Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fire on the Mountain

Planning for a Mountain Merriam's Turkey hunt started in the late fall of 2012.  Myself and two other buddies had committed to head out in mid April of 2013 to the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota.  Months of planning, excitement, and purchased tags met an ill fate on April 11th.  The Black Hills received a record snow fall of over 30" of snow!
Black Hills National Forest, SD

The Hills were now white, so these three country boys did what any other man with previously granted permission would do.  We left town anyways!

The truck was not pointed North however, we reverted to plan B and headed to Oklahoma to try our luck at some Rio Grande Turkeys on the Black Kettle WMA.  

Less than one hour on the road and we had already worked our way to the middle of the alphabet of plans.  Needless to say we drove to Las Vegas, NV!  This I will save for another post, likely titled The Hangover Redux.  "The three best friends that anyone could ever have" left a permanent impression of three Tennessee Country Boys in the Sin City. 

Now on to the story...

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And there's fire on the mountain, lightnin' in the air
Gold in them hills and it's waitin' for me there 
-Marshall Tucker Band


Paha Sapa (Lakota, for "hills that are black") is now part of my Walking Home.  Fortunately for me, I got to share the experience with my best friend and wife, Angela.   
 
Angela at our first stop, Badlands National Park
 
I will admit, I am a very lucky and fortunate guy.  To have a wife that enjoys the outdoors and to encourage me to go out and explore is a gift, one that I truly appreciate.

Angela knew I was a little bummed out because I didn't get to go to the Black Hills in mid April, so she made a proposal "I have a few days I need to take off, so let's go out West to the Black Hills".  Before she even finished the sentence I was packing our bags!

The plan was simple; we were to leave Friday after work, drive straight thru, camp 3 nights in the tent and 2 nights in a primitive forest service cabin.  I was going to hunt the mornings and then we would explore the hills during the afternoons.  Simplistic plans make a trip like this so much more enjoyable, keenly to an exploration.

The gold in them hills is waitin' for US there...

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-Friday May 3rd
The path will take you there, your fear will steer you away...

The trip started a little after 3pm, motivated to make it to SD we hit the road in full force.  Other than Obama's brilliant stimulus plan,"the road to recovery", we hit very little traffic.

view of the many butte valleys in the Badlands, NP
We drove all through the night and made it to the Badlands National Park,SD around 10am.    At first glance this place is pretty "bad" but the negative-sounding name is really the only bad part about it.  The rich history this place has is extraordinary; ancient mammals like the miniature horse and saber-tooth cat once roamed hear. Explorers later introduced cattle, which proved to be a little less efficient than originally planned.  Now on this 244,000 preserve you will see bison, big horn sheep, prairie dogs, antelope and the seasonally invasive species...tourist in over-sized motor homes. 

Bison burgers and micro brewed beers at Firehouse
The Badlands have a lot to explore on foot in addition to the wonderful driving tours through the park.  We took a couple short 1-2 mile trips off the beaten path and discovered wonderfully colored buttes and valleys carved by erosion that look like a lunar landing scene from a Sci-Fi movie. 

The Badlands are a must stop for sure, but this trip was about the Black Hills.  So after a couple hours exploring we continued on our way.

A trip to South Dakota is not complete without a stop to one of the famous tourist traps in the world, Wall!  This is marketing at its best, a small failing town in the 1930's turned mega tourist stop just by advertising and capitalizing on Route 16A.

After our nickle coffee and free ice water we left Wall and made a quick trip to Cabelas in Rapid City (quick only because Angela had to lure me out) and stopped for lunch at the Firehouse Brewing Co.  After 20 plus hours of driving the medium rare bison burger and brown ale at the brewery was absolutely delicious! 

We paid our tab and headed South on Hwy 16 to Custer.  We had reserved a spot at Beaver Lake Campground, only 3.5 miles West of Custer on U.S. 16 and bordering the S.E. portion of the national forest this was a great place to stay for our first leg of the journey.   A friendly, safe, and non crowded private campground with a heated bathhouse for $22 a night.  We could have camped in the NF, but temps were getting down in the 20's at night so we opted for the warm shower over the primitive solitude. Plus, most developed forest campgrounds are still closed and primitive camping has a fire ban in place. 

After setting up camp we headed to the forest to scout out some areas and hopefully roost a turkey.  After studying google earth, I decided on focusing my efforts in the area South of Jewel Cave National Monument. 

We arrived in our area a few hours before sunset and quickly found a high ridge to park and begin hiking on.  This area is the Southern portion of the Jasper fire of 2000 that burned 83,000 acres, 64,000 which burned in the first 7 hours.  The careless arsonist devastated this beautiful area which still shows little sign of recovery, but if you study closer you will find that native grasses have reestablished.  This provides excellent habitat for the Elk, which appear to be doing great at this time.  The turkey can benefit from the new grass openings, but they are also easier prey.  With this in mind we decided to hike to the nearest tree line and scout. 
Devastation from the 2000 Jasper Fire

This portion of the forest resembles a post apocalyptic battle field at first, but the views and miraculous amounts of wildlife you see shadows that first thought.  We saw a small herd of cow elk and over 50 whitetail less than 1/2 mile in, after I saw the elk I started keeping my eyes open for sheds. 

hit hard last year with EHD, mule deer seem to be isolated to certain areas in the hills
We hiked close to 5 miles and did some locator calling with no response from a turkey, the sign was limited as well.  We decided to head back to the truck and stop on a few ridges to locate a turkey for the mornings hunt, luckily we stumbled upon an elk shed from this year.  The first day out was already a success.

On our way back we did hear 2-3 birds gobbling on a side of a mountain, bad news was it was surrounded by private ranchettes.  Accessible, but it would be a mile hike in over a mountain.  I decided against it for the first morning. 




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-Sunday May 6th
 The hills will provide solitude, she will give the love and God will provide the way...


Sleep came quick Saturday night and was much needed.  I decided to sleep in Sunday morning to energize for the rest of the week, glad I did as it was still in the low 20's at 8am when we awoke.  If you do any front country camping in cold weather I recommend a Mr. Buddy Heater, this makes cold weather camping tolerable. 
Angela relaxing by the fire

After a hearty breakfast of pancakes, bacon, eggs, and hot coffee (another benefit of front country camping) we drove into the forest.

We headed back to the area South of Jewel Cave.  We ran into some locals who were shed hunting and graciously gave me some spots to check out that might hold turkeys.  I would check them out at sunset. 

We looked over the forest map and picked a spot with very few roads, this is where we would go and hike.  The one down fall I have so far about the Black Hills in SD is the amount of roads, very few places can you find that are away from the roads.  Luckily though, the hills are over 1 million acres in size so you have lots of places to check out.

We parked at the ridge we planned to walk out on, packed a lunch and headed in to the mountains.  We hiked close to 7 miles, saw a couple turkey tracks but did not get any response to the calls.  We hiked in on a closed forest road and on the way back we bushwhacked  back to the truck.  Beautiful views all along the way, but still no turkey.  So far the hills seemed void of the gold I was after.  I wouldn't be fooled though, as I was in gorgeous country with a beautiful wife and enjoying the solitude together. 

Elk shed
As sunset neared, we headed toward the spot the locals told us about.  I hiked a little over a mile to the top of a ridge that bordered private property.  The locals had heard a bird gobbling here a week prior and claimed they usually hear them behind the private property all through this area.  The reason is a lot of landowners feed them and they don't wander too far from the private property, but usually roost in the forest.  I wasn't to fond of hunting this way, but I had yet to be able to get on a bird so I figured I would give it a shot.  At the least I would hear one gobble on roost within hearing distance of the ridge I was on and be able to make a plan for the morning. 

As the sun started to set and no turkey located, I decided to head back to the truck and hit a few other places before it got to dark.  After still not having any luck getting one to gobble we headed back to camp.  We finished the day off with grilled venison loin and a few Crow Peak IPA's from a local brewery in Spearfish, SD. 

No turkey was located the first full day, but man was it still a success.  We met some nice people (oddly enough no other turkey hunters) and hiked in some beautiful country with complete solitude. 

A.B. Donaldson, a newspaper correspondents with General George A. Custer's historic Black Hills Expedition, wrote the following:

"The lover of nature could here find his soul's delight; the invalid regain his health; the old, be rejuvenated; the weary find sweet repose and invigoration; and all who could come and spend the heated season here would find it the pleasantest summer home in America."

I say you could find your soul and be invigorated here any season.  Here is to you Mr. Donaldson, Cheers!
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-Monday May 6th

Many have come to see the king of spring, few take him home...

4:30 a.m. and I was standing on a ridge waiting to hear the woods come alive.  As the sun broke the horizon only a few song birds and few stray deer shared the woods with me, I headed back to the truck to try a few more ridges before the turkeys would fly down.  

Private property strutter
I parked on a ridge that was surrounded by larger mountains to the West and a large block of woods to the South.  I grabbed my gear and headed out to the point of the ridge, immediately I heard birds gobbling.  With the country being so large it was hard to determine where exactly they where at.  The map showed another ridge just beyond me and a large block of woods just below it.  I guessed this is where they were roosted.  I covered about 1/2 mile in 4 minutes, sweating in my wool pull over and trying to listen over my labored breathing, I was able to hear them again.  Sadly, they were still a few hundreds yards to my N.W. and a 500 foot bluff kept me from going to them from my current location.  

When I arrived back at my truck I quickly studied my map a little more.  I discovered a small private parcel in the general vicinity of the gobblers.  As I drove to the base of the bluff my fears were confirmed.  They had flown down off the bluff and were proudly strutting in private pasture.  Oh well, I still had a little over a million acres to find one.  

I covered about 30 miles in my truck after sun-up, stopping periodically on high points and ridges to call and glass the open spaces.  From what I can tell this is the method a majority of hunters do, not my cup of tea but with the amount of roads you are almost at a disadvantage if you do not opt for some version of this "road hunting" method.  Nothing like walking to the top of a ridge and discovering a road.  Road-less places do exist but turkeys are not always in there either.  
many limestone outcroppings of the hills

An observation while driving this much, so far I have not seen another hunter and I'm not sure if it is a good or bad thing yet. 

I took the long way back to camp and headed North of Jewel Cave.  After a few stops I finally got a bird to gobble.  My strategy was to hen call every two stops then coyote howl the third, this happened to be the third stop so it was a shock gobble and the tom happened to be less than a 100 yards away.  I quickly grabbed my gear and went after him, I presume since I was so close and used a predator call the bird went the other way.  I circled the pasture in case, but he seemed to have vanished.

Once back at camp we ate another delicious breakfast and made plans to head up toward Hill City and check the forest out there.  Very little of the burn hit this area, so there is still a lot of green here.  The forest is also pretty thick as well but offers some absolutely beautiful country.  There also seems to be a little more water as well, something we haven't seen a lot of lately.  

After literally 50 miles of driving, sight seeing, and calling I finally discovered some birds.  Besides the turkeys I saw in the private pasture this morning after fly down, these were the only other birds I had seen.  

The thought had been running through my mind ever since Saturday afternoon..."what if I saw one from the road, would I go after it?" I had also started feeling guilty because we had been here for over 2 days and I have been focused mainly on hunting.  Angela insured me she didn't care if I focused on hunting, she was "here to relax and enjoy the hills from a non tourist view".  

 lions are thick in the hills, they kill as many deer as hunters do
Quickly I made my decision, I was to go after this bird.  Based on two main reasons; 1.) there had not been many opportunities, one bird was on private and the other gobbled once then disappeared.  2.) I had never killed a Merriam so I was excited to see one I could actually hunt!  

I parked a few hundred yards out of sight and got a visual on the birds.  It was a hen followed by a Jake.  They were crossing a creek bottom headed to the mountain, likely making their way to roost as it was getting later in the afternoon. 

The birds were quickly making their way to the mountain across the bottom, that is where I was headed as well.  I set-up quickly and made a few soft yelps.  They seemed to pay no attention to me, so I decided to cutt.  Still no response from the Jake, but the hen seemed to notice so I made a few more soft yelps.  Whether it was me calling, my set-up, or likely the combination of the two, they made there way toward me.  
"white-tipped" King of Spring

I was really hoping for a good show from a mature tom, but I was also prepared to take an immature bird as well. He closed the distance and the rest is history.  


As I stood over my first Merriam's turkey it all hit me at once, I was blessed to share this experience with my wife in some of the most beautiful country God has blessed us with.  No, it was not the hunt I pictured when originally planning this.  It was not for the lack of trying either, as I had put in close to 15 miles of hiking in the back country and countless miles on the forest two-track roads. However, this was a trophy and for sure ranks as one of my top turkey hunts.  

It was the end of the third day and our trip was halfway over, bittersweet in a sense but tomorrow we would pack up and head deeper into the hills to finish the rest of our trip off in a remote forest service cabin on the WY border. 




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-The last leg

We are guest hear, received more than we gave...

 
 We made our way to Jewel Cave National Monument and participated in a Ranger led cave tour.  Now as the 3rd longest cave in the world, it is a sight to explore. The elevator ride DOWN to the cave is worth the trip!
6 bull Elk
After exploring the cave we made our way to the WY/SD line and then North to Summit Ridge Cabin.  This cabin is in the only forest service cabin in the Black Hills for rent.  It is primitive with solar LED lighting, wood stove, and plenty of solitude.  The cabin is eligible for listing to the National Register of Historic Places  We were to stay here for two nights. 

Once we unpacked we were anxious to get back in the forest and explore.  We decided to hike the WY/SD border and leave from the cabin. We planned a 7 mile loop, with a lunch break half way.  I grabbed my turkey calls to try and locate one, already planning for next year! 

The hike was beautiful as expected with plenty of elk, deer, and cougar signs.  This area is higher elevation and Mule deer tend to inhabit a little more than the lower elevation ranges. 

We made it back to the cabin with a few hours before sunset, so we made our way out to a point to listen for birds and watch the sunset. 
Summit Ride Lookout Cabin

Once back at the cabin we made a fire in the wood stove and began to cook dinner.  After dinner we roasted marshmallows for smores outside in the cool mountain air then climbed into our toasty sleeping bags in the historic cabin. 

We wrapped the trip up with a few more short hikes, a driving tour of the central hills and Custer State Park (we skipped Mt. Rushmore as we had already been there).  The elk, mule deer, and whitetail were plentiful.  The turkeys were still elusive, even though my tag was filled. 

Another majestic sunset and warm dinner ended the last day of our Black Hills trip and it was over, for now.  We explored off the beaten path, toured caves, and shared the solitude with local wildlife. 
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- Fools gold no more
 Now my widow she weeps by my grave
Tears flow free for her man she couldn't save
Shot down in cold blood by a gun that carried fame

All for a useless and no good worthless claim
 -Marshall Tucker Band 

The rich natural and cultural history of the Black Hills runs deep.  Cheyenne and Lakota Native Americans fought over this sacred land, later European Gold miners came after Custer's exploration.   With the gold rush famous, Western characters came to inhabit the area like Wild Bill and Calamity Jane and tales of miners murdered; "killed by Indian's beyond the high hill" as told in the Thoen Stone.  

sunset on the WY/SD border, the valley behind us is WY
This was not your typical hunting trip, it was so much more.  To spend time away from the real world with your best friend in some of Gods most beautiful country is truly a blessing.  This trip was successful in more ways than one as I describe in a Muir fashion below...

The path will take you there, your fear will steer you away
The hills will provide solitude, she will give the love and God will provide the way.
Many have come to see the king of spring, few take him home.

We are guest hear, received more than we gave. 
                                                                     -Walking Home





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