The wind swooshed through the towering pines as darkness slowly released its grip on dawn. With temperatures in the low 30s, snow remnants littered the pine straw-carpeted ground. Mornings in the Black Hills can sure be frosty, but are invigorating.
I owl-hooted and was quickly answered by a gobbler high on a ridge nearly 400 yards away. I knew we needed to move much closer if I was going to have any chance of working the roosted baron after he flew down.
After cutting the distance in half, I nestled up against a big pine tree as darkness melted into the anemic first light of dawn. I scratched out some soft, sweet yelps on my box call that were met with a resounding gobble. A second tom gobbled his approval from somewhere higher up on the steep hillside. In moments, I heard the tell-tale cackle as the closer tom flew down from his lofty perch.
The magnificent bird gobbled and then double-gobbled. The tom sounded like he was less than 100 yards from my position, and closing quickly. Figuring this lovelorn longbeard would be a chip shot, I sat my box call down and rested my magnum autoloader on my knee, but things soon changed.
In the distance, a boss hen yelped an excited series of assembly yelps while another hen began cutting. The ensuing drama caused both gobblers to gobble and change their courses, heading for the love fest on the hill. I heard the faint gobble of the two distant toms again, as I headed back for the truck to move to another spot.
Driving a short distance away, my hunting guide — Belle Fourche, South Dakota, archery storeowner Justin Raber — suggested we go to another spot he had scouted. The place was a mixture of Black Hills habitat — tall pines and hills — and prairie surroundings. A large flock historically resided in this area that was now used for a cattle operation.
Accompanying me on the hunt was well-known wildlife photographer John Hafner. Hafner had tagged his limit of Merriam’s gobblers during a prairie hunt the day before and was following along to soak in the beautiful surroundings, and hopefully to capture my hunt onto the memory card of his digital camera.
We pulled onto the ranch and spotted a flock of turkeys in a small opening surrounded by a dry creek. Raber suggested that we use the creek to circle around ahead of the feeding flock. We cautiously crept closer to the flock, allowing Raber to crawl up the creek bank and put eyes on the turkeys.
“They are about 50 yards away” Raber whispered, “four big strutters and 25 hens.” “I don’t think we are going to get any closer. Those hens sure have the gobbler’s attention. How far do you feel comfortable shooting?”
Having patterned my 12-gauge Mossberg 935, I knew my Hevi Shot Magnum Blend, 3 1/2-inch loads, were lethal at ranges up to 60 yards. However, striving to be ethical, I prefer shots inside of 40 yards.
I crawled up the creek bank to the edge of the field, careful to elude the sharp-eyed hens. My mouth was cotton as I tried to wet my diaphragm call. I softly clucked and the biggest tom took a few steps towards my position to lay eyes on his newest acquisition. At 45 yards, I pulled the trigger, piling up the beautiful white-tipped South Dakota trophy. The tom had a 10-inch beard, 1-inch broomed-off spurs, and weighed in at 20 pounds.
My hunt was indicative of some of the fine hunting that awaits turkey chasers this spring up and down the Great Plains. For a rundown of some of the top turkey hunting areas, read on and I will give you enough ammo to hopefully fill your tags this spring.
TURKEYS UP AND DOWN THE PLAINS
Three tough winters, and three cool, wet springs have left North Dakota’s turkey chasers in a precarious position. According to Stan Kohn, North Dakota’s Upland Game Bird biologist, the central and eastern parts of the state should be stable, however, the rest of the state doesn’t fare as well.
“My gut feeling is the western part of the state is down in turkey numbers,” Kohn opined. “However, we really don’t know at this time since our fall season hasn’t started yet.
Most of the turkeys in North Dakota are Easterns, although Merriam’s are found in two or three southwest counties. Kohn said at one time Rio Grande turkeys were also released. Due to the prevalence of three species, there are a lot of hybrid turkeys, also.
Turkeys aren’t required to be checked in, so harvest numbers can only be estimated through hunter surveys. Kohn says last season’s estimate of 1,600 turkeys harvested was down from previous years, and indicative of poor spring hatches.
The top counties for turkey densities are also the top counties for turkey harvest — McHenry, Morton, Richland, Sargent and Pembina.
North Dakota residents must apply for tags through a lottery system in which successful applicants are allowed one bearded male turkey.
Kohn said there is ample land available to hunters without a hunting spot. “We have over 1 million acres of private lands open to sportsmen through our PLOTS (Private Land Open To Sportsmen) Program,” he said. State law mandates that any property not posted is open for hunting. Hunters concentrating on land surrounding riparian areas, or wooded areas, should find turkeys in the vicinity.
Non-residents are not permitted to hunt turkeys except on Indian lands like the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation located 34 miles south of Mandan. Non-residents or state hunters who didn’t draw a turkey tag can buy a $100 tribal license that allows them two bearded male turkeys, with the potential of buying extra tags based on current hunter success rates.
Kohn said the ND Game and Fish Department publishes a booklet with a map of all of the public hunting areas, forested areas and walk-in plots. These handy maps are available at local motels and stores or can be printed off the NDG&F Web site. For more information, log on to www.gf.nd.gov.