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The Reservation Experience

After more than 1,500 miles and 20-plus hours of driving, Wade Atchley suddenly felt right at home.

With his first Merriam’s gobbler in the truck bed nearby, Atchley gazed at a golden sunset over miles of timbered creek beds and rolling hillsides on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. And when a friend coyote-howled into the evening, a half-dozen longbeards hammered back, promising an equally exciting hunt the next morning.

Months earlier, that scenario seemed like a pipe dream. But thanks to incredible turkey hunting opportunities on American Indian reservations, Atchley — like many turkey nuts — had realized the trip of a lifetime without emptying his pocketbook.

The Reservation Difference

Turkey hunting on tribal land is no secret, of course, as every gobbler nut probably knows someone who has pursued Merriam’s on a Western reservation. However, as more turkey hunters seek new and exotic locales, reservation hunts are becoming increasingly attractive.

And why not? Tribal turkey seasons are generally liberal, tribes are eager to attract hunter dollars, and reservations encompass some of the most awe-inspiring wild land left in America. In addition, if you’re seeking an “exotic” subspecies for your grand slam — including Osceolas — reservations offer great opportunities at very competitive prices.

There are about 310 American Indian reservations in the United States, all of which are managed by tribes under the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Reservations are distributed throughout the country, but many of the largest and most well-known reservations are in the West. Some are vast, and 12 even cover more land than Rhode Island.

Not all reservations offer turkey hunting. Some don’t have high turkey populations, and others limit hunting to tribal members. However, tribes that allow turkey hunting generally provide tremendous flexibility. Reservations are federal territories, but tribes have limited national sovereignty, so they establish their own hunting structures — including season dates, bag limits, legal methods and licensing fees — for most species, including turkeys.

For example, North Dakota doesn’t allow nonresident spring turkey hunting. However, a traveling hunter can still kill a North Dakota bird on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, part of which extends into North Dakota. The same goes for season dates. In Spring 2008, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in southern South Dakota ran its spring turkey season April 5 through May 11, but South Dakota set the state season from April 12 through May 18.

Because reservations are sovereign territories, you must purchase a unique license to hunt them. That is, state licenses and permits do not apply to reservations, and tribal hunting licences are limited to tribal lands. That opens your options, especially if your definition of a successful trip is the opportunity to kill multiple birds. A hunter could purchase a Black Hills tag in South Dakota, for example, and then buy a separate license to hunt the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Killing birds in each area is legal, as the reservation turkey does not count against your state tag or possession limit.

Of course, you can’t just show up at a tribal office and start yelping. Like any other adventure, reservation turkey hunts require special planning and preparation.

Reservation Considerations

When considering a reservation hunt, you’ll first need to contact the tribal office to learn season dates and fees, and hopefully to obtain a map of huntable lands. A quick Google search will usually lead you to tribal Web pages, and you can navigate from there. The request for information might take longer than a similar query of a state agency. Tribes welcome hunters, of course, but their offices might not be as well-staffed as that of a state conservation department.

After you determine the seasons and protocol for purchasing a license, it’s extremely important that you know where you can and cannot hunt. Generally, tribes allow hunting on most tribal land. However, many reservations contain leased or privately owned land you cannot hunt. You must obtain a map that shows property boundaries.

Likewise, because of their size and remote locations, reservations can be intimidating to hunt. After all, you don’t know where the turkeys are. If possible, talk to a tribal wildlife official to get some good starting points or general ideas about turkey location or preferences. Trust me, even if you’re armed only with the name of a creek or canyon, it’s far better than looking for a stand of cottonwoods on a never-ending section of prairie.

Most reservations have fairly liberal turkey regulations, but some require hunters to follow special rules, including hiring a tribal guide for your hunt. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, a life-long reservation resident will likely have a pretty good idea about where turkeys hang out, and you might make a new friend in the process.

The last mini-hurdle in reservation hunting can be finding lodging. As mentioned, most reservations are in very remote areas, and the nearest roadside motel might be an hour’s drive or longer from your hunting area. Thankfully, many reservations feature a common modern element: a hotel/casino.

Even if you’re not a gambler, you’ll appreciate a centrally located facility with a clean room and hot food after a long turkey hunt. If a tribe has a casino, you’ll certainly see it mentioned prominently on its Web page.

If casinos aren’t your thing, ask tribal officials about folks who might rent a room or house to nonresident hunters. It might take a year or two to establish such connections, but when you do, they can be gold.

Getting Down to Hunting

I won’t lie to you. Turkey hunting on many reservations is generally easier than a Saturday morning at your local wildlife area. The reason is simple: low hunting pressure. Many reservations feature incredible numbers of turkey numbers, yet residents don’t pursue them seriously. And because birds haven’t been bumped, boogered, spooked and shot at week after week, they generally “act right” more consistently than turkeys elsewhere.

However, they are not pushovers, and you should not underestimate them. Move at the wrong time, and they will flee. Choose the wrong gully, and birds will bypass you. Try to yelp in a henned-up gobbler, and you can waste your entire morning. In short, they are still turkeys.

As such, hunt them as you would anywhere else. Figure out where they roost, where they like to hang out and how to intercept them. Call intelligently, and don’t fall in love with your own yelping. Cutt and run if birds are responsive, or sit and wait at likely spots if they’re quiet.

If anything, you can probably afford to be a bit more aggressive than usual when hunting reservations. In areas with substantial turkey numbers, mistakes won’t hurt you as much, because you can usually go find another bird. However, as mentioned, many of the most popular reservations are in the wide-open West, where turkeys can pick you out a mile away. Be smart.

Here’s a final consideration. Reservations can be relatively devoid of roads, so you might have to walk a lot in rugged terrain. Try to get in shape before your trip. When hunting, make wise choices about which distant birds to pursue and which to forgo. There might be a closer one down the road.

Further, because reservations are massive, and the landscape looks the same, it’s very easy to get lost. Carry a compass and global positioning unit, and try to hunt near recognizable areas and trace your steps as you pursue birds.

No Reservations Here

After his great afternoon hunt at Pine Ridge, Atchley and his companions — including me — had a turkey hunt for the ages the next morning. Hunting with grand-slam guru Jeff Budz, we shot five white-fanned Merriam’s gobblers by 8 a.m. and then took pictures on a snow-dotted ridge.

With that, Atchley and his buddy started their 20-hour drive home, and I pointed my truck east for 11-plus hours. But trust me, with the memories of hard-gobbling Pine Ridge bird fresh in my throbbing brain, it was all worth it. The hunt had more than delivered on its promise — so much that I can’t wait for the next opportunity to hunt America’s Indian reservations.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For information on Brian Lovett’s latest book, Hunting Pressured Turkeys, contact him at bl_lovett@hotmail.com.

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