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With a combine ride for a kickoff, the Mount Blogmore Hunt returns

The 2022 Return to Mount Blogmore Hunt team
The 2022 Return to Mount Blogmore Hunt team

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

We gathered for the Mount Blogmore Hunt on Sunday. But for me at least, the process began the day before, with a cornfield and a combine. And Nick Nemec.

“I’m in the cornfield over east of Victor’s place,” Nick said by cell phone late Saturday afternoon, with a noticeable rumble in the background. “Let me know when you get here and I’ll come get you.”

That’s the way it is these days. You want a farmer? Call a farmer. You’ll probably get him by cell phone.

It’s not like it was when I was covering agriculture for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader 30 years ago. If you wanted a farmer then, you’d call a farmer — at home, on a land line, usually before 7 a.m and after 7 p.m.

Otherwise, those guys were on the combine or tractor or in the pickup somewhere, bouncing from chore to chore, without a phone.

It’s much easier reach a farmer these days. So I had no trouble reaching Nick while I was sitting in my sister-in-law’s living room in Highmore and Nick was combining corn a few miles north of Holabird.

Turned out Nick didn’t have to come get me when I arrived at the north end of the cornfield over east of his brother Victor’s place. Nick was at the south end of the field when I sent him a text. But Nick’s son-in-law, Dan Powell, who is part of the family farming-and-ranching operation, was nearby operating a tractor and grain trailer to haul corn from the combine. And Dan picked me up and gave me a lift to meet Nick.

Then we went for a ride. And what a ride it was for a guy who hadn’t been on a combine in actual operation for, oh, 30 or 40 years.

Nick Nemec takes me for a combine ride
Nick Nemec takes me for a combine ride

Just like phones, combines have changed a bit. Quite a bit.

The New Holland was a smooth-running grain eater, sucking up stalks of corn as Nick kept his right hand on a control stick decorated with multiple buttons while monitoring a computer screen offering more information than I could comprehend.

“What you see here is only a fraction of what it can do,” Nick said, nodding at the screen.

What I saw was plenty, including reporting on the speed, height of combine header, estimated yield in bushels per acre at the time, GPS map of the field showing higher-and-lower-yield areas and the location of lake beds.

The screen didn’t show the rooster pheasants we saw scurrying away between rows of corn ahead of us. But I suppose that’s coming.

“For the computer nerds, it’ll also tell you things like which satellite the GPS system is using,” Nick said.

More practically, the onboard computer also tells you when there’s an issue at play with the combine. And soon after I climbed up the ladder and settled into the jump seat next to Nick, a the computer screen warned that the air filter on the combine was filling up with dirt and debris and needed to be cleaned out.

What, a ring bearer? “No! I’m going to be a farmer!”

Easy enough. Nick stopped the combine, went around to the back and climbed the ladder up onto the back of the machine, pulled out the large, tube-shaped filter and used a compressor and air hose — an optional accessory included on the combine — to blow the filter clean.

Then we were back combining corn, which is about the most enjoyable work experience Nick can have.

“You still like doing this?” I asked, knowing what the answer would be.

“Yes, I do,” he said, smiling.

Nick has been a farmer all his life, save the two years at West Point, the time after that getting his degree at USD and the four years after that in the U.S. Marines Corps. He has raised cattle, too. And cattle are still an important part of the operation, though his son-in-law Derek McCloud handles that.

“He’s better than I am with cattle,” Nick said. “He’s good at it. And he likes it.”

And that’s just fine with Nick, who handled the cattle just fine. But farming has been his love. Always.

“When I was little, I don’t know, how old you are when you’re a ring bearer, three or four, five? I got really upset when they told me I was going to be a ring bearer,” Nick said as he completed a strip of rows and wheeled the combine around to head back the other way. “And I was really upset about that. I said, “No! I’m going to be a farmer!”

Just in case anybody thought he should have a career as a ring bearer instead.

And for a guy who loves to farm, harvest time is the best time. The very best. There isn’t much that could get him off that combine in dry weather with good harvest conditions. Weather like we had Sunday. Perfect harvest weather.

Yet, Nick stayed away from the combine on Sunday, the day after our ride, to join his wife, Mary Jo, in hosting the Mount Blogmore Hunt.

This from a guy who, like his dad, never paid much attention to hunting, even during the fabled opening day of pheasant season.

“I’d be out working someplace and hear all these shots in the distance,” Nick said. “And I’d stop and think, ‘Oh, it must be hunting season.’”

Why a guy who loves the harvest would leave the combine for a day

So why would a guy who didn’t grow up hunting and never caught the hunt fever give up something he loved — combining corn, in ideal conditions — to go hunting for a day? Well, he’s a nice guy. And he made a commitment to the Blogmore Hunt in 2007, when the two of us planted the idea for the hunt while engaging with others on a political blog called Mount Blogmore.

The brainchild of Bill Harlan, my former colleague in the Rapid City Journal newsroom, Mount Blogmore was created on the Journal website in 2004. Its main mission initially was to cover that busy election season, highlighted by the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Tom Daschle and Republican challenger John Thune.

But Mount Blogmore would live on beyond that campaign.

Harlan recruited Journal political reporter Denise Ross to help him moderate the blog. And they recruited me, perhaps the least-tech-savvy reporter in the newsroom, to join them.

Turned out Mount Blogmore was a success. And it was crazy busy with page views and comments — sometimes dozens and even hundreds of them — on blog topics we determined and moderated.

Not all of the comments were friendly. Some were nasty. Some exchanges were bitter and full of personal attacks. We tried to limit those as best we could, and looked for ways to help us do that.

Nick was a regular commenter on Blogmore back then. I’d known him from his term in the state Legislature a decade earlier. I also knew him because he and my wife, Mary, were high-school classmates in Highmore.

Nick and I got to talking sometime in the summer of 2007 and came up with an idea: Let’s bring some of the people fighting on Mount Blogmore together at his place, for a pheasant hunt.

Because we were using the Mount Blogmore name for the hunt, I told my editor. His reaction was something like: “You want to put a bunch of people who hate each other in a field with loaded guns?”

From the first hunt on, conflicts were lost amidst flushing pheasants

That’s exactly what we wanted to do, I said, although I didn’t know if anyone actually hated anyone else, or if they just acted that way on the blog. Either way, I put together an invitation list that included state political bloggers, political science teachers, journalists, wildlife folks and politicians and started making calls and sending emails.

I called it the Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt. The “and Charitable Chili Feed” would come later.

On a Sunday early in the 2007 pheasant season, we had a good group of hunters and some non-hunters there to hunt and walk and watch and talk and eat some of Mary Jo’s chili. They included Tony Dean, the silver-throated radio and TV personalty who covered South Dakota’s outdoors for decades.

Tony, who was known for his fetching “aw, shucks, folks” style as a broadcaster, had been warring on social media with a conservative blogger from Mitchell named Steve Sibson. Tony liked to say that he had good friends and good foes and he was proud to have earned both.

Tony Dean with Lee Schoenbeck and his yellow Labradors at the first Mount Blogmore Hunt
Kevin Woster
Tony Dean with Lee Schoenbeck and his yellow Labradors at the first Mount Blogmore Hunt

Sibson was definitely one of Tony’s foes. But the two of them were a perfect example of what we hoped the Blogmore Hunt could do. They avoided pitched political exchanges that day, talked mostly about pheasant hunting. By the time the hunt was finished and the chili was on the table they were photographed together — I think by me — arm in arm, smiling at the camera.

I ran that picture on a story on the hunt I did for Mount Blogmore. I wish I had it today. I wish I could call up the story on the Mount Blogmore today. But when my wife and I left the Journal under less than happy terms in August of 2013, Mount Blogmore was erased, along with another blog on outdoor recreation that I had moderated on the Journal website called Take it Outside.

So we have just those fond memories of Tony and that first Blogmore Hunt, and a couple of pictures from the hunt. Tony made it to just that one. He died a few days before the second hunt a year later. But he is never forgotten, especially during the Blogmore Hunt.

And the spirit that Tony and others showed — of reconciliation, of setting political differences aside for at least a day, of gathering to celebrate a South Dakota hunting tradition — during that first Blogmore Hunt is remembered and lived during every hunt.

After Mount Blogmore was erased, Nick Nemec suggested a new name for the hunt: Requiem to Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt & Charitable Chili Feed.

That seemed right. And I used it for years. But this year we came up with another amendment to the name: Return to the Mount Blogmore Invitational Pheasant Hunt & Charitable Chili Feed. The charitable part, by the way, began that first year, when people dropped money into a hat at Nick’s. And he gave it to a local charity.

Missing the Mount Blogmore Hunt for three years in a row

We have done that every year at the hunt, which we held from 2007 through 2018. Then we had a three-year hiatus.

First, Nick lost his mother.

Then there was COVID.

Then there was me.

Nick’s mom, Barbara, died at age 86 on Oct. 19, 2019, four days before the scheduled Blogmore Hunt. Obviously, Nick had matters of the heart and the family to deal with. So we canceled.

The next year COVID cases were just getting really serious in South Dakota. There were no vaccines, no boosters and no available treatments. So we canceled.

Then in 2021, I was dealing with an assortment of undefined physical ailments that sent me all through the Rapid City medical community and on to the Mayo Clinic. It kept me out of the field for the entire 2021 hunting season. So we canceled.

Because of all that, this return to a hunt that is about so much more than dead birds was especially gratifying, to me and I think to those who attended. It was especially beautiful, too, with blue skies, temperatures in the 60s and a South Dakota breeze so light we had to stop and discuss which way it was blowing before hunting a shelterbelt or creek bottom or cattail slough.

Larry Mayes, Bob Mercer, Terry Mayes ride the tailgate
Kevin Woster
Larry Mayes, Bob Mercer, Terry Mayes ride the tailgate

There are always enough birds at the Nemec place to make the hunt exciting. This year was no exception.

This year’s group, a good one as usual, included:

Former Game, Fish & Parks Secretary John Cooper; former GF&P assistant wildlife director George Vandel; Congressman Dusty Johnson, who couldn’t stay long enough for the chili and group shot; retired Highway Patrol Captain Terry Mayes and his twin brother Larry, a retired Air Force colonel; author/journalist and former NBC News producer Sam Hurst; long-time capital news reporter Bob Mercer, now of Keloland News; South Dakota Searchlight reporter Joshua Haiar; retired conservation officer/habitat manager Jack Freidel; SD Newspaper Association Executive Director Dave Bordewyk; and lobbyist/political consultant and photographer Jeremiah Murphy.

The 2022 Return to Mount Blogmore Hunt team
Kevin Woster
The 2022 Return to Mount Blogmore Hunt team

My brother-in-law, Bret, also had a couple of friends join us for part of the hunt and for Mary Jo’s delicious chili and apple crisp (made with apples from a tree nearby) with ice cream.

George Vandel and his German wirehair Thena with a rooster
Kevin Woster
George Vandel and his German wirehair Thena with a rooster

I think we ended up shooting 14 roosters. We could have had a few more with better shooting, although we did OK. We also could have had more if we’d hunted more.

I mean, actually hunted.

If you figure it out — as Larry and Terry Mayes did — we spent about 2 1/2 hours hunting pheasants.

Golly, folks, it was a day that Tony Dean would have loved

The rest of the day was spent talking and eating donuts (the Wall Drug spelling for the Wall Drug kind) and drinking coffee or tea, before the hunt. Then we stopped, as we always do, periodically during the hunt to water the dogs and ourselves, to praise and prod and evaluate each other’s shooting and, for some of us, to eat another half of a Wall Drug donut, or two.

During breaks in the hunt, tall tales are told
Kevin Woster
During breaks in the hunt, tall tales are told

Then we quit hunting several hours before legal shooting hours end at sundown, as we always do. That gives us plenty of time for the chili and the chatter, to thank Nick and Mary Jo, and for people to make the drive home.

“Based on the birds we shot for the time we hunted, if we’d hunted a full day, we’d have gotten our limit,” Terry Mayes said Tuesday morning, as he and Larry and I sat and considered the hunt over cups of steaming chai tea at a downtown Rapid City bistro.

We agreed that it as another great Mount Blogmore Hunt, made all the better because we had missed it for three previous years.

Terry and Larry and I are pretty good examples of what the hunt is all about. They’re pretty conservative. And I’m, well, not.

John Cooper talks wildlife with Congressman Dusty Johnson
Kevin Woster
John Cooper talks wildlife with Congressman Dusty Johnson

Yet we meet for chai tea almost every week, to agree and not agree, politely, on points of politics, to talk hunting and fishing, history and religion, local and state government and the state of the world.

And once a year, we gather at the Nemec farm with other carefully chosen guests of diverse political experiences and personal lives, to share a common love and a powerful outdoor bond.

And the pheasants we actually bag? Well, as Tony Dean might say, “Aw shucks, folks, they’re just a bonus.”

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.