As you regulars know, I usually put up the story of our annual Black Hills hunt. Typically we hunt later in May but this year opening weekend was really the only one that would work for us. It was a great trip as usual. Those of you who have seen these before know they tend to be long, those of you who haven't, consider yourselves warned
SD Black Hills 2014
Well I just got home from my annual trip out to the hills, as usual the time went all too quickly. While I’m out there it’s always a blur of sun, wind, rain, and snow; towering ponderosas and long climbs up steep ridges; growing suspicions that turkeys are mythological creatures interrupted by sudden gobbles in alarmingly close proximity. All of this separated by increasingly short periods of rest, refueling, celebration (occasionally) and sleep (usually insufficient). Needless to say, the 5 days of Black Hills Week are my favorite of the year.
The alarm goes off at 4:30 AM, although I’ve been laying awake for at least a half hour waiting: it might get 2 full rings out before I mash the off button and jump out of bed. My gear is all sitting in the front hallway, arranged and packed the night before. I load it into the truck, feed the pets, and am on the road at ten minutes to 5 AM. I make good time, hitting Mankato before the sun is fully up and stopping for gas in Sioux Falls a little after 9 AM. A quick stop at Cabelas in Mitchell to pick up a replacement stake for the decoy I insist on carrying around (it’s rarely deployed, even more rarely actually seen by a bird; but for some reason I just don’t feel right without it slung over my shoulder in a carrying bag), and I’m off again headed for Rapid City. It’s a clear, sunny day, always my favorite for making this drive as the scenery is excellent.
(40 miles to go and you can start to see them...)
About 10 hours after I left home in Minneapolis I pull into my good friend Jack’s driveway in Rapid City. Jack arrives home from work a short time later, and within the hour our gear is loaded into Jack’s truck and we’re on our way north. We have decided to open the season hunting from Jack’s parent’s place near Spearfish as the forecast calls for snow on Sunday and accumulations are always greater in the northern hills. The plan is to hunt some familiar areas in the north Saturday and Sunday morning, and head south after the snow hits. We swing into Crow Peak Brewery in Spearfish and round up the third of our 3 amigos team. Our friend Mike drove over from Pierre to join us on the hunt. After stealing a page out of Mark Strand’s playbook and having a round of Victory beers (before the season has even opened, no less) we head up into the hills to Jack’s parent’s place to unload our gear and hopefully put a couple gobblers to bed. Unfortunately the wind has come up quite a bit and conditions are less than ideal for roosting birds. After splitting up to cover different areas Mike is the only one to hear a bird gobble on the roost, but we know the area well and already have a good idea of where we’ll be the next morning.
We’re all up at 4:30 and moving around the house getting ready. Pat, another friend of Jack’s family who has hunted with us before is bringing his son over to join us for opening morning. We’ve decided to split into two groups. Mike and I will head over to a ridgeline a few miles away where we have had success in the past, while Jack,Pat, and his son will listen from the house and make a move from there. Mike and I head out and park the truck at the gate of an old logging road running down the top of the ridgeline towards the foothills and start walking. We’re making for a clearing about a quarter mile down the logging road and reach it just as it is starting to get light out. On the walk in we are startled by a pair of mallards flushing from the grass near the road edge. What they are doing in the middle of a ponderosa pine ridge at 5,000 ft, in the dark, is beyond me. We reach the clearing after 15 minutes and stand still listening. It is a clear, still morning, perfect for hearing gobbles. Sure enough, there are a few birds gobbling further down an adjacent ridge towards the foothills. After 20 minutes of listening and with nothing closer gobbling, Mike and I start making our way down the logging road towards the end of the ridge.
After about an hour we have covered the three quarter mile to the edge of the foothills where the national forest land stops. We sit and call in the area for about 45 minutes and receive a few distant gobbles from the adjoining ridgeline, probably the same birds we heard that morning. Some gobbler yelps produce an answering series of gobbler yelping from the canyon behind us, but after no further responses after a half hour we decide to work our way back towards the truck. The walk back is uneventful and we meet the others back at the house a little before 9AM. They had heard one bird reasonably close enough to make a move on but he had quit gobbling while en route and they couldn’t get him started again.
(It's a great place to chase birds)
We made a plan to head over to a fairly popular area about 30 minutes away where Jack and Pat had been successful in the past and hunt the late morning/early afternoon period. By now the wind was starting to pick up and it was getting difficult to hear on the ridge tops. We parked the truck near the junction of three gated logging roads. Almost immediately after Jack, Mike, and I were past the gate we started seeing turkey sign, some of it very fresh. There were definitely birds using the area. After an uneventful 45 minutes of walking and calling we had worked our way down to the more broken area of meadows, scrub oak, and patches of ponderosas that mark the upper edge of the foothills. Jack and I wanted to head a little ways further and throw some calls down a few of the ravines that led down to the lower foothills, but Mike decided to stay and set up where the logging road ran through a small meadow and wait for us to come back. Telling him we wouldn’t be long Jack and I head up over the ridge and started down towards the ravines. Every now and then we would hear some yelping from Mike’s box call above the wind.
After calling down a couple ravines Jack thought he heard a hen answer our calling so we set up quick and spent 20 minutes calling without much effect. By now it was pretty windy and difficult to hear so we checked out the last few ravines and made our way back around to Mike. It had been about 40 minutes since we left him, and Jack texted him that we were coming back. We saw his decoy in the road a couple hundred yards away, so I whistled and we saw him come out of the woods. As we got closer I could tell something was up with Mike. He looked kind of agitated and he was a bit wide eyed. “Boy I could have used your help,” he said, “there were two gobbling RIGHT THERE”, and pointed to the woods at the edge of the clearing. Jack and I thought he was joking, we hadn’t heard a thing except him yelping, but Mike insisted. We walked over to the edge of the woods and yelped. Off in the distance two birds gobbled. It sounded like they were headed back towards where we had parked the truck.
We hot-footed it back the way we had come in, but after a short time the birds stopped responding as we had to follow the road in a circle around a canyon. We got into the area that we thought they had been headed towards, and set up at the junction of a logging road and a smaller trail with quite a bit of turkey sign. We had just settled in and I was just about to run the first series of calls when BOOM, BOOM……….BOOM: Three rifle shots, around the corner on the other side of the ridge but more than a bit too close for comfort. We sat silent for a minute and I heard an engine rev up then come to a stop. We packed up, and talking loudly walked around the corner on the road back towards where we had come in. Maybe 70 yards around the corner a 4-wheeler was parked on the side of the road with a rifle case in-front of it. The road was gated and supposed to be closed to motor vehicles, he must have gotten in through a back trail, and enforcement of non-motorized trails out there often leaves something to be desired. After walking past the wheeler we looked down in the valley and saw a man and a boy kneeling over a dead gobbler about 150 yards away. Rifles are legal for turkey in SD, although this was the first time I had ever seen someone use one in the hills. We suspected he had shot the bird while sitting on the wheeler, which is not legal, since we had heard it move after the shot. However, we hadn’t actually seen him do it, and without any proof there wasn’t much point in making the accusation. We checked to make sure he only had one bird (SD residents can get 2 hills tags, but the second can’t be used until May 1st) with binocs, and after confirming it was just the one, stood and watched them.
After standing and looking at them for a few minutes we moved off down the road towards the entrance where we had parked the truck. We took the other road and followed it up onto an adjoining ridge top. By now the wind was earning its South Dakota reputation and the sky had clouded up to match our mood. We spent an uneventful hour walking and calling along that road until it ended in a meadow at the end of the ridge. Here, an unspoken break was simultaneously called and we all sat or lay down in the grass.
(Brooding on the ridge top)
We sat together in the same ridge top clearing, but each in our own little world, with a hundred different scenarios running through our minds (with gobblers, rifles, and 4-wheelers figuring prominently in all of them). Jack broke the silence, “I don’t think I’ll ever use a jake decoy in the Hills again”. Mike and I grunted our agreement.
After sitting a bit we got up, and started back down towards the truck. We didn’t talk much and rarely stopped to call on the way back. As we approached the crossroads near the turn to our truck we were surprised (but not really) to see another truck sitting there with two guys leaning out the windows running box calls. There must have been an open gate down in the valley at the end of the third road. We grumbled past them, made our way down the hill and past the gate and loaded up in our truck. By now it was past 3:30. We decide to try a spot in the foothills near the road that leads up towards Jack’s parent’s house that we had never hunted but looked promising. As we get close we are excited to get out there and cover some new ground. When we see the two trucks already in the parking area all the air goes out of the truck cab again. We slow down and drive past in silence. “Let’s just head back to the house and try and roost something tonight”, someone says quietly. The others mumble there agreement. We know the forecast calls for rain turning to snow by late evening, and judging by the drips on the windshield it’s just getting started.
Turkey hunting is as much if not more of a mental activity as it is physical. At all costs one must avoid thinking too deeply about the reality of the situation. Confidence, focus, and the unwavering belief that yes, this ridge may not have seen the bottom of a turkey’s foot in 50 years, but by god that next one over there is just CRAWLING with the damn things are the creed you have to live by. Pessimists, in my experience, make lousy turkey hunters. Every trip has its ups and downs, highs and lows. The silver lining is that by definition after every low must come a high, or it wouldn’t really be a low, would it? See what I mean about the pessimists? We were pissed off at the rifle, frustrated by the motorized vehicles, second guessing our decision to not sit with Mike, and discouraged by the general direction the weather was taking. In short, we were in a low. To be honest one of the lowest lows I’ve been in for awhile. Maybe ever.
Ten minutes from Jack’s parent’s house we see a turkey slink across the road ahead of us, quickly followed by another. We slow down and see a hen slowly disappearing up the ridge, completely ignoring the gobbler she has in tow. The truck sits still in the road for a few seconds as we watch them. The water beads build on the windshield before the wipers whisk them away. “What the hell”, someone says, “we aren’t gonna kill one at the house”. We drive 300 yards around the corner and Jack and I jump out. We scramble up the side of the ridge, trying to burn away our frustration with pure physical effort and soon stand on the crest gasping for breath. I pop in a mouth call and run out an excited series of yelps and cutts. Nothing. Silence. I pull out a box call, yelp, and am again answered with silence. Out of frustration I hit the mouth call again. Loud, angry yelps and cutts. Finally, a gobble. Not to our left along the ridge where we expect the gobbler to be, but in front of us. Down the ridge, across a ravine, up and down a shorter ridge, across another ravine, and on a taller ridge behind it. I look at Jack and he shrugs back at me. I yelp, and again the bird gobbles. He is a long ways off, and the ravine between our ridge and the next looks nasty. Full of brush and slash from the last thinning of the pines. We wait two more minutes. We’re desperate for just one gobble from the bird on our ridge. I’m giving him every opportunity to change his mind. I call again and the bird two ridges away double gobbles back. We sigh, and start climbing down into the ravine.
It’s slow going. The brush is thick, the ground is slippery from the rain and littered with dead branches. As we start making our way up the opposite ridge I look back behind us. The ridge we came from is pretty open, recently thinned like this one, and coming further and further into view with each step upwards we take. Halfway up the ridge I glance back and see a couple of black stumps on the top of the ridge we left. Lost in thought I keep climbing, trying to work out the best way to get to this gobbling bird. A hiss from Jack stops me dead in my tracks, “Bird. Two birds. Back behind us”. I slowly turn my head and look back. There across the ravine on our original ridge, 200 yards away and maybe 50 yards from where we stood calling, stand two gobblers.
They’re both staring right at us. Jack and I are standing fully upright, with nothing but brush and cut pines lying all around. We just stand there, staring at the birds, the birds staring straight back at us, and all four of us getting rained on. I couldn’t move. Not just because the birds would see, I literally couldn’t bring myself to move. The events of the day had reduced my brain to a stalled outboard engine. You pump the primer, open the choke, but she just won’t turn over. I didn’t know what to do. Jack didn’t know what to do. Apparently the birds didn’t know what to do either; so we all just stood there and stared at each other in the rain; 200 yards across this steep, muddy, crappy, brush filled ravine for what seemed like days. I was seconds away from saying the hell with it, turning around and continuing to climb the ridge to the long distance gobbler, when for some reason I decided to yelp. I don’t know why. I never yelp at a bird when he’s staring right at me in the wide open, but I had the call in my mouth and some yelps just came out.
They both gobbled. They hadn’t gobbled the entire time we were standing on that ridge calling, but now, after busting us climbing in the wide open, staring for 5 minutes and apparently deciding that we might not be the best looking hens they’d ever seen, but we certainly were available, they gobbled their fool heads off. The engine coughed and sputtered into life. I yelped again and they gobbled again. The long distance bird gobbled and they gobbled back at him. A bird started yelping somewhere off behind us and they gobbled at that. They started to walk back and forth on their side gobbling, and this gave us the chance to slowly sit down when they would pass behind the few remaining trees. Through whispers at 10 yards Jack and I came up with a plan. We were going to let them (hopefully) wander off over the crest of the ridge. As soon as they were out of sight I would slip back down into the ravine, pull a flanking maneuver, and get back up on top of the ridge with them. Jack pointed out two of us trying to make the move would be twice as likely to get busted so he would stay where he was and try and keep an eye on the birds.
Sometime during our scheming one of the birds had gone silent and wandered off, but the other was still walking around clearly visible on the ridge top, gobbling on his own every couple of minutes. Finally, he went behind a larger tree and I was able to slip down the 10 yards I needed to be hidden from him by the crest of the ridge. Here I was able to crawl, crouch, and pick my way down the slope as quickly as I could. I was finally thankful for the rain, as I’m sure I would have made a racket coming through all that dead brush and pine if it had been dry. In the bottom of the ravine there was a deer trail, I turned and followed this to my left about 100 yards to get around the bird and put some cover between us so I could get up on his level. He had been gobbling pretty regularly up to this point, allowing me to keep tabs on his location but now he went silent. I climbed halfway up the ridge and waited. I needed him to gobble, so I didn’t pop up too close and bust him, but he wasn’t feeling like being helpful. As I was thinking this I heard Jack yelp from back across the ravine.
The bird gobbled, close, on the ridge top and maybe 50 yards off to my right. Jack would tell me later he could see the bird and I both moving straight towards each other and figured he’d better do something if he didn’t want to watch me bust him. I moved up within 15 yards of the crest, crouched down leaning against the ridge side. There was no real cover but I didn’t have time to find a better spot. I made some soft yelps and he gobbled just over the crest of the ridge. I yelped back once more and got ready. The second best moment in turkey hunting began. You know he’s close, he’s coming, and you should see him any moment. Hopefully you guess right and your gun barrel is pointed in the right direction.
I guessed right. I was scanning the crest with my eyes, straining for any sound of footsteps when I saw a flicker of movement just to the left of my gun barrel. There was his head, stretching to peek over the crest. He took another step forward, twisted his neck to stare down at me with one eye like they always do, and froze. I made sure to enjoy the single best moment in turkey hunting, and then put an end to it. He went down and I went up top to stop him flopping down the side of the ridge through all the brush and fallen trees. Jack gave me a thumbs up as he walked up through the ravine and soon I heard Mike yell and looked up to see him walking down the ridge: he had heard the shot. I tagged him and carried him down to the truck. We climbed in and headed back to the house.
That night eating the last of the fall turkey and watching gopher mens hockey lose the national championship, we looked out the windows and watched the snow falling down. It didn’t matter. We needed that bird.
(Pictures had to wait until Monday because of the rain/snow)
We woke up to temps in the 20’s and about 4” of sloppy wet snow on the ground. We decided to head back to where I had killed the bird the evening before as we knew there were at least two other gobblers in the area. After getting in we heard some birds gobbling down below the national forest boundary on some private land, so we got as close as we could and attempted to call them over to us. There was some gobbling on the roost, and it sounded like a pretty good rumble at fly-down from all the fighting purrs and wing flapping going on. The birds would respond to gobbler yelps, but did not seem inclined to move towards us and eventually faded away. They mostly ignored any hen sounds. We decided to head down into town for breakfast, then back up to the house to pack up and move operations south to the central hills. We stopped and hunted an area that has traditionally been good on our way back to the house but an hour there turned up nothing except another inch of snow on top of what had been on the ground that morning. We climbed back in the truck and headed south. By the time we hit Sturgis the snow was noticeably less, and in Rapid City there was a dusting, if anything on the ground.
We spent the rest of the day hunting around the central hills trying to get a handle on what the birds were up to this far south. We saw plenty of turkeys, and heard some gobbles. Unfortunately almost all of them were still in their winter flocks and sitting in people’s front yards or other inaccessible areas. The winds picked up throughout the day, and were supposed to be sustained around 30 mph for Monday. Since I had filled my tag, and both Jack and Mike are South Dakota residents with 6 weeks left to fill theirs, we decided to sleep in the following morning. We head back in to Rapid and end up talking and BS’ing late into the night.
We slept in until 9 AM and woke up to sunny skies, but temps in the upper 20’s and winds gusting to 30+ mph. Mike and Jack wanted to do a little fishing today, but first we took some pictures with the bird from Saturday. Fishing was pretty good, Mike and Jack had their flyrods, and I borrowed a spinning rod from Jack. There was a large midge hatch going on, and the fish were definitely keyed in on the drifting emergence. I managed to scrape out three browns in a couple hours with spinners, but Mike and Jack each landed a couple dozen apiece, even with the wind making casting difficult. Jack had to leave around 1:00 pm to make it to a Dr.’s appointment with his wife (they are expecting their first child), so Mike and I decided to get back out after some birds for the afternoon.
We headed to one of the areas we had hunted the day before in the central hills where we had seen a good amount of fresh sign. On the drive we saw several large flocks of turkeys strutting around houses and in front yards, the birds were out. By now the wind was starting to die down some, and we spent a couple of hours walking some new territory. There was sign around and the country looked perfect, but we never made contact with any birds. Late in the afternoon we were walking along the top of a tall, very steep ridge when two birds gobbled in response to a string of yelps. They were further along the ridge and down in the canyon. We moved further down the ridge to try and close the distance. They gobbled at us a few more times, but as we neared the end of the ridge we could get a good view down into the canyon where the birds were gobbling from. Sure enough, there were mowed lawns and houses visible through the trees: yard birds again! We called to them for awhile and they seemed mildly interested, but it was pretty obvious we weren’t going to be able to pull them away from the houses, so frustrated; we walked back to the truck. The wind had almost completely died by now and since it was about an hour before roosting time we decided to try and locate a bird to have a crack at in the morning. Mike and I both would be leaving the next morning and we wanted to try and get on one more bird before heading out.
On our way to our listening spot we called Jack and asked him if he would mind checking another spot where we have found birds in the past. Jack said sure, so we would not be putting all our eggs in one basket. This turned out to be a good thing. Mike and I heard one bird on the roost where we listened. It was a calm evening, and we were on a very high ridgetop. We should have been able to hear any bird gobbling within a mile or two, but the only one going was a couple ridges away across a deep canyon. He probably gobbled a dozen times on his own so after listening for 20 minutes we figured out where he had to be on the map and drove over to check him out. Sure enough, as soon as we got into the general area we were surrounded by cabins and no hunting signs. Discouraged yet again, we climbed in the truck and headed back to Jack’s house.
Jack had heard one bird gobbling on the piece of ground he had scouted. He figured the bird was roosted over the property line, but was close enough where we had a realistic chance of pulling him over to us. The morning was supposed to be nice, with light winds and warming into the 50’s during the day. So, for the first night of the trip we went to bed with an actual plan and a located bird to target in the morning.
We were up at 4:30 again, and it was chilly out. The truck said 19 degrees when we climbed in just before 5. The stars were out and the full moon was so bright I was a little worried about us getting into position unseen, even before it started lighting up in the eastern sky. Luckily, there was little wind. We drove up into the hills and reached our spot still in the dark. As soon as we got out of the truck we noticed the wind had really picked up. Before long it was gusting at 15 to 20 mph: so much for a calm morning. We made our way along the ridge top silently cursing the wind to a place where Jack figured we should be able to hear our bird when he started up that morning. We stood there shivering for awhile waiting for our customer to gobble and give us a fix on his location. After about 10 minutes we heard him gobble, maybe 400 yards down the ridge and not far across the property line. We carefully made our way towards him along the side of the ridge, there was a lot of deadfall and we had to meander back and forth a bit to pick a more or less quiet path.
Along the way we heard him gobble a couple more times, and it sounded like there was a second bird further in behind the one we were after. We got within 100-150 yards of our bird and he was still gobbling pretty regularly. By now it was starting to get light out so we picked a spot on a little bench at the point of the ridge and set up. We put Mike on the right, Jack about 35 yards to his left, and slapped down a hen decoy a little in front and between them in an open area. I sat about 20 yards behind Mike. The turkey was roosted off the edge of the ridge down from our bench so he would have to walk up the point of the ridge to get to us. The lip of the bench was mostly screened by young pines, leaving only a few openings for him to walk through: between Mike and Jack we had these covered. He would be about 30 yards away before he could see us.
As soon as we were situated I popped in a mouth call and ran out a short string of tree yelps. He gobbled back instantly and I answered him with some more excited yelps and some cutting. He gobbled back again and I thought at least we would get to hear some gobbling this morning even if he just wandered off into the private ground. He gobbled again about a minute later and I could tell he was on the ground. I yelped and cut back at him and he double gobbled immediately in response. This was going better than expected; maybe we had a chance at this one. About a minute later he gobbled again on his own. He had cut the distance in half, and it was difficult cutting back in response with the big grin that was starting to form across my face. I looked at Mike and he was sitting still looking in the direction of the bird, but his gun was sitting in his lap. That killed the grin, but he still had time as the bird was out of sight. The bird gobbled again, right in front of Mike, maybe 20 yards from the lip of the bench. Now things were getting serious. I was boring a hole in the back of Mike’s head with my eyes, desperately trying to unlock the secrets of mind control, telekinesis, or whatever else I could think of to get that damn gun up. Finally, I saw Mike bring the gun up to his shoulder and get his cheek down on the stock. Five seconds later I see the neon blue and white head come bobbing through the trees in front of Mike. The grin began to form again. I watched the bird take three or four steps straight uphill, then turn his head and look in the direction of the decoy. He changed his course and started walking towards the decoy angling across Mike’s front from right to left. He stopped in an opening about 30 yards in front of Mike, stood tall looking at the decoy, clucked and purred. The grin was reaching its apex once again.
Right on cue Mike fired and knocked the bird down, he was hit, but just as quickly was back on his feet and moving forward. My heart was in my throat for half a second but before I could yell or do anything Mike fired again and this time put him down for the count. He started flopping down the hill and I ran forward to prevent him going too far, stopping by Mike’s tree to make sure he was no longer covering the bird with his gun. The whole event had taken less than 5 minutes from when we sat down to when the bird was flopping. “I didn’t think he was that close”, Mike said, “Those ones on Saturday must have been right on top of me”. To top it off this was Mike’s first spring gobbler. He was pretty excited, and is already counting the days until he can start on his second tag in May.
The sun hadn’t cleared the ridgeline yet and we needed to wait around another 10 minutes before there was enough light to get a picture of Mike with his first gobbler. The bird was a dandy; at least a 3 yr old with just over 1” spurs, very respectable for the hills. The 2 year old I’d killed on Saturday only had nubs. Strangely his beard was only 4-5 strands, it might have been shot off as I thought I remembered seeing a bigger beard as he came in, but can’t be sure.
(Mike with his first gobbler)
We headed into town for breakfast (Victory Burritos), and then went back to Jack’s house to pack up and say our goodbyes. I’ll see Jack in southeastern Minnesota in less than two weeks for our annual hunt there. I left Rapid City around 9 AM and was back in Minneapolis by 7 PM. As usual it was a whirl wind trip with its fair share of highs and lows. We had more encounters with other hunters on Saturday than I have had in the previous 5 years out there combined. Before this trip I had never seen another hunter in the woods. You might see a couple around town or a truck parked at a trailhead, but Saturday was different. Maybe it was a combination of opening day and the particular area we hunted, who knows. The weather was pretty typical for April out there. We had one good day, one very windy day, and one rain/snow washout day. As in the previous few years hunting is tougher than it used to be. Bird numbers seem down. We just didn’t run into them as often as we did even 3 years ago. Three pretty poor springs for nesting in a row will do that. That said, there are still birds to be had, especially once the winter flocks start to break up more and disperse better. We only sat down to work two birds during the 3 days, but we killed them both. They were both pure teamwork birds as well. I never would have killed the 1st on Saturday without Jack playing air traffic controller and yelping from the other ridge, and Mike's bird took the combined efforts of all three of us. Jack roosted him, I called him, and Mike made the shot. It’s still my favorite trip of the year.