on this podcast and call to enjoy it. And as always, we’d love to hear what you would like to hear in future episodes. Thank you again.