Badlands Birds

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If you haven't hunted here you need to put it on your wish list.

South Dakota’s spring gobbler opportunities can include classic Black Hills hunts to Badlands turkey time that seems like you’re trying to locate birds on the moon's surface. Currently open, the 2009 season runs from April 11 through May 17.

I'd been out that way several springs in a row, but traveled even further west to Wyoming. Last year we headed south of Rapid City, South Dakota, intent on hunting along the White River. The first travel afternoon, we scouted and casually hunted the area. The next morning we'd get out before daybreak to slip unseen into position.

When several vocal gobblers roosted in the cottonwoods behind us decided to fly down and move off with hens shortly after that South Dakota daybreak, a buddy and I decided to make a move, leaving the mobility-limiting hen decoy behind. He had fooled a bird into his vest the day before, and carried his second prairie hunt tag. I had my first to fill.

Our next setup, in edge cover, put us alongside a field framed by cedars, and provided the view of a pretty valley, more green fields, and cottonwood stands — a broad expanse that held wild turkey gobblers, or so we hoped.

Cold calling — the act of clucking and yelping in hopes that a gobbler might respond — brought a lone turkey hen into range, which flushed suddenly from a patch of grass where she fed, but no longbeard. Such Western prairie hunts often insist that you call long distance to wide-roaming turkeys, so we ran several different friction calls during that calling session.

A late-running bull session back at camp the night before found me nodding off for a quick power nap. It's a refueling tactic many early-rising stand hunters apply when afield — intentionally or unintentionally. We both commenced to calling again while making casually quiet conversation. Game time arrived suddenly.

"Hen, to your right," Gary whispered just as I saw the turkey approaching. Shotgun up instinctively, I waited, unmoving, scanning the distance behind her. Soon I saw what I hoped for: a full fan, mincing steps up the hillside toward us. Head a fiery red, white and blue, the strutter veered away from the hen slightly, keying on our position, clearly coming in the direction of our clucking, yelping, and cutting location. A gobble then another confirmed that.

The tom was behind a small bush, and I waited, my shotgun locked in position. Then I caught the break I needed: the longbeard wheeled, and turned his full-fan posterior toward us, obscuring his wary x-ray vision. I pushed the rifle-sighted shotgun barrel three inches closer, past an obstructing stick in my shooting lane. The turkey turned stylishly the way strutting longbeards do, readied itself to gobble. My shot echoed down the canyon as it did. Thirty-five yards. Dead bird.

Walking out toward our original setup position, I caught a glimpse of a gobbler standing at a distance near a clump of sage. "Gobbler near the blind," I said, and my buddy froze in position. I dropped back down the hill. Call in hand, I started cutting hard (fast clucking and yelping). Several eager-for-action jakes immediately answered, pitting and clucking nearby.

Watching a relaxed and standing Sefton from my position said maybe we'd blown the deal, but when he eased his shotgun up like a slow-motion cowboy in a gunfight to rise above the higher field, I knew we were about to close it. The gobbler halved the distance. A load of No. 6s put another long-bearded Merriam's in his turkey vest.

"I wonder how long that gobbler was grinning down that decoy," Sefton offered. We looked at each other and laughed.

By the end of it last spring, nine hunters in camp took a dozen bearded birds on individual two-tag permits. Three buds tagged two. Six guys took one each. During the rest of the five-day trip we all passed on numerous second tag-filling jakes over a broad area, which bodes well for 2009 spring hunters visiting the Badlands.

(NWTF photo)