The turn signal in the rented Blazer kept time with the rain as I slowly veered off Interstate 90 and glided into Kadoka, S.D.
After glancing briefly at the map from the rent-a-car place, I turned south, motored through town and slowly accelerated into the countryside. Before long, the pavement turned to gravel, and I was in some wide-open stuff.
Within minutes, I found the winding dirt road that led east to camp. I eased the Chevy off the gravel onto the clay, and then I stopped to survey the White River breaks and bottoms below. Acre upon acre of grassland waved in the breeze, and the river cut this way and that through small sloughs, sheer drops and occasional cedar-choked breaks. Here and there, a large cottonwood reached toward the sky, looking almost as conspicuous as a high-rise Las Vegas casino looming on the flat Nevada desert horizon.
“Man, this is beautiful country,” I thought. “But where … where … ?”
A moment of uncertainty overtook me, so I rechecked the map. It confirmed that I was in the right place, but that begged the question: “Where the heck do these turkeys live?”
The Prairie Scene
That was my first turkey hunting trip to South Dakota, and it was an eye-opener. Of course, I quickly learned there were loads of turkeys in the vast, open, relatively treeless country that covers much of the state, and that they lived — thrived, actually — quite well, thank you.
It didn’t take me long to fall in love with South Dakota’s prairie turkey hunting. In the years since that initial trip, I’ve returned to the prairies several times and experienced some of the best turkey hunts of my life — even if I spent more time slithering on my belly than I did snuggled against a tree.
South Dakota divides its spring turkey hunting opportunities into the Black Hills and prairie units, which basically comprise the remainder of the state, though only prairie units west of the Missouri River allow nonresident hunting.
The Black Hills offer turkey hunting similar to what most Midwesterners and Easterners are accustomed to. The Black Hills hunting unit, in the extreme western region of South Dakota, stretches 100 miles north to south and 40 miles east to west. It features rolling hills, high mountains and deep gorges. Aspen, bur oak, white spruce and ponderosa pine cover the land.
The western prairie units, however, have little in common with the Hills. They stretch from the vast breaks of the Missouri River near Mobridge south to the Nebraska border and west to the base of the Black Hills and the Wyoming border.
Twenty-three of the 51 prairie units are west of the Missouri River, and all allow limited nonresident hunting. In fact, 18 of these have a two-tag option. There are 28 units east of the river, but, as mentioned, none have nonresident tags.
(There are exceptions. South Dakota’s archery turkey season is open statewide, except for six counties, a portion of a seventh and Custer State Park. Also, South Dakota has nine American Indian reservations on which turkey hunting is allowed (see the sidebar). Most are in the southern and western part of the state.)
Generally, western prairie units encompass vast, open stretches of rolling grasslands and range land. Near rivers, you’ll find flat cottonwood bottoms bordered by sometimes-steep breaks. Grass- and rangelands are interspersed with alfalfa and grain fields, and turkeys thrive near ranches and other agricultural areas. But unless you’re hunting near old homesteads, it’s rare to find the large stands of mature hardwoods to which Eastern turkey hunters are accustomed.
Turkey populations are strong throughout the prairie units. Overall, the state has about 51,000 turkeys, most of which are Merriam’s. In spring 2005, hunters shot about 5,347 birds in the state.
The Treeless Challenge
Many people consider Merriam’s the easiest subspecies to hunt, and there’s some merit to that. But really, if you placed Easterns or Osceolas in the Dakota prairies, their behavior probably wouldn’t differ from that of their white-fanned cousins. What makes some Merriam’s relatively easier to hunt is the lack of human pressure they experience. So although many Merriam’s are hard-gobbling, hard-charging fools, they are still turkeys. Pressured birds will be tough; unpressured turkeys won’t be as difficult. Thankfully, wide-open spaces and limited hunter numbers mean many prairie Merriam’s aren’t heavily pressured.
Likewise, you don’t have to learn any special tactics to hunt prairie Merriam’s. If you’ve killed a few Easterns, you’re qualified to be a Merriam’s slayer.
The only unique prairie challenge is the aforementioned lack of trees and other cover. Turkeys have fewer spots in which to roost, and hunters have fewer set-up options and less cover in which to maneuver.
Because many prairie areas have few roosting trees, one large cottonwood might host dozens of turkeys every night. That’s great in one aspect, because after you’ve found a roost, you’ll be in the game. However, prairie turkeys don’t just flap down and mill around their roosting areas. Often, they hit the ground running with a feeding destination in mind. It’s not uncommon for them to travel several miles per day between roosting and feeding sites. And if you’re not in their path, you can quickly be out of the game.
Of course, with little cover and lots of open space, maneuvering and setting up can also be challenging. You must use terrain to your advantage, whether you’re using a small creek bottom to slip around a moving breeding flock or belly-crawling to get ahead of a group of birds.
In river-break country, moving undetected is fairly easy. The tough part is determining which ridge, break or canyon those goofy birds will use. If you choose correctly, you’re in for a close-up smash. If you’re off by even one ridge, you might be 100 yards from the birds … and completely out of hope.
In rolling prairie, maneuvering requires a bit more planning and execution. Often, you must slip or crawl below subtle terrain wrinkles to avoid bumping birds. Good optics are a must, and you should use them constantly.
If you’re hunting flat, open prairie or river bottoms, moving can be doggone difficult. Thick cedars or tall grass provide some cover, but hardwoods, cottonwoods and, of course, short-grass prairie provide a recipe for bumping birds. Again, quality binoculars and patient, careful in-hunt decisions are a must.
Don’t Be Bashful
The good news with prairie Merriam’s, as mentioned, is that many are pretty darned eager and unpressured. This past spring, while hunting atop a high bluff, I dug deep on a friction call and rang yelps across a vast canyon. A bird gobbled from a tiny creek bottom and soon approached to the edge of the timber. That turkey was a good half-mile from me as the crow flies, and I was several hundred feet higher than him. But as God is my witness, he was coming. Had there not been a raging river and several hundred feet of steep bluff between us, I’m convinced he would have approached to within gun range — even though it might have taken him all day.
The moral of the story is simple: Often, if you get a Merriam’s to gobble and call to him long enough, he’ll come. That holds true for henned-up birds, too. If you call enough, Merriam’s hens often get curious and visit you. With Merriam’s, you often call in an entire breeding flock — a gobbler or two, several hens and a few jakes.
Hint: Don’t be bashful about calling loud and often. Wind is seemingly ever-present on the prairies, and you often need to reach out with your call to strike distant birds.
Finding decent setups can be tough, but then again, setups are what you make of them. Don’t get hung up on locating mature trees. If you’re in a good calling location or ambush spot, find a bush, rock, embankment, fencepost or something else to break up your outline. Or, get on your belly. I’ve shot about two-thirds of my prairie turkeys while prone. And before you call me a shameless bushwhacker, most of those birds were called to the gun.
Cheyenne Country Home
I’ve been privileged to chase South Dakota prairie birds at several locales, but my favorite is Cow Creek Ranch, just north of Wall, S.D. Owned by Glendon and Pam Shearer, Cow Creek is a working cattle ranch and cedar-timber operation that covers several-thousand acres of South Dakota’s most gorgeous terrain.
Located on the Cheyenne River, Cow Creek features large river and cottonwood bottoms that rise into classic cedar-filled breaks and hightop grasslands. You’re likely to encounter whitetails and pheasants in the bottoms, big mule deer in the breaks, antelope and prairie dogs on the tops — and white-fanned gobblers everywhere.
I first hunted Cow Creek in Spring 2001, when Glendon Shearer gave me an up-close tour of his ranch. The first morning, we slipped a canoe in the Cheyenne River and negotiated its rocky course while I hammered on a glass call. After striking turkeys, we beached the boat and enjoyed a two-hour battle with a huge band of jakes and a constantly moving breeding flock. Finally, a dandy 3-year-old longbeard broke through the cedars and ended our hunt.
The next morning, we slipped into a cottonwood patch near the ranch house and called a large breeding flock of Merriam’s to within 15 steps. The hunt ended all too quickly, with a brilliantly white-tailed Merriam’s flopping at close range.
This past spring, I again visited Cow Creek. However, because the previous winter had been very mild, turkeys were scattered throughout the ranch, with many remaining high in the breaks. (During cold, snowy winters, the birds tend to congregate in bottoms near agricultural fields and other food sources.)
I was treated to several thrilling battles with henned-up gobblers, and Glendon, his sons Trent and Colby, and I came close numerous times. Still, after almost two full days of hunting, my tags remained empty. Only a chance encounter with a breeding flock and a lucky ambush let me collect my birds.
Call of the Prairies
As I told my turkey hunting friends after that hunt, those loud-mouthed yet slippery Merriam’s wore me out. And the experience remains so fresh in my mind that I cannot wait to return there this spring.
Win or lose, South Dakota’s prairie and the allure of those funny-gobbling, white-tailed turkeys does that to you.