Plan a DIY Tribal Lands Turkey Hunt

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Reservations like the Standing Rock and Rosebud Sioux offer outstanding opportunity for traveling hunters, but you have to plan ahead

Hunting reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota typically means chasing Merriam's gobblers. Be prepared to hike. Image by John Hafner

The roosted birds gobbled incessantly as my wife, Becca, and I tucked in about 125 yards away and began calling. They answered every yelp. Unfortunately, their volume began fading once they’d flown down. As Merriam’s turkeys notoriously do, the toms were half a mile away within minutes, beelining toward another flock in the distance.

We scrambled a thousand yards back to our truck, made a wide maneuver, and finally relocated the flock about 600 yards away on a ridge. There were 12 toms and eight hens. We dropped into a deep draw and cut the distance. About 20 minutes later, we put eyes on the flock. Now about 200 yards away, we executed our final approach.

Finally, within 80 yards, we presented our fan decoys. The hens fed past. The toms were initially interested — at one point, all 12 gobbled — but unfortunately, the hens pulled the rope-chested birds out of range before I could shoot.

The following hour was a circus. Each time the flock fed over a hill, we’d charge ahead and slowly pop up with our fans. A few different times we were within 60 yards, but each time the birds were either moving out of range, their heads were lined up, or I wasn’t confident in my rangefinder reading due to obstacles.

Finally, we circled wide around a hill they’d just gone over. I slowly rose up with my fan and shotgun. I saw hens first about 80 yards away, but I rose up higher and saw two red heads 30 yards away. They started moving away, but I took a bead on the right bird. His head cleared the others at about 45 yards, and a swarm of TSS No. 9s claimed my tribal lands Merriam’s gobbler.

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Like any new location, finding fresh turkey sign is a key to getting on birds during a tribal turkey hunt. Image by Rebecca McDougal

Getting Started

Perhaps you’re new to the concept of hunting on tribal lands, or you simply haven’t explored the opportunity for yourself. Tribal lands have long been a good option for traveling turkey hunters, and this piece will help you plan just such an adventure.

Nebraska and South Dakota turkeys often roost in the same big cottonwood trees year after year. You’ll know when you find such a location, as droppings will be everywhere. Image by Rebecca McDougal

Why are Non-Members Allowed to Hunt on Tribal Lands?

Not all Native American tribes allow non-members to hunt their lands, but some do. In particular, Nebraska and South Dakota are popular destinations for turkey hunters looking for tribal-hunting opportunities. “The Rosebud Sioux Game, Fish & Parks depends on the revenues generated from non-member license sales to fund the projects we do for wildlife,” said Ben Bearshield with the Rosebud-Sioux. “We require hunters to purchase a habitat stamp in order to hunt, and those sales directly fund conservation efforts. The economic lift from non-members ensures that we all get to enjoy wildlife and hunting opportunities on our lands for generations to come.”

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Regulations on tribal lands will be different than statewide regs, so do your homework. Image by Rebecca McDougal

Why Turkey Hunt Tribal Lands?

Hunting on tribal land can be very productive. Tribes such as the Rosebud Sioux and Standing Rock Sioux manage their own lands separately from the state of South Dakota. That means purchasing a tribal hunting license doesn’t inhibit your ability to purchase state hunting licenses. While hunting on tribal licenses makes a great standalone hunt, it could be an add-on hunt if you also hold a state license. Of course, your state license isn’t valid on tribal lands and vice versa.

“Many places that have turkey habitat hold good numbers of birds.” — Ben Bearshield, Rosebud-Sioux

Bearshield explained that non-members enjoy turkey hunting on the Rosebud’s tribal lands because the land base is spread out across a large portion of south-central South Dakota, and because Rosebud Sioux lands offer exceptional turkey hunting.

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“Not only are there a lot of lands to hunt on, but there are many different habitat types as well,” he said. “This allows each hunter to find what he or she prefers in terms of terrain. From river bottoms to big canyons, you’ll find great diversity across our tribal lands. That intrigues a lot of non-members that come here to hunt.

“Many places that have turkey habitat hold good numbers of birds,” he continued. “And, hunting can be really fun, especially later in April when the birds are fired up and the weather is cooperative.”

Planning a hunt on a reservation is still one of the best ways to experience a western DIY turkey adventure. Image by Rebecca McDougal

What to Expect

Each tribe handles license sales and distribution differently, and season dates don’t always coincide with statewide dates. Ditto with bag limits and definitions of legal birds. Be sure to obtain hunting regulations from the tribe’s game and fish department.

Some tribes don’t require you to hunt with a tribal guide, but others do. “To hunt Rosebud tribal lands,” Bearshield said, “non-members are required to hire and hunt with a tribal guide. We have a listing of guides on the Rosebud Game, Fish & Parks website. I suggest calling a few different guides and talking with them. You’ll get a feel for who can offer you the type of hunt you’re looking for.

“Licensing is another important part to planning a tribal hunt,” he continued. “Our turkey licenses previously were distributed through a lottery system, but we went to a first-come, first-served system by phone or over the counter until the quota sells out. The tag is $160 for non-members, and it allows you to harvest two male birds.”

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Be prepared to hike through big canyons and up steep hills to stay on traveling birds. Image by John Hafner

I’ve done DIY hunts on a couple different reservations, and have at times been confused by boundaries. The paper maps I was given were outdated — the licensing agent at one tribal office even said so. Further, some of the shaded parcels on the maps were posted when I arrived to hunt them, which means you have to ask the landowner, and locating them can be difficult, even with apps like onX Hunt. That said, when I have been able to locate landowners, they’ve always been welcoming and have given good suggestions on where to find turkeys.

Don’t expect an easy hunt. Turkey hunting on reservations is no secret, so expect some hunting pressure (thought it’s usually not too bad). Tribal lands in Nebraska and South Dakota encompass some big country, so expect to hike. A lot. My iPhone Health app said that Becca and I hiked about 8 miles the morning I shot my tom. I’ve hunted multiple states and shot dozens of toms in my life; never have I worked harder for a turkey.

Expect a day or two of hunting to be killed by high prairie winds. On one such day during my 2022 hunt, we headed for a river bottom trying to find birds out of the wind, but even down in there it was unbearably windy. You can maximize your hunting time by going anyway, like we did, but it isn’t very enjoyable when it’s too windy to hear gobbles. At that point, you’re basically just looking for a spot-and-stalk opportunity.

Tribal lands turkey hunts are some of the most enjoyable turkey hunts available, and by purchasing tribal licenses, you’re helping the tribe fund important conservation efforts. In my eyes, those reasons are good enough to start planning your own adventure, so what are you waiting for?

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