Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Several years back my brother and I took a May trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota to chase the subspecies of turkey named in honor of the late zoologist, Clinton Hart Merriam.

Meliagris gallopavo meriami, or the Merriam's wild turkey, is one of the 5 subspecies of wild turkeys that compose the slam most turkey hunters aspire to.  Our 2002 trip was the first time either my brother or I efforted to bag this beautiful, white-accented cousin of the Eastern subspecies we routinely chase back home here in Indiana.

While the weather was fickle, and the birds scattered, we did have a great time in the beautiful western hill country of South Dakota.  Ricky managed to tag a nearly-beardless 2-year old tom during a snowstorm, but try as I might, I couldn't connect.  It was an awesome trip, regardless, and I wasn't even back in Indiana yet when I started making plans to go back.

So in 2003 I returned to the Black Hills with another hunting buddy of mine, Andy Edwards.  Just 2 days into our week-long trip, Andy managed to connect on a beautiful bird that I had heard gobbling at dark the night before.  Andy and I spent the next few days driving around the Hills in search of another lonely longbeard, eventually ending up back at our jumping-off point near the town of Lead. 

The last day of the hunt Andy dropped me off, before daylight, in a spot that had proved to hold birds the year before.  His plan was to trout fish most of the day, but check in on me at noon, and every 2 hours after that, in case I killed a bird.  We had a designated meeting spot about 3/4 mile up the access road from where I was hunting, and Andy planned to spend about 15 minutes sitting tight each trip in, giving me a little flexibility for showing up.

At about 2:10 that afternoon, I was surprised to see my white Ford truck coming across the valley bottom I was watching.  I stood up and waved for Andy, and he quickly drove to meet me.  "Man, I was sitting in the truck playing tennis on my cell phone when a longbeard started up within 50 yards of the truck.  I figured I'd better come see if you wanted to go after him."

That's all it took.  By 2:20 I was sliding off the bumper while Andy drove on.  But try as I might, I couldn't seem to strike that bird.  I did a nearly mile-long end-around, covering the entire circumference of the roadside "bowl" Andy had heard him in earlier.  In disgust, I walked back down the logging road and stood at our pre-arranged pick-up spot to wait for Andy to come back.  The only problem was, in our hurry to get back to the bird before he shut up, we hadn't make any plan for exactly when Andy would return.

As it turns out, it didn't matter.  No more than I'd hit the bend in the road where I'd been dropped off, that longbeard lit up all on his own about 1/4 mile east of where I stood.  He was in a big cutover, full of a thick stand of pine regrowth.  I headed up-hill to get above him, hoping I could make him come back toward the road where Andy had heard him earlier.

My first set of yelps got a quick response.  By now the bird had been gobbling just fine on his own, but when I gave him the proper incentive, he started a darned-near maddening series of gobbles that would last until I pulled the trigger nearly 90 minutes later.

The hill I was climbing, now trying to cut him off as he streaked back my way, was the tallest and steepest around.  Try as I might, I couldn't get to the top, or even far enough around the side, to get in front of him.  Gobbling with every breath, that Merriam's longbeard proceeded right around me on the opposite side of the hill, then across the road and back into the bowl he'd been in when Andy first heard him.

I followed.  He gobbled.  I snuck closer.  He moved away.  I followed.  He gobbled.  I snuck closer.  He moved away.  This cat-and-mouse game went on for over an hour, with me worrying all the while that Andy would drive back up the road and bump the bird in the process.

Then, with only about 30 minutes of legal shooting light left, the tom crossed back over the road and started making his way east toward a mature stand of conifers.  I figured he was headed to roost, and I might just as well see where.  If Andy was willing, I could extend our trip by 1 morning, hoping to get a crack at this roosted bird.

So as the longbeard started putting ground between me and him, still gobbling his fool head off, I crossed the road and headed straight back uphill, hoping to get high enough to give him a good listen.  In over 70 minutes of chasing him, I still hadn't layed eyes on him.  For me, just seeing him was going to be a moral victory.

As I dashed toward the crest of the hill, I could tell the bird had changed his course a little.  Slowing down to get a better fix on him, I was stunned to figure out that he was actually getting CLOSER.  And, he wasn't wasting any time in doing it.  I parked my camoed hind end against the nearest pine tree, and heart racing, barrel swaying, pointed upslope toward the approaching turkey.

At about 40 yards that gobbler finally showed himself, strutting down off the edge of an old logging lane.  It took me a second to comprehend that he was actually standing there, in full bloom, with nothing between me and him but the clean cool May air of the Black Hills.  "Never shoot a strutting bird" did enter my mind - for a second - when I centered my sights on his slick, red, strutting head.

I did pay him the courtesy of letting him touch off one last gobble before I snapped that thin clean line between sear and firing pin.  As my payload arrived, feathers flew, and the gobbler started rolling downhill.  I pounced.  Only a couple of hours before I was facing the reality of going home from my second South Dakota trip without tagging a bird.  I wasn't about to let this one get his feet, or wings, under him. 

Post-mortem pictures show that, in my exuberance, that tom lost a few neck feathers.  About 4 days earlier I'd poked fun at Andy for "denuding" the bird he shot as it flopped toward the edge of a pretty deep ravine.  I knew the payback was going to stink, but with a huge "whoop" of relief I threw my partially-plucked longbeard over my shoulder and darn-near floated the 100 yards back to the access road. 

No sooner had my boots hit the gravel then Andy came driving up.  I figured he'd been waiting patiently back at the main road and heard my shot-and-holler.  Turns out, he was just coming back in to check on me.  Had he done so 5 minutes earlier he'd have ruined my hunt for sure.  As it turns out, his timing was perfect.

It was nearly dark before we could start snapping pictures, but I'm not sure there were 2 happier turkey hunters anywhere in the Black Hills that night.  As we drove back into Lead to get a hotel room - and a for-real shower (not just milkjugs of water dumped over our heads), we kept reliving the highlights of our trip.  As we dug deep into the back of the truck for our "going to town" clothes, I asked Andy where he'd put my gun.  Let's just say that Andy got the first shower that night.  I got to drive 30 miles back out to the top of a nice green hillside, complete with scattered, white-tipped feathers, to retrieve my favorite fowling piece.  It's a trip I'd make again in a heartbeat.

1 comment:

  1. Camping in the Black Hills is like no other. You can listen to the gentle lapping of waters against the shore of a sparkling mountain lake. Awaken to the sun warming a Badlands mesa. Drift off to sleep to the sound of the wind softly sifting through stately ponderosa pines. Outdoor living in the Black Hills of South Dakota is superb!