Over the Hills and Far Away

The Black Hills have long been a hotspot for hunters looking to wrap a tag around the leg of a Merriam’s gobbler.

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Guide Larry Bennett and Dennis Foster of dakotapheasantguide.com show off the Merriam's gobbler Foster shot at 13 steps in the Black Hills.

The idea to head to the Black Hills on a Merriam’s hunt spawned from a conversation during a February ice-fishing trip. A friend of mine, Dennis Foster, and I were targeting pike and walleye through the ice on a small pothole in the Glacial Lakes region of northeastern South Dakota, and somehow our conversation drifted west nearly 350 miles as the crow flies to Black Hills turkeys.
There isn’t much Foster hasn’t accomplished in the outdoors. He grew up trapping and hunting and is now a pro angler on Cabela’s National Walleye Tour. In the fall, he operates Dakota Pheasant Guide, a large pheasant hunting operation near his hometown of Mellette, S.D. However, he had never killed a turkey before.
“A lot of my clients who come up pheasant hunting from southern states keep telling me it’s something I should do,” he said. “They all say it’s a riot.”
Through the years Foster has invited me along on plenty of his outdoor endeavors, so I was excited at the thought of repaying him in some small way by helping him kill his first longbeard.
“Dennis,” I said, “all it takes is one to come in on a string gobbling his head off and you’ll be hooked.”
What I didn’t tell him was how frustrating and downright maddening chasing the gobble could be. I figured he’d find that out on his own, and after pulling a few more walleyes through the ice, we decided to go turkey hunting later that spring.
On an even more personal note, I was excited to head back to the pine-laden hills where I first hunted turkeys nearly two decades ago. At the time, I was a young flatlander from the eastern half of South Dakota who loved hunting pheasants, waterfowl and deer, but I had no idea how addictive turkey hunting would be, especially in a setting as inviting as the Black Hills.

There’s Always a Return
Foster mentioned he had some connections in the Black Hills, and in early May we headed west as guests of the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce. Even better, Lee Harstad, the Chamber’s executive director, had lined us up with a local turkey hunter, Larry Bennett, who had done most of the dirt work prior to our arrival.
We arrived in Deadwood on a Tuesday afternoon, met up with Bennett and drove just north of Deadwood to pattern our turkey guns. As we set up the targets and got situated, a loud thumping sound echoed through the ponderosa and spruce. Bennett eased up the logging trail we were on, then motioned for us to join him. He had found the sound’s source, a ruffed grouse drumming on a deadfall just off the trail.
While South Dakota is widely recognized for its pheasant and sharptail grouse hunting, it isn’t known for its small population of ruffed grouse.
“There’s a few of them scattered around here in the Black Hills,” Bennett said as he pointed out the grouse’s location. “There aren’t too many, though, and they’re such a cool bird that it’s a real treat to see one every now and then.”
I had never seen a ruffed grouse in the wild in my home state before, so I decided to capitalize on the opportunity by grabbing my camera and sneaking in for a closer look. Unfazed by my approach, the grouse let me get within 7 yards as he kept performing his courtship display.
Perhaps Tom Kelly said it best in his book on turkey hunting titled Tenth Legion. “You ought to realize that time spent in the pursuit of turkeys always pays you back; there is always a return,” Kelly wrote. “It is just that sometimes these returns are in the strangest of currencies.”
Kelly’s right. There is indeed and always a return when we step outside to pursue our passions. The return may reveal itself in subtle ways, but make no mistake, it’s always there, even when it shows up in its least expected form like the rare encounter of a ruffed grouse drumming in the turkey woods.
With daylight fading, I wished the grouse luck, rejoined the group and went about the business of patterning our guns. After dialing in Foster’s gun, another sound caught us by surprise as we walked back toward the truck — gobbles. Lots of them.
They were a ways off, but the rattling was close enough to get our blood going and our hopes up. I asked Bennett if we were coming back to this piece of national forest ground the following morning.
“Nope,” he said with a smile. “I’ve got something else lined up for you.”

Bad Habits
While part of the appeal of hunting Merriam’s in the Black Hills lies squarely in the sheer amount of public national forest land available to the traveling turkey hunter, Bennett had secured permission on a small chunk of private ground next to a roost site.
So, an hour and a half before sunup the next morning, we followed Bennett up a faint trail that led us to a blind he’d set up weeks in advance. It was next to flat, open clearing, and as he was leaving he gave us a brief outline of what to expect.
“This is one of my favorite spots, and they typically roost right down here in the draw,” he said, pointing into the blank distance. “This clearing is one of their morning strut zones. You can’t see it now, but once it gets light enough you’ll be able to get your bearings and you’ll probably hear them wake up.”
Foster climbed into the ground blind while I staked out a Suzie Snood decoy from H.S. Strut. In our conversations leading up to the hunt, Bennett mentioned he had seen hens starting to nest. I figured if there was a chance that not every gobbler in the woods would be henned up, an upright, lonely hen decoy might just help get their attention more than a flock-type setup that included multiple hens along with a gobbler or jake decoy.
After Bennett’s footsteps faded down the trail, Foster and I waited another half-hour in silence. No matter where you’re hunting, everything looks the same in the dark. It’s an uncomfortable yet peaceful feeling, watching the world wake up in an unfamiliar place, but I could tell Foster and his fidgeting couldn’t take it anymore.
“Aren’t you going to make a call or two?” Foster asked.
“I’m going to let them make the first move,” I whispered back. “We’ll let them determine what kind of game they want to play.”
Fifteen minutes later it turned out that Bennett’s scouting was dead on. From somewhere deep down the draw below the opposing ridge, which had just started to appear in the gray light, came the first gobbles of the morning from about 300 yards away.
Now that we knew the turkeys were indeed roosted where Bennett said they’d be, I decided to tread lightly at first, starting with some soft tree yelps from a mouth call. The gobblers rattled back incessantly, but so did an old boss hen. I could tell the toms were moving our way, and she was not happy about it, lighting up the woods with raucous, aggressive yelps and cutts.
I hammered back at her on a box call, matching her every step of the way. It was quite the show, and less than an hour later two longbeards, several jakes and the boss hen careened down a ridge into the clearing. At 13 yards, the two toms locked up, gobbled one last time and paraded around in full strut. Once they broke stride and poked their heads up our of strut, Foster sealed the deal on the lead tom.
When the bird and dust had settled, I glanced over at Foster.
“Oh great,” he deadpanned, his eyes still wide with adrenaline-induced excitement, “now I’ve got another bad habit.”

Day 2
The following morning, it was my turn. Bennett took us back to the forest-service ground a few miles north of Deadwood where we had heard the drumming grouse and distant gobbles. Foster was happy to join me, toting a video camera to capture the action.
Bennett was unsure of where turkeys roosted in the area, so Foster and I set off in the direction we heard gobbles that first afternoon. Foster had his first taste of hunting from a blind for turkeys the previous morning, and now it was time he experienced the run-and-gun action only trolling for turkeys can provide.
We ambled up the steep slope in the dark before anchoring next to the roots of a deadfall about halfway up the mountain. Not knowing where the birds were roosted, I didn’t want to risk busting them off their beds if they had spent the night in the trees at the top of the mountain. I explained to Foster in a hushed tone that we’d once again let them sound off and make the first move.
The first gobbles we heard that morning were faint and originated from a ridge a mountain away across a steep valley. With confirmation the birds were a half-mile or more beyond our location on the facing slope, I told Foster we had to get moving.
We raced up the hillside, and just prior to reaching its apex I broke out a box call to see if I could elicit a response from the birds across the valley. There was hardly any wind to speak of, so I was certain they could hear even the soft chirps and whines I let fly. However, after not hearing a response I decided it couldn’t hurt to ramp things up a bit.
I was surprised when a chorus of gobbles from the valley floor met my aggressive cutts and yelps. They were the garbled, high-pitched gobbles indicative of jakes — you know the kind, where an adolescent bird tries hard to sound like a grown-up only to have its voice crack and break halfway through.
The ridge top still hid us from their view, so we scrambled to set up the decoy and dove for cover. We were facing west, and the morning sun was now streaming over our shoulders through the pines.
Once we were settled I started in on them again with the box call they seemed to like so well. Soon, a gang of jakes crested the hill about 100 yards away, charging in to our setup. Their blood-red heads would melt back into the shadows for a moment, only to reappear closer and closer.
They’d stop to gobble every time I’d yelp. Had I been hunting alone, I would have sat in silence and let them find me on their own. They were closing fast and didn’t need any more encouragement, but the temptation to rile them up was too great, as I wanted Foster to really get a feel for what turkey hunting was all about.
Once in range they mingled around for a bit, trying to figure out why the hen decoy they were locked on wouldn’t budge. Cover was scarce, and our hideout against two towering pines wasn’t ideal and part of me was sure they’d bust at any second. So, at 30 yards, I singled out the largest jake and gently squeezed the trigger, capping off our hunt with another beautiful bird.
Due to both of our busy schedules, we had plans to leave later in the day, which made my decision to shoot the jake an easy one. Some hunters may argue against shooting jakes, but I’m not prejudiced and have been on enough hunts where I know better than to pass up such an easy opportunity. Sure, it might have “only” been a jake, but, if given the chance, I’d shoot him again every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
“That was about the most fun I’ve ever had carrying a gun in the spring,” Foster said as we walked back down the mountain. “We should look at doing this again next year.”
Yep, he’s hooked all right.

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If You Head to the Hills …
The dark-colored hills of western South Dakota are a popular landing spot each spring for hunters who hope to slap a tag around the leg of a Merriam’s turkey. The availability of licenses, amount of public hunting land and a healthy population of turkeys all combine to make it a popular destination for turkey hunters from the Dakotas, as well as across North America.

If you plan on hunting the Black Hills, here are a few things to remember:

• Bring extra clothes — Like any mountainous setting, weather conditions can change in a heartbeat. During our hunt we were fortunate to have bluebird days where temps stretched into the 60s and 70s. However, it’s not uncommon for warm, spring weather to be quickly replaced by rain or winter-like conditions, complete with snow and freezing temps. To that end, pack for all types of weather and dress in layers so you can stay comfortable by shedding or adding clothing depending on the weather.

• Extend your stay — Plan an extra day or two into your hunt in the event bad weather forces you to stay inside or shuts the birds down.
“No matter what the weatherman says, you never know if the weather is going to be bad or good, so give yourself a couple extra days in case of rain or snow,” said Larry Bennet, a veteran turkey hunter from Deadwood, S.D., “After a good storm they usually come around and will really talk to you when that sun comes back out.”

• Be a tourist — If weather sets you back a day, or even if it doesn’t, plan to take in the various tourist locations scattered about the Black Hills, as there’s plenty to see and do in the shadow of Mount Rushmore. The cities of Deadwood, Lead, Rapid City and Custer are all popular destinations, each rich in history and full of things to do for the entire family. The benefit of going in the spring is you rarely have to deal with the large crowds that flock to the area each summer.

• Stay in shape — Although South Dakota is considered mostly flat, the Black Hills are indeed mountains. Steep slopes and tough terrain topped off with higher elevations mean out-of-shape hunters could miss out on a bird that takes some work to get to.
Also, get off the road and go exploring. Don’t waste your trip by sitting in a vehicle and waiting for a bird to show up close to a road. Take the fight to the gobblers, and you’ll likely be handsomely rewarded with a white-capped tail fan.

• Do your homework — Scouting should be an important part of any turkey hunt, but scouting unfamiliar territory is paramount to success. In total, the Black Hills National Forest covers roughly 1.2 million acres, but small tracts of private ground are sprinkled throughout the public land, which makes scouting even more important. Generally speaking, if land isn’t posted it’s open to public hunting, but doing a little research and obtaining forest-service maps, topographical maps and satellite images can help you determine public ground that’s likely to hold turkeys.
For more information on hunting the Black Hills, go to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department website at gfp.sd.gov, refer to the U.S. Forest Service website at fs.usda.gov/blackhills or visit the Historic Deadwood’s website at deadwood.com.
About the Author: Andrew Johnson is editor of Outdoor Forum. Contact him at ajohnson@aberdeennews.com.