Standing in the garage giving my pile of gear the once over (for the 20th time) before I load it in the pickup, just to make sure, again, that I haven’t left anything behind. Its April 26, 2018, about 8:30 a.m., and I’m anxiously awaiting the 11 o’clock departure time when my brother Travis and I will be kicking off our leg of a South Dakota hunting trip we planned a few months prior. My friend David, whom I have known for a few years but never actually met in person, and his friend Tom are a few days ahead of us and are already out in the fields of northern South Dakota looking for turkey. As I am holding my Heads Up Decoy in my hand and smoothing out the beat up fan mounted in it, my text message notification goes off. When I open it up I find a text from David with a glory pic of Tom humbly checking out a turkey he had just dropped with his bow! My excitement gauge went from pre-hunting trip departure level to “damn I can’t wait to get there” level. It was time to get on the road!
After the most agonizing 20-minute wait for a bank teller to cash a check, Travis and I embarked on our 9-hour road trip from Brighton, Colorado, to the northern edge of South Dakota. If you haven’t enjoyed driving several hours through the sandhills of Nebraska, I highly recommend you don’t. It was the most hypnotic, treadmill-like drive through endless, unpopulated, desolate country that made the pre-trip check cashing experience seem exciting. The rest of the trip on either side of the sandhills was actually pretty decent as far as anticipation-loaded hunting road trips go. We saw more antelope, deer, waterfowl, and pheasants along the way than I have seen in a really long time and very few people which was a welcome change from my every day suburban grind.
We arrived at the Grand Prairie Lodge at about 8:00 p.m., met the owner, Nate, and checked out our home for the next few days. The lodge is an awesome setup for hunting, having everything you need without all the excess fluff that typically grossly increases the cost of a hunting lodge. The bunk cabin is setup to accommodate eight people and the cabin right next to it has a kitchen/dining room setup, bathroom and shower, and a T.V. with a couple recliners around for lounging through the midday lulls and hurricane force winds. Nate is a great host that checks on you often to see if you need anything and is also very knowledgeable about the surrounding area and possible hunting hotspots.
By 8:30 p.m., Travis and I had unloaded our stuff and settled in, just in time for Tom and David to make it back to the lodge after their evening stand. It was great to finally meet David in person and also to meet Tom, an accomplished turkey hunter and probably the most badass photographer I have ever met! If you have been on more than one or two group hunting trips you have probably experienced one or more “new guy(s)” that make the entire trip a little awkward, creepy, uncomfortable, scary, or just forgettable in general. This trip was the total opposite of that. It immediately felt like we had all been hunting together for years as we plowed through a pan of some awesome lasagna that Tom brought along and mulled over the plans for the next morning. Somewhere in the content of that evening there may have been a story told about a missed shot from that day, but its really not important to the story overall. Don’t worry, we have ALL missed at least one “gimmie” shot before!
The next morning got off to a later than desirable start as the lodge is close enough to a time zone boundary that, sometime during the early morning hours, our phones jumped time zones and skipped the alarm altogether. Not a great way to start out the morning. We basically ran out of the lodge and hit the road with David and Tom going to one area and Travis and I trying a different spot. About 20 minutes later Travis and I were walking across a stubble field towards a long, deep, tree-filled canyon with more drainages feeding into it from either side than you could count. As we started the descent into one drainage we could hear two distinct sounds; several toms sounding off from multiple positions below us in the canyon, and our old friend the wind. It didn’t take long for the wind to build up and overpower the sound of our calls. As we got close to the bottom of the canyon, Travis spotted a group of about 8 turkey that included a decent tom or two feeding up on a grassy hillside just on the edge of the trees. They were basically straight across a small wash from us, about 100 yards or so. I hit the Primos Wet Box call, the loudest call I own, in an effort to get their attention, but the wind was having none of it and almost immediately washed out the sound. We watched the group feed along the trees for a bit and drop back down in the trees. We quickly and quietly worked our way through the thick trees in the valley, stopping every so often to call a bit and hope for some luck. After about 4 miles of climbing up and down the edges of the valley and getting a good wind burn, we decided to climb out of the valley and head back to the lodge for a midday regroup, but not before I almost stepped on a large bull snake that was not too much shorter than myself. There are two things that I always bring to a turkey hunt, no matter when or where; wind and snakes. Mission accomplished in the first few hours of the first day!
After some midday plotting, strategizing, and cussing over the ever-increasing wind, Travis and I decided to go back to the same area and take up a high vantage point to see if we could glass up any thing from above. We managed to spot a few hens here and there and lots of whitetail grazing along the opposite side of the valley. As the sun slowly started to fall it took the wind with it which was a welcome relief. Not too long before sunset as we were glassing around, Travis pointed out a few four-legged creatures on a shelf across the valley. We have shot a lot of coyotes over the years, and it took a solid 15 minutes of studying these two before I was mostly certain they were coyotes, and two of the biggest, fluffiest, big-big eared coyotes I had ever seen at that. The only trait that set them apart from some type of wolf was the pointed snout that screamed coyote, although I still wasn’t 100% sold. I knew we were too far into the sunset for a spot-and-stalk attempt at turkey, so I decided to find out for sure what our furry friends were. I let out a couple of howls then immediately went back to my binoculars. I could see one of them cock its head back and start howling, although they were far enough away it took a few seconds to hear it across the valley. A few seconds after that howl stopped, the opposite side of the valley absolutely exploded with howling, more howling than I have ever heard at one time in my life, sending deer running all along the valley. From what we could tell, there was an army of coyotes spread out across several hundred yards of the valley, and they were not pleased at my instigative howl. I have never been uncomfortable around aggressive sounding coyotes until that evening. It was one of the most awesome yet creepy experiences I have had hunting. Turn up the volume and click the video below to hear some of the coyote chaos.
Travis and I got back to the lodge first that evening and started working on a plan to try a different area the next morning. The valley we had been in that day was no doubt full of turkey, but it was so big, deep, and thick with trees that we weren’t sure where to start. We also knew if the turkey weren’t responsive to calls that finding some for an attempted spot-and-stalk would be next to impossible. We settled on a different area for the next morning Nate had told us about. David and Tom arrived back at the lodge shortly after us and David had an ear-to-ear grin going on. He had shot his first turkey ever that afternoon with his bow! I am always happy when someone I am hunting with has a first, and I was especially happy for David because he had been so excited for this trip from the second we planned it. My spirits were boosted and we went to bed hoping the calm weather would hold out for the remainder of the trip.
The next morning Travis and I snuck in along the edge of an old alfalfa field that ran up against a large creek (or debatably a small river) that was lined with big cottonwood trees. As we quietly moved in we could hear several toms gobbling from various roosting spots high in the trees. The creek bank gradually rolled up into the alfalfa so we moved in as close as we could and sat up along the top of the bank, positioning a couple of hen decoys and a jake Heads Up Decoy out in front of us about 8 yards. I kept one Heads Up Decoy back with us and had it in my bow mount in case were got lucky and had a close encounter. The silhouettes of several of the toms could be made out in the top of the trees as the morning sun started to glow orange behind them. The wind was almost completely still and that particular moment of turkey hunting couldn’t be any more perfect. As it got lighter we started with a few quiet hen calls and got an almost immediate and thunderous response from all along the river. As the birds started dropping out of roost the toms continued to gobble loudly and hens sounded off louder than I had ever heard. We couldn’t see any of them through the thick cottonwoods, but it sounded like there were hundreds of hens and lots of toms.
A few minutes after sunrise Travis spotted a group of about six turkey rushing towards us from across the creek. He barely had enough time to tell me they were coming before I saw them running up the creek bank and heading right towards our decoys. The lead tom immediately fanned out and headed directly towards our decoys while staring at my Heads Up Decoy that was still mounted to my bow. I slowly drew back and when the front tom got to about 7 to 8 yards out I noticed the lone hen that had followed the group of toms and jakes over perked up and looked at us with that unmistakable “I’m going to run and bust your whole setup” look about her. I knew it was a matter of seconds before she would run and take the whole group with her so I dropped my 20 yard pin onto the base of the neck of the lead tom and let the carbon fly which resulted in the immediate and familiar “thump” of an arrow hitting a turkey. The tom folded and looked to be done, but he jumped to his feet and took off in a dead sprint away from us, stopping at the bank of the creek for a second about 75 yards out, then somehow mustering up the power to fly across the creek. As we slowly moved towards the spot he took off from, the frosty grass and alfalfa was glistening with blood, like someone had drug a gutted whitetail through it. As we got closer to the creek bank, Travis and I were discussing how we didn’t even know a turkey could contain that much blood, let alone run after losing it.
Once we spotted him on the other side of the creek, I told Travis to go back to our setup and see if anything came back because the rest of the group had just gradually trotted off after my shot. I crawled down the steep ledge, through an angry cactus, waded across the not so warm thigh deep creek, and found my beautiful looking South Dakota tom. He was still somehow alive and somewhat alert. I probably could have done the hunting show “let him lay and come back in 8 hours” move, but I don’t buy that method no matter what I am hunting. I slowly moved into a position that gave me a clear shot and quickly finished him off. My first arrow had went just slightly below the base of the neck, deflected over and slightly off center of the thickest part of the breast bone and passed through his side in front of his leg. There is no more sinking feeling than what you believe to be a bad shot on an animal and, even though the first shot was super devastating and traumatic, the fact that the bird managed to survive for an additional 3 to 5 minutes will always bother me. After taking in the moment, I picked up my tom and headed back to the river. Apparently, there was no action back at the decoys and Travis managed to be waiting on the other side taking pictures with his phone and laughing as I managed to find a deeper spot in the creek to cross on my way back. We went back to the decoys and called a bit, but after no response and the unwelcome return of high winds we loaded up and went back to the lodge to hang my bird and find me some dry socks and pants.
That evening we went back and setup in the same area, hoping to catch the birds coming back in to roost. The wind was exceptionally strong and it was warmer than it had been since we arrived. We rode it out until almost dark, but with no sign of the wind letting up we knew that the birds would likely move through the thick trees into the roost and we would have little to no chance of spotting them. David and Tom returned to the lodge that evening shortly after we did and we spent the rest of the evening sharing laughs, an awesome meal prepared by David, and hunting stories like old friends that had been hunting together for years. Tom managed to fill his second tag that day so we had plenty to talk about. By the time we turned in for the evening, the wind was blowing so hard that it took a good amount of strength to keep the doors on the cabins from blowing off when you opened them.
The wind somehow managed to pick up during the night and by morning it was beyond ridiculous. Travis and I knew the spot we were going to try simply would not work out so we reluctantly hung around the cabin and slowly loaded up for the long drive home. David and Tom went out for a short time before blowing back to the cabin that morning empty handed and slightly more dirt-packed than when they had left. If you have read my previous stories, you know that I have some curse that takes the wind with me on almost every hunting trip I go on. This was possibly the worst and most consistent wind I have ever hunted in my life. That being said, you have to learn to adapt to and use the environment to your advantage as much as possible. Growing up in and still hunting in Kansas, hunting in extreme wind is a craft I am too familiar with and ever working to perfect, although we do manage to put everything together in these conditions and get it done in miraculous fashion sometimes. As for spring turkey hunting in South Dakota, windy or calm, I hope this turns into an annual trip with Travis, David, and Tom, because it was one of the most memorable trips I have been on.
Keys to success on this hunt:
Pnuma – https://www.pnumaoutdoors.com/
Heads Up Decoy – https://headsupdecoy.com/
New Breed Archery – http://www.newbreedarchery.com/
Element Arrows – http://elementarcheryusa.com/
Stone Glacier – https://www.stoneglacier.com/
iHuntFit training – http://ihuntfit.com/
Warrior Fuel supplements – http://store.warriorfuelsupplements.com/supplements/
Legion supplements – https://legionathletics.com/
Primos calls – https://www.primos.com/
Fox Pro calls – https://www.gofoxpro.com/
Roe Hunting Resources – https://www.roehuntingresources.com/
Vortex Optics – http://vortexoptics.com/
Warfit clothing – https://warfit.net/