Posted by Brian Lovett, Contributing Editor
If someone offered me two Butterball turkeys for the low cost of a 1,560-mile round trip on a few hours of sleep, I’d tell them to buzz off. But two hard-gobbling, snow-white Merriam’s gobblers for that price?
I just returned home from a whirlwind trip to the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, where I joined two friends and legendary turkey hunter Jeff Budz for a Merriam’s hunt. For folks who don’t know Budz, check out his Web page at www.tagitworldwide.com. This hard-driving hunter has 50 grand slams to his credit, so we couldn’t have asked for a better guide.
The area had been pounded by up to 9 inches of snow two days before our arrival, but the previous group had still enjoyed great success. And sure enough, Wade Atchley of Alabama got the trip off to a dandy start by killing a gorgeous gobbler at about 6 p.m.
The next morning, Budz promised to take us “deep undercover,” so we wound through miles of muddy two-track roads into some of the most gorgeous pine-covered hill country you’ll ever find. And when two birds responded to pre-dawn coyote howls, the Jeff Budz Show was on.
Atchley immediately scored again, taking another beautiful bird at less than 15 paces. Budz then found me, and we tried to track down a hard-gobbling bird on a hidden ridge. After about 20 minutes of intense walking and climbing, we eased up a slope and peered over.
“There’s his fan!” Budz whispered. “Get down.”
Thankfully, the bird hadn’t seen us, but we had no cover. That’s when Budz pulled out a great trick. He took a tail from a Merriam’s he’d shot that week and fanned it in front of us, which not only imitated a strutting gobbler but also gave us a bit of cover. Immediately, the strutter walked 15 yards closer, and I shot him at 41 steps.
It was a great moment, but it didn’t last long. Even as we stood over the still-flopping bird, Budz spied a lone strutter on a ridge 500 yards distant.
“Brian, go kill that turkey,” he said.
Who was I to argue? I dropped off into a bottom, hiked up and down a couple of ridges and made my way up to the field. Then, I ditched my vest, belly-crawled to a crest near a lone pine and surveyed the area. Seconds later, I spotted the bird’s fan about 80 yards away. He hadn’t seen me. Better yet, he seemed to be heading my way. I yelped softly on a mouth call, and the longbeard gobbled, dropped off his ridge and then waltzed to within 36 steps, where my load of 31/2-inch 6s stopped him.
As amazed as I was with the quick success, I hadn’t seen anything yet.
Budz, Atchley and Atchley’s friend Ronnie had watched from the truck as I shot the bird, and they’d also spotted two strutters on a nearby ridge. Within 40 minutes after I scored, Budz had Ronnie on the birds, and two shots echoed across the hilltops. Atchley and I arrived minutes later to see a pair of big gobblers in the grass.
Our group had just killed five longbeards before 8 a.m. With that, the trip was finished. We took a few pictures, cleaned the birds, thanked Budz for a great camp and headed home.
It took me 11 hours and 20 minutes to zoom across South Dakota, Minnesota and most of Wisconsin, and I was dog-tired when I finally reached my house. Atchley and Ronnie’s trip spanned 20-some hours. But I guess that’s the price we had to pay for our brief sojourn on Pine Ridge time.